User experience architect or Information architect?

24 May, 2013     / / /

Something about me changed recently. My job title changed and I went from being an Information architect (IA) to being a User Experience architect (UXA). But what’s in a name?

I think words matter. Good words become invisible, when the symbol so closely resembles the reality it stands for that translation becomes unconscious and things just make sense. But choose the wrong word and it sticks out like a sore thumb. So what do I do, and what’s the best name for it?

What is information architecture (IA)

I’ve thought for a long time that Information architect is a very important role. Admittedly this might just be my egocentric view of the world. I imagine my final words could be along the lines of

What’s the World Wide Web going to revolve around now?

But I do think there is something special about the role of IA.

I used to be a content manager, and back then I was a strident supporter of the ‘content is king’ mentality. I still think that content is the heart and soul of the web. Then there’s the body. That’s the work of user experience designers, who work to shape interface and interactions and so build a corporeal representation for the soul to inhabit. But then there are the spaces in-between, and the shape of the thing overall, and the ‘experience’ of the whole – the way one object will lead to another. This is what I think UXAs do.

Mind the gap

A toy underground train

The user experience is made up of many elements. As if to prove the point, Jesse James Garrett has described five ‘planes’ that affect the user and can be used to define a user-centred design methodology. In his book ‘The elements of user experience’ he described how the surface, skeleton, structural, strategic plane and the scope of the offer, all contribute to how a user will perceive and experience things online.

This is a good approach to thinking about how to build teams who in turn will build products – you need people who care about each of the elements. I also think the model does a good job of illustrating why IAs are so important. We inhabit the gaps between the planes, connecting the scope and strategy to the structure, through to the surface which makes the strategy visible (or invisible but innately inviting). We help to translate the strategy into abstact models, and then translate these into representations that work on the web. We look out for gaps and fill them.

I’ve written before about how the web is a representation. I think the job of an IA is to build a paradigm around the content that makes sense. We build and bring context to the internet. We create spaces in which bodies of content can be found and consumed (which sounds a bit like we’re ushering in a zombie apocalypse).

An average un-dead user consumes some content.

An average un-dead user consumes some content.

What do User experience architects do?

The switch to UXA supports this notion, I think. Information architects never just thought about the content. All good IA work starts with the audience, modelling their expections and designing architecture that suits their natural behaviours. We created invisible structures and visible signposts that signify a reality and allow users to navigate through it. But I think as the web becomes more crowded, complex and ‘commoditised’ there is an impetus on us all to find the ‘value’ that we can give to users.

The most complex design challenges for the web aren’t information organisation challenges, they’re working out how to add delight to consumption, and make navigation feel like consumption too. It’s no longer enough to offer IA that provides the least resistance to the user, IA needs to consistently encourage and motivate the next click.

So I think the job of IAs has shifted from making ‘low resistance’ architecture that sorts content by categorising, labelling and organising. Now we need to create IA that delights and motivates – it might still be ‘invisible’, but it’s playing a bigger role in the overall experience.

Can I get your signature?

The web only has a limited number of interaction patterns. Even if we extend them and invent new ones, there are only so many ways to make something clickable. That’s why it’s so hard to create ‘signature experiences’ – experiences that have distinct personality and evoke emotion or a feeling as you participate in them. I think that signature experience, as well as obviously being created through content and interface, also have a lot to do with the IA. Good IA, created by a talented UXA, establishes ‘spaces’ for our content to inhabit and can create an invisible difference. It’s the difference between a piece of music with one stray note and a perfect rendition – it’s almost the same, but the small quantitive changes make a massive qualitiative difference.

So I think UXAs create information architecture, but the change in the name reveals that there is more to it than that. Peter Morville has created a brilliant guide to what IA is – and I’ve waited until now to mention it because if this post was solely about ‘information architecture’ you should probably just work your way through that. It provides a perspective on where IA came from, and how it has grown. That guide stresses that IA brings context. I think another word for context, and one that might motivate us to create more satisfying experiences using context, is stories. UXAs tell stories. I’ll admit that there will always be some IAs who are closer to the information than the experience. There is a data wrangling element to good IA. But all IAs, whether they’re more comfortable translating data into experiences, or shaping experiences into models that suit an audience, all engage in similar things. Through information architecture we create context and tell stories.

UXAs tell stories

Previously I said:

structuring and organizing as well as ensuring findability are important parts of the job description – with labeling sitting somewhere in between these two tasks. Basically IA is finding things, chunking them up (often grouping them), giving them a name and then pointing. 

And I stand by that. The job of a UXA is to create architecture that holds content together. But I did say that was a ‘basic’ description. UXAs model the world and the content we produce to describe it. We categorise and label. We analyse and synthesise. We tell stories. I’ve talked before about how the bits between hyperlinks are the equivalent of the gutters in a comic book. Scott McCloud describes different types of transitions between panels. He describes moment to moment, action-to-action and subject-to-subject transitions. I think the next step in refining my practise as a UXA will be to think about similar types and labels to describe the meaning we can generate in the gaps between links. How can our information architecture support the story of the user experience, both during the experience which provides context and motivation and after the experience is over to help recall and turn users into advocates of our products.

Changing the name of something matters. I’m excited about the switch from Information architect to User experience architect. I think it acknowledges the role that IA plays in experiences. It acknowledges that sometimes the gaps are just as important as the content.

Hyperlinking fractures both time and space offering a jagged, staccato rhythm of unconnected moments. Good information architecture allows us to connect these moments and enable the user to mentally construct a continuous, unified reality.

Hyperlinking fractures both time and space offering a jagged, staccato rhythm of unconnected moments. Good information architecture allows us to connect these moments and enable the user to mentally construct a continuous, unified reality.

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