What is information architecture? In my experience it’s a question that information architects aren’t too confident answering. It’s ironic that for a professional discipline so focused on classification we sometimes have a hard time describing what it is we do. I make information architecture. I’m a user experience architect at the BBC. But how can you judge whether an IA or UXA, at the BBC or anywhere else, is doing their job? How do you set expectations and describe core competencies? How do you know if you’re an information architect?
IAs suffer from an existential angst. Like most of user experience design, being a UXA or IA is a relatively new job. It’s also a job where the tools you work with and the things you produce change rapidly. Of course, other digital disciplines face similar challenges. But I think UXAs are more affected by the fast-moving nature of the way the web is built. I think this fact gives us our first hint at the nature of what an IA does.
I’ve described before three planes of abstraction that you can focus on when you’re working on digital experience – interface, interaction and experience. Jesse James Garret describes 5 elements to user experience design; strategy, scope, structure, skeleton and surface.
The way you design each of these elements affects the experiences you create. As the web has evolved and matured, the elements have remained more or less the same. But the way we approach the elements, the tools we use to define and describe them and the disciplines expected to specialise in each element have been open to change. I think the reason the job of UXA/IA is so open to change is that we tend to operate at multiple layers, having responsibility that supports all of the elements. We’re the scaffolding that connects and supports the elements.
UXAs work at each layer in the design process – we do strategy, scope, structure, skeleton and surface design – and the professional practice associated with each plane is moving. It’s no wonder we find it difficult to pause and write down a definitive job description – we’re connected to too many moving parts and things change too fast.
Prototype theory and Plato’s cave
But IAs are good at classification, and we can use that expertise to help us resolve some of the questions of what a good IA looks like. There are a few ways of going about forming classifications. A classical view would hold that we can describe necessary and sufficient conditions – a sort of tick list for entry into the IA club.
But as we’ve seen, this doesn’t really help. Because UXAs work with so many of the elements of user experience, because things change, and because every organisation and project is different, the necessary and sufficient conditions aren’t fixed and stable. We flex to the demands of the organisation and project. Different organisations need UXAs to focus on different areas. The very fact that there are (at least) two job titles in common use is evidence that there is a lot of variety in what’s expected of us.
Prototype theory argues that there are scales of membership to a category. A chair might be a more typical example of a piece of furniture than a lamp. Prototype theory suggests that there are prototypical examples – exemplars within a category that you can hold up to help define the category itself. This approach appeals to me. It reminds me of design heuristics – characteristics we can use to measure the quality of a design. I also like it because it reminds me of Plato’s Cave. Plato told a story about people chained in such a way they could only perceive the world through the shadows of reality cast on the wall of the cave. Plato’s point was that we should strive to perceive reality, rather than ‘shadows’ of reality. But maybe prototype theory and Plato’s shadows are the key to defining a good UX.
If we come at the problem of definition and categorisation from this angle, rather than thinking about what a UXA is, it encourages us to think about the effect a UXA can have on a project. This is how I like to define what makes a good IA. I like to think about the shape of the shadows we cast.
In practical terms I’ve tried to construct 11 characteristics that define the kind of thinking that a good UX Architect should exhibit. These might not cover everything that you need or want a UXA to do – but it describes the mindset and the core areas of concern (at the moment). Look for these characteristics as the shadow that we create.
Making a good UXA
Users are people (strategy)
We understand users. Lots of us will have at least a passing interest in psychology. We’ll help to ensure that the strategic direction of a project is as closely aligned to user needs, desires and behaviours as possible. We’re interested in motivation and intent – in considering how intrinsic motivation can be leveraged and how designs can generate and sustain motivation. We research and draw from knowledge across disciplines. We find short cuts and best practice and work out how to apply them to our current challenges. [fancy_list type=’tick’]
- How can we make the required user behaviour feel as natural as possible?
- How do we optimise the idea to complement the reality?
Experiences, not transactions (strategy)
A user experience architect can help to shape a strategy so that it is better able to offer consistency and predictability with pre-existing products and brands. We can do this because we think of the strategy as a whole and the way it connects with other elements of the user experience.
[blockquote]Live together, die alone[/blockquote]
The web is built on transactions. Give a browser an address and you get a resource (usually a page). Transactions are based on give and take, they’re a special type of interaction where an exchange takes place.
UXAs can begin to think in terms of richer interactions. We can link transactions together, and think about other connections and emotions between our audiences and our products. [fancy_list type=’tick’]
- Can this support a richer level of engagement with our products or brand?
- How does this connect with the rest of the brand or the users’ experience of the web as a whole?
All about the data (scope)
What’s possible is amongst our chief concerns. Making a complex website isn’t just about making the thing that the user sees, it will often require thinking about how the system works. When you’re searching for an efficient way to deliver a strategic vision, you need to understand what you have to play with, where the boundaries lay. Without the support of an information architect it can sometimes be difficult to deliver the vision of the strategy, because the raw materials of the experience aren’t in the correct state.
We identify the data we need to deliver the experience. We defend the value of data, and encourage a mindset that sees data and content at the heart of the experience. We willingly extend the idea of ‘content is king’ to include data. But we do this on the basis that the data is well designed and thought through. As Paul Rissen says,
“Fix the data, don’t hack the experience.” Repeated ad infinitum
— Paul Rissen (@r4isstatic) September 19, 2013
- Is it possible to (better) align the way content is created with how it will be used?
- Do we understand the data requirements? Can we explain them?
Reform and transform (scope)
In effect, fixing the data will often mean transforming it. Information architects create meaning. We turn data into information so that it is meaningful. This could be domain modelling, categorisation or planning interfaces. We think about the psychology of use and optimise the raw ingredients. [fancy_list type=’tick’]
- What ‘filters’ can we apply to optimise the interface, interactions and experience?
Casually ‘Dumb up’ (structure)
We’re ambitious. Dumbing up asks a UXA whether they’re presenting the most ‘optimally complete’ set of information in the easiest possible way. It’s a rejection of the lowest common denominator, in that it appeals to the most sophisticated user as much as any other.
Information architecture will sometimes involve creating a path of least resistance through the content. But a good UXA will not only strive to reduce ‘drag’, but will combine other factors to think more positively about motivation and progressive enhancement of experiences and relationships. We encourage users to spend more time with us, but it doesn’t feel like extra effort. [fancy_list type=’tick’]
- We build reward into experience – how will more engagement result in a deeper experience?
‘Hello, my name is…’ (structure)
Because we think in terms of systems as a whole, we consider the elements we need to draw together to create signature experiences. We operate between the planes of the user experience, providing scaffolding for experiences. Information architecture can imbue these gaps with the qualitative difference that makes experiences richer and more delightful.
In A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future Daniel Pink describes six aptitudes for the Conceptual Age: design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning. If this list is accurate, UXAs are definitely right-brain thinkers. UXAs will naturally deal with facts and classification. But a good UXA will go further. User experience architects are primarily focused on context. Where we’re able to offer most value we combine the functional requirements of the product with a deeper set of features that resonate with audiences. We can build trust and appreciation, because the structure surrounding the experience perfectly complements the content and user needs. We help to construct signature experiences. [fancy_list type=’tick’]
- What elements of the product, business and user needs can we combine to initiate a richer connection with the audience?
- How could we create differentiating characteristics for our experience, without compromising usability?
Informed consent (Skeleton)
We’re preoccupied with how we construct and manage choice in our experiences. Choice demands that we communicate information to users. As we think about our experiences, we naturally play out the options that we present to users. We work hard to optimise every choice our experiences generate, whether they’re conscious or unconscious choices. [fancy_list type=’tick’]
- How easy is it for our audience to construct a personal experience?
Top of the graph (Skeleton)
We specialise in navigation. UXAs excel at thinking about the gaps. Navigation is where most of the gaps exist in digital experiences. The web is suitably named. A spider creates gaps in her web to make sure flies don’t treat it as a solid obstacle and fly around the trap. Gaps make her web effective. We need the same lightness of touch when thinking about the connections around our experiences. Menus, links – the things that give the web it’s shape and form behind the interface – is what we care about. [fancy_list type=’tick’]
- Can we be proud about the ease and efficiency with which the audience can move about the product?
- Does the navigation support the signature experiences we want to deliver?
‘…even when I lie’ (Surface)
We’re schizophrenic. A good information architect will think like a user and a designer as they’re designing an experience. In order to do our job well we need to consider the experience from multiple perspectives. Just like a good actor, we can inhabit these roles completely. Even when we lie, we tell the truth.
We’re also aware of the difference between text and subtext – we think about the surface layer – and how well it represents the design effort and intention at the other levels of the experience.
Connect the dots (Surface)
Because UXAs fill the gaps, we need something to fill them with. We connect the elements of the user experience using stories. We ensure that there is continuity throughout experiences by ensuring that a shared contextual framework draws the elements together. Whether we’re telling the story of the product in use, using story to shape the product as it is designed or using personas to judge alternatives as we plan, we construct context and meaningful connections to draw designed experiences together.
UXAs are the scaffolding that supports the elements of the user experience. Our skills range. Some UXAs will be more comfortable working to support a specific element or stage of experience design. But all UXAs will be thinking about how their area of specialism connects to the whole. I’m a user experience architect at the BBC, but I think these observations are probably true wherever you work.
We’re the classic T-shaped innovator. We may specialise in supporting one element, but we slot into the whole. Being a UXA doesn’t necessarily mean that you do a single set of things. But all UXAs bring a specific mindset to their work. It’s how we do it, not just what we do. UXAs cast a particular shadow. Most of our work is hard to perceive, but you can feel the difference a good UXA has made in a product.