Spaces vs. Places – structures in information architecture
Since I joined the BBC’s knowledge and learning team I’ve been exploring the concept of “real-world information architecture”. It’s a term I inherited, and I’ve never been entirely satisfied that there’s a shared definition of what it means. I’ve struggled to create a definition, but I think over the years I’ve been thinking about it, it’s informed the IA philosophy that has emerged and shaped our products and services. This post explores how “real-world information architecture” can support two different kinds of ‘digital structures’. I hope that by concentrating on the effects that ‘real-world IA’ can have, we can move closer to a shared definition.
Information architects build structures using information. I’m starting to think that there are two fundamentally different types of structure that we can create. I believe that user experience architecture can be described as the definition of information by identity, taxonomy and utility. Traditionally we have taken information and worked hard to understand it, building ontologies (whether formal linked data or otherwise [models]) to define the essence (intrinsic properties) of the content. We’ve thought taxonomically, spending time to carefully understand the relationships between the bits of information. We’ve even dissected information to create new formulations of what we have. We’ve also thought about how the information will be used. Information architecture is about understanding, relating and enabling the meaningful use of information.
In order to enable this use, we built structures. We’ve given our information URLs to make it shareable. Traditionally the taxonomic characteristics of our information has been baked into the representation or structure we present. Much of the web has relied on the directory-like structures that organised our content. The identity and utility of the information mattered, but perhaps the taxonomic thinking was the most dominant element when it came to the structures we built. This taxonomy-led structure led to us creating what I’ve termed ‘places’
Places are imbued with meaning. They have structure and provide a ‘home’ for content to live in. Much of IA has been focused on the building of places. The directory-like hierarchical structures of an older sort of web came to define what was expected from an IA. Explore facets. Define difference. Divide and conquer.
But as web technologies have evolved, the sophistication with which we’re (and importantly with which computers) are able to relate to our information has expanded exponentially. We’re no longer tied to some of the old conceits of directory-structure-like information spaces. We’ve dropped some of the structure. Identity (ontology) and utility are more important. We’re creating different kinds of information spaces that no longer share the characteristics we’ve come to expect from ‘places’.
Spaces lack the structure of places. They can therefore lack some of the internal coherence of places (if unsupported by forms of IA – which I’ll come to shortly). The current trend for ‘streams’ of content are good examples of what I’m starting to think of as information spaces (rather than places).
A ‘stream’ is a classic examples of an information space – the absence of hierarchical relationships between the content in some ‘streams’ can have significant consequences. Content can tend of float in a space – each node or piece of information is a “place” – it’s sharable, imbued with meaning. But the space itself only gets it’s meaning, character and identity from the content that inhabits it. Think of an open space in the real world. It can be a park, a field, a festival or a battlefield – the meaning depends on identity, taxonomy and utility. We need all three in order support users more successfully to understand, explore and rely on our information spaces.
Spaces are vital to the evolution of the web. They’re the natural consequence of a more dynamic web. Computers are doing more that just placing content in a home – the web has exploded and information no longer flows in the same relatively easy to define currents of the past.
‘Real-world information architecture’
So how does this distinction between two types of structure help with the definition of ‘real-world information architecture’? I think there are probably a few kinds of information architecture. I’ve defined the overall discipline as the definition of information by identity, taxonomy and utility in order to create meaningful and useful experiences. I think ‘real-world information architecture’ is a type of the architecture we create – a type of definition. It does not result in the creation of information places. It adds structure and cohesion to spaces.
Because information spaces lack the inherent properties of places, there is a greater chance that users feel lost or undirected when they visit them. They’re harder to understand. Information spaces put the focus on the individual bits of information or content – not on a service or ecosystem overall. It’s consequently harder to orient yourself, and harder to remember. They tend to offer more distractions and offer less reward or sense of completion in relation to consumption and engagement. They don’t foster trust and reliance – though they’re often good at initiating habitual visits.
‘Real world IA’ is applied to the information which share a space. This data projects structure into the space, making it easier to navigate and construct journeys through the space. It gives spaces some of the best characteristics of places – applying temporary taxonomic and utilitarian definitions to the space in order to make it more inherently meaningful. In the same way information architects transform data into information, ‘real world IA’ can give spaces some of the meaning of a ‘place’. It does this by using concepts that users are familiar with – people, places, events and topics.
There’s still a lot of work to be done on understanding the best way to describe and define the everyday concepts that can be used as ‘real world IA’. But we’re making significant process in understanding the ‘why’ of real-world IA, before committing to too many representations of the ‘what’ of it.
A spider’s web creates a place where there was once a space. The thin strands create a delicate, temporary structure to connect objects that wouldn’t otherwise be navigable. Real-world information architecture provides supporting networks and structures that connect content about the same concepts. It imbues user experiences with more meaning, and so will hopefully enhance and extend them.