Looking for a comprehensive overview of information architecture? Look no further. This curated list of articles and resources from the fine folks at Optimal Workshop is a brilliant reference.
The following is adapted from my opening remarks at World IA Day Seattle 2016, which took place on Saturday, February 20. The theme for World IA Day this year was: Information Everywhere, Architects Everywhere.
If you’ve been around the information management world for any length of time, you’ve probably heard the joke about the old fish and the young fish. The old fish says “Water’s fine today”. And the young fish says, “What’s water?”
I didn’t say it was a good joke.
But it is useful as a shorthand for explaining something about what information is. We’re like the fish, obviously, and information is all around us. We’re swimming in it, but we don’t even notice it until we learn to see it.
How much information did you encounter last week? This morning? Since you started reading this? I’ll bet you couldn’t quantify the amount of information around you on any time scale. The room you’re in is information, the street outside, the words you’re reading, the clothes we’re wearing… every sight, smell, sound, and surface carries information, and we process it all in an instant and without even noticing that we’re doing it.
We live in a universe of information. And most of the time we can, like the young fish, just swim in it and go about the business of being. But sometimes, we want to shape and form information into something intentional and meaningful, into a web site, an intranet, an app, a monument, or some other information experience. At those moments, when information is both the medium and the message, we must notice the information all around us and attempt to make it meaningful to ourselves and others. We must apply design. We must practice information architecture.
Now, I imagine a variation of the joke about the fish where in this version the old fish says to the young fish: “I’m a fish.” And the young fish says, “What’s a fish?”
It’s still not a good joke.
But I think we encounter something like this when we try to explain to our friends, family, colleagues, and bosses that we’re information architects. When I tell someone I’m an information architect, I get something of a blank stare. For the longest time I tried to figure out how to break through that and come up with a cool way of explaining what I do (“I’m like a ninja, but with information.”), but I’m starting to lose hope that I’ll come up with the right words.
After all, everyone’s something of an information architect. Everyone organizes something: closets, movie collections, garages, files on the computer, kitchens, bookshelves… you name it. We all try to impose some sort of order on the world, to create systems that make sense and keep on making sense, and impart some sort of meaning to others. We’re all fish. I mean, we’re all architects.
It’s just that, for those of us who are crazy enough to voluntarily identify ourselves as “information architects”, we’re doing more than organizing our spice racks or shoe closets. We are doing the same thing, essentially, except we’re attempting to do it at scale. We’re trying to impose order on thousands and millions of items of information at a time, for users who may number in millions or billions. And these days we’re usually trying to do it within a window the size of an index card.
And there’s something so interesting about that to me. It seems like a fraught enterprise: doomed yet noble, and occasionally elegant and beautiful. There is information everywhere. And there are architects everywhere. But the rare breed who call themselves information architects are lucky enough to recognize these things; to understand that this is water, and we are fish.
And to be able to know that is pretty damned cool.
It’s really hard to get people to understand why it’s worth investing in metadata and taxonomy projects. The benefits aren’t immediate and the reasons can seem esoteric. It’s only after the work is done that the usefulness of metadata starts to become clear.
Proof of this comes in this interview with a colleague of mine at REI. This is a quote I’m going to pull out at every metadata and taxonomy meeting from now on:
“[Collecting metadata] turned out to be really smart. We didn’t realize the repercussions of it when we did it. But the structured way we captured the meta-data and user-generated content (UGC) laid the groundwork for how we use that content.” (My emphasis.)
I had nothing to do with the decision to collect metadata in this instance, but I’ve seen firsthand the powerful unintended benefits of having robust structured content. Perhaps one way to convince others ahead of time that they should invest in proper content markup is to collect more testimonials and stories like these. If you know of any others, let me know in the comments.
Smart stuff from Abby Covert:
In my opinion, IA is not something that needs to be sold. IA is already inherent to whatever someone is working on or has in place. If you are making something, you will be tackling the IA within and around it. With or without me you will “do IA.”
I guess in sales speak we could say “IA is included for free in all projects” — because a system without an information architecture does not exist. Rather than selling information architecture, I find that I do have to “explain” what it is and why it matters so that it can be worked on and improved upon (not ignored or inherited which is all too often the case)
Whether you’re interested in “selling” IA or not, the fact is you’ll probably have to explain what you do to others. Probably multiple times. Per day. You could do worse than have a few of Abby’s scripts memorized.
There’s so much good stuff in this post by Christian Buckley. It’s about enterprise collaboration, but his points apply to issues of findability generally. The central idea that sticks out to me: context is key to findability, and social interactions are great sources of contextual cues. As Buckley points out, though, context is mostly missing from modern search and navigation.
I also love this comment from Steven Flinn summing up the different modes of finding:
- Follow — when you are aware of sources of generally relevant information
- Search — when you are aware that you have a need for some information now, but don’t know where it is
- Discovery (i.e., recommendations) — when you have a need for some information now, but are not even aware you need it and/or that it exists.
Smart post by jeswin about how Facebook is broken by design.
In the end, there is a lot to learn from this massive social experiment. Your friend circle and impulsive actions such as ‘likes’ cannot predict what you want to read. Indiscriminate sharing is a bad idea. A large social network isn’t the best way to find information.
Last week I attended the IA Summit in Baltimore. It was my first IA Summit and I’m very glad I decided to go. I met so many intelligent, thoughtful, and passionate practitioners (and academics) of information architecture, and I found myself inspired and challenged to raise my game and do better work.
The following are some of my rough notes from the five days of the conference. While this is short on narrative, I hope there are enough nuggets of wisdom and links to explore that you’ll find something new to think about.
Some of the major concepts that kept cropping up for me:
- Information Ecosystems
- Information Ecologies
- We need better tools
- The new spirit of IA is, as Christian Crumlish put it: Third Wave IA – or Resmini-Hinton-Arango IA – the high level stuff; what is this, what does it do, what is going on in the user’s brain?
- “We look at the present through a rear view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” – Marshall McLuhan
- Do what you do best, and link to the rest. -Jeff Jarvis
- “Man is a being in search of meaning” -Plato
- “Language is infrastructure” – Andrew Hinton
- “Un esprit nouveau souffle aujourd’hui” (There is a new spirit today) -Le Courbusier
- “Cyberspace is not a place you go to but rather a layer tightly integrated into the world around us.” – Andrea Resmini
- “IA is focused on the structural integrity of meaning” – Jorge Arango
- “Once there was a time and place for everything: today, things are increasingly smeared across multiple sites and moments in complex and often indeterminate ways.” W. J. Mitchell
- “Christina Wodtke makes me brave. She says ‘Here, put this in your mouth.'” -Abbe Covert
- “The difference between our websites and a ginormous fungus is the the fungus has maintained it’s integrity.” -Lisa Welchman
- “We live in Einsteinian physics, where things are both a particle and a wave.” -Lisa Welchman
- “There are usually political barriers to solving information problems on sites. They’re not IA problems.” – Lisa Welchman
- “I’m doing more IA and UX now as a product manager than I ever did when I was a UX designer” – Donna Lichaw
- “We may be confused, but we have a community of confusion” – Bryce Glass
- “Mathematicians have a saying: Problems worthy of attack prove their worth by fighting back.” -Karl Fast
- “Discovery is not a phase, It is an ongoing activity” -Kerry-Anne Gilowey
Wednesday, April 3, 2013
Andrea Resmini introduced the day by putting the current information ecology in perspective for us. We have moved from a world where computing was done in a specific time and place to a world where computing is ever-present. “Cyberspace is not a place you go to but rather a layer tightly integrated into the world around us.”
For example, the average citizen in the EU spends 29.5 hours computing each week. The average citizen in the UK spends 39 hours computing each week.
The day was structured around groups of Ignite-style talks, with discussion and an exercise after each.
Talks for Part 1
David Fiorito: The Cultural Dimensions Of Information Architecture.
Culture is a learned and shared way of living; we are creating culture through IA
David Peter Simon: Complexity Mapping
We need to develop device-agnostic content.
We think a lot about how content will be presented (different forms like tablets, watches, google glasses) but we don’t think so much about how information will be presented on those new forms.
“Man is a being in search of meaning” -Plato
Take a meaning-first approach to IA. Start with meaning
Matt Nish-Lapidus: Design For The Network: The Practice Of 21st Century Design And IA
The Romans built road networks to spread their cultural software. We build networks to spread a different type of cultural software.
Lev Manovich talks about the Cultural Interface: “…we are no longer interfacing to a computer but to culture encoded in digital form …” (Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (2001))
We need a new design practice for the networked world, one that embraces humans, technology, craft, and interface.
Culture is moving faster and faster, moving up in the pace layer diagram
Recap and discussion from Part 1
Was Le Corbusier an IA? He was part of our history, one of the people whose shoulders we stand on, but his work must be understood in the context of his time. Calling him an IA wouldn’t be fair.
Does the IA create meaning by designing which resource is linked, or is there no way to create meaning because there are so many hyperlinks that users create their own meaning?
Christina Wodtke suggested developing a “Poetics of information architecture”
Talks for Part 2
(Note: I missed a speaker here, but I think it was Duane Degler)
Sally Burford: The Practitioners of Web IA Reviewed some research into The practice of IA at small and large organizations. IA needs to develop an identity, to take a strong stance
Defining the problem defines the solution; this is the problem/solution ecology
The IA design deliverable is resolving the problem/solution ecology
Recap and discussion from Part 2
What’s missing around IA in the academic community?
There is no written history of IA. (Some suggested a book by Earl Morrow (?), but others thought even that book was out of date).
It’s hard to have a career in academia when the term IA is not understood.
Activity: create a timeline of IA
Talks for Part 3
Meaning should be the center of our reframe of IA
Don’t bake meaning into structure; keep them separate
Jorge developed themes from Alexander’s Notes On The Synthesis Of Form.
The designer has to create a mental picture of the actual world. In really complex problems, formal representations of the mental model need to be created.
IA has always been architecture of a dimension of a shared reality.
We should continue working on reframing IA by thinking of it as a design problem.
Recap and discussion from Part 3
IA is about solving a problem.
Activity – List The Schools Of IA Thought
Thursday, April 4, 2013
Workshop – Modeling Structured Content
From background presentation for the workshop:
Don’t reinvent, link!
- Define the boundaries of your domain
- Where objects touch existing models, use them instead of replicating them
- If canonical content pages already exist on your website for domain objects, link to them
- Don’t have more than one page covering the same topic
Shared model + shared language + shared understanding = consistent user experience
Structured content refers to information or content that has been broken down and classified using metadata.
- broken down into discrete concepts
- classified as real world things and relationships
- metadata: a structure readable by robots and people
Knowledge rejects rigid structure.
When we use the same language to describe the same things, we can build a web of knowledge across various services.
Structured content breaks down information into things and the relationships between them. A content model maps our subject domain, not our website structure or content inventory. Assertions distinguish between real-world things and the documents that refer to them.
Experts map the world, users mark points of interest.
Modeling begins with research, talking to experts and users to understand and articulate the subject. Ubiquitous language describes the granular terms that will be used by everyone on the project. Boundary objects show where your subject model can connect to neighboring models.
Content is hard.
Everything starts with good content. Content is not the stuff we pour into nicely designed containers. It’s not the stuff we chase up from the client at the last moment. It is not a placeholder. Content is the whole damn point.
“Do what you do best, and link to the rest.” -Jeff Jarvis
The link forces specialization and specialization demands quality
Other parts of your organization may be sitting on a goldmine of content or business data. Find it and exploit it.
The BBC’s principles:
- Never duplicate coverage within your own content (one page per thing)
- Do what you do best and link to the rest
- Create chunks based on the granularity of the model
- Be realistic about which parts of the model you can expose
- Structured content breaks subjects into things and relationships
- It begins by talking to experts and users to understand their world
- The mental model becomes a content model for your whole team
- Your content needs to be atomized to align to the model
- Supporting content may be hiding in your business silos
- “One page per thing” makes content easier to manage and link to
- Make the best content available for your subject
- Focus each page around a single topic
- Structure your content with metadata
- Link as much as you possibly can
Friday, April 5, 2013
We often walk right past the next big thing.
Blog post: Bears, Bats, and Bees
We are in a “model crisis”
- Old model was buy, install, reuse (software)
- New model is discover, use, forget (experience)
We need a Google for your room. A personal search service for the things that are important to you.
We live in both the digital and physical environments simultaneously.
We need to look at how we comprehend environments generally in order to understand how we understand digital environments.
Pace layers of information environments:
- Information technology
- Info organization and design
- Written / graphical language
- Spoken language
- Perception / cognition
Information in three modes
- Ecological – how animals perceive/relate to environment
- Semantic – people communicating with people
- Digital – digital systems transmitting to and receiving from other digital systems
Traditional cognitive theory assumes the brain is like a computer
Embodied cognition says that the brain uses the body and the environment to understand
Some key ideas from James J. Gibson’s theories
- we perceive elements in the environments as invariant (persistent) or variant (in flux)
- we perceive the environment in human-scale terms, not scientific abstractions
- we perceive the environment as “nested”, not in logical hierarchy
- Affordance: “the perceived functional properties of objects, places, and events in relation to an individual perceiver.”
Semantic information changes how we experience environment
“Language is a form of cognitive scaffolding.” – Andy Clark, Supersizing the Mind
The body and the ecological information can override the semantic information, as in a door that looks like a push door but has a sign that says pull.
Digital information enables pervasive semantic place-making
A design presentation for the American Society for Immortalization Science and Technology
Saturday, April 6, 2013
We need a better way to define what good IA is. And we need better ways to communicate about IA.
In architecture, simple forms can be recombined in different forms to create new forms.
Forms are made up of and can contain other forms
Nodes and links are our form and space
Nodes are our basic building blocks, and also the walls and buildings themselves
Nodes can contain and are made up of other nodes
Link: the relationship between nodes
There is a Form/Space Hierarchy (most complex at the top:)
- The built world
- Bounding forms
- Construction materials
Similarly, there is a Node/Link Hierarchy (most complex at the top:)
- The noosphere
- Information ecosystem
- Product / system
- Node clusters
- Individual nodes
We need to apply different approaches to different levels of the node/link hierarchy
IA is focused on the structural integrity of meaning.
Taxonomy is rhetorical, place-making, and tied to embodiment
Mobile taxonomy is device independent
Mobile taxonomy is articulated
Mobile taxonomy is flexible
Taxonomies are goal-driven. They are rhetorical
Rhetoric – the means by which we inform, persuade, of motivate particular audiences in specific situations
Architecture is rhetoric for spaces
Taxonomy – a method of arrangement conceived to create a particular kind of understanding
- a crossroads of intent and embodiment
- a foundation for cross channel place-making
- a tool for building immersive, purpose-driven organization systems based on embodied experience
Ghost in the Shell: Information Architecture in the Age of Post Digital (slides (from a previous version of this talk))
This was a rich and thought-provoking talk, but difficult to summarize. The major themes were:
There is a new spirit. It’s not towards order but towards disorder and multiplicity
A spirit of context, place and meaning
A spirit of sense-making, … and creating new places for humans to work and play
Big governance vs, local governance
There’s a lot of stuff happening at the local [organizational] level, but few people if anyone who are looking at the overall picture.
There are usually political barriers to solving information problems on sites. They’re not IA problems.
The governance of your web:
Your “stable environment” equals clear sponsorship, goals, and accountability.
Your “good genes” are goals are policy-driven, standards-based framework
These things will allow your web to grow and still be recognizable as your web. That’s all it is.
Enterprise web governance ensures the proper stewardship of an organizational web presence.
Stewardship, not ownership.
Abstraction – the intentional filtering of information to focus on core goals
We must carefully choose the model through which we hold conversations. Abstractions help stakeholders discover.
Metadata enables consistency, context, and interoperability.
A cross channel experience requires sending information across channels.
“Messages have no meaning” – Andrea Resmini
… But every message has a structure
Ontology is things and their relationships. When you have a concept of the space and you express it in a way that can be interchanged, you have an ontology.
Scott leads The Noun Project
Types of written languages:
Pictographic. Ideographic. Syllabic. Phonetic.
Sunday, April 7, 2013
The panelists discussed moving out of IA and UX and into product roles.
Donna – “I’m doing more IA and UX now as a product manager than I ever did when I was a UX designer”
Christian – my titles have changed, but I’ve been basically doing the same thing: defining the damn thing of the product, connecting people and ideas.
Donna – A product manager is like a producer: they conceive the vision and get people moving in the same direction
Donna – In New York, no one has any idea what a product manager is
Bryce – “We may be confused, but we have a community of confusion”
Christian- Third wave IA – or Resmini-Hinton-Arango IA – the high level stuff; what is this, what does it do, what is going on in the user’s brain
Christian – There’s a clearer career path for the people who are in charge of product. There’s more headroom.
Xerox PARC identified a disease: biggerism
Solving the big problem seems more interesting, more exciting, more challenging
Small data problems: a large personal library, a desktop full of icons, a gmail inbox
Big data is about stuff that’s too big for anyone to understand
Small data is about:
- Eyes not size – it’s about the amount of stuff that has passed by my eyes
- Emotional – Has psychic weight, psychological debt
- Complex problem
… And yet we focus on the app, not the coordination of the data
Organizations have big data problems
People have small data problems
Mathematicians have a saying: Problems worthy of attack prove their worth by fighting back.
We have small data problems worth working on. We are hitting the edges of search. Where’s the difference between searching and filtering? We have faceted search and faceted navigation. Which is it?
Problems are framed by how we think about the work we do. [I would say they’re also framed by the tools we have. -sm]
We need to make significant positive progress on a hard problem. We need to not be distracted by biggerism.
When we go in to a project with a personal methodology…
- We look for answers before we understand the questions.
- We make decisions too early
- We ignore things we can’t make fit
- We keep going through the motions
- We end up solving the wrong problem
We need ambiguity tolerance
Discovery is not a phase, It is an ongoing activity
Problem solving is squiggly
- Be honest
- Be confident (we need to solve the right problem)
- Communicate early and often
- Stay calm. It’s contagious
- Have a healthy fear of commitment
- Collaborate (with your client)
- Commit to the work, not the deliverables
Designing For Failure: How Negative Personas And Failed User Journeys Make A Better Website (slides)
Classic personas are the users we want to come to the site. We give them happy paths.
At the other end of the scale are anti-personas, people we want to discourage. (People who intend harm, people who are doing things with the service we don’t want, people who are too young)
Negative personas are not the primary audience, but may still come and be disappointed. Are we giving them what they need?
We’re not designing for everyone. But we need to acknowledge and handle pain points. In order to increase the number of satisfied customers.
Does it matter? Yes
- We reduce the chance of complaints
- We make social media a positive force
You can’t control who comes to the site, so you have to try just to not annoy them.
Design for success or failure.
Books, Articles, and Movies
- Beyond the Brain, by Stanislav Grof
- Cognition in the Wild, by Edwin Hutchins
- The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, by James J. Gibson
- The Ethnographic Interview, by James Spradley
- The Extended Mind, by Richard Menary
- Ghost in the Shell (movie)
- Performance Studies: An Introduction, by Richard Schechner
- Pervasive Information Architecture, by Andrea Resmini and Luca Rosati
- Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the History of the American Industrial Enterprise, by Alfred D. Chandler
- Supersizing the Mind, by Andy Clark
- System Esthetics, by Jack Burnham