Information architecture attempts to create spaces from ideas. We take mental models and try to build digital structures that formalise these thoughts. Sometimes it seems like we’re creating spaces which force users to adopt a specific perspective. From these fixed perspectives they can move around our sites and products. But really, we only ever provide half the picture. The structures that we design are a means to an end – we never supply the ending.
It’s rare that you look at a map and decide to visit a road, you’re much more likely to be going to a ‘place’ situated on the road. Do information architects spend too long worrying about the roads, and not paying attention to the shapes that the content will form once they’re added?
Like most architecture, information architecture is based on the assumption that detailed instructions can be followed to build up structures. But whereas buildings are created within fixed projects, the information architecture of the web doesn’t really provide the same kind of prescriptive menu. Websites grow over time, often long after anyone can remember the original intention and assumptions that shaped the information architecture. The only thing an information architect can be sure of, the most basic of information architecture principles, is that a change is going to come.
Looking into the future
As much as information architecture is about understanding the present behaviour of our potential audiences, I think the real skill of the information architect is in an ability to predict the future. We can’t just research and react to how the world is, we should be creating an architecture that supports the future we believe in.
In effect, information architecture is closer to the discipline of landscape architecture than anything else. We’re devising spaces to inhabit, and ‘lived-in’ spaces evolve. The influence of ‘nature’ will reshape the structures we create. In information architecture there are two influential forces at play – users and content producers. We need to be able to design for the natural behaviours of our audiences, but also with a view to how our ‘spaces’ will change as they are populated. We need to build systems, not solutions.
Information architecture principles – a change is coming
Information architecture is never about crafting finished structures – it’s about deciding on a direction and beginning a journey. On a journey, the path you follow almost always isn’t the thing to focus on. The key to any successful journey is to pay attention to the detail along the way – but focus on the destination. It’s the same for a website. Leave space to go where your audience demand, but always keep sight of the original destination and understand the assumptions that led you to that goal. Have a goal, create a structure, plan for the future. But always understand that change can come. Information architecture isn’t about designing a structure, it’s about designing a system that can flex towards the future. It’s about laying down the principles on which the system works.
Sometimes the web can feel like a series of twisty little passages, but good information architecture can make the crooked spaces straight. Control on the web is a fiction. Information architecture isn’t designed to constrain user experiences by creating structures. Good IA is about creating the type of spaces that ensure both meaning and freedom for every user.
On 28 August, 1963, Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a dream speech” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. 50 years later I hurriedly wrote something about information architecture. You can learn more about Martin Luther King at the BBC History page.