This is a post inspired by my talk from World IA Day. On the day I had 20 minutes to fill – I did a magic trick and talked about an imaginary uncle. This post has the benefit of an edit, but recreates the central argument – everyone makes IA.
Information architecture is everywhere, it’s a part of every project, every design includes it. But I think there’s often a perception that because it requires a level of specialization to do the most complicated types of IA, people are nervous about how and when they engage with it – no-one like to look out of their depth. And some IA requires a depth of thinking that deserves justification and explanation.
Even when you’ve built up trust with teams of other disciplines or clients, I think one of the most regular questions asked of an IA is probably, ‘Is it really that complicated?’ And if we want to be happier in ourselves, and spread happiness by creating meaningful, beautiful, wonderful things – we need to convince people that complex is different from complicated. We need to share our conviction that IA is a real thing and that thinking like an IA is probably one of the most effective ways of contributing to a more meaningful world.
But we have a challenge, IAs are usualy the minority. At the BBC we have a team of about 140 in UX&D, and IAs are the minority – we’re not quite 10%. It’s my job to work out how those less than 1 in 10 can be as effective as possible and have the biggest positive impact on the work we do and the experiences we offer to our audiences. I don’t think this is unique. A lot of the time IAs don’t work together, or there’s not enough IAs to work on every project that could benefit from an IA mindset, which is every project.
This is what troubled me. How could I make sure that it is always designed? My solution to this is simple. We become the majority. And because we can’t do that just by recruiting a legion of IAs we do it another way. We turn everyone in the team into an information architect.
Now this is a bit contentious. There’s legitimate certainty that IA is a specialism and that there are dangers of diluting it. But last year I talked about an IA mindset, a way of approaching any design challenge from an IA perspective. My point then was that the way we tend to think and therefore approach design challenges is usually a bit different from other designers. But I don’t believe we’re that special. I think other people can adopt that mindset and think a little bit more like we do. I think if we work hard enough we can find ways to help designers to adopt that IA mindset more regularly.
And we know the benefits on offer when every design starts from the architecture up. Well-architected things work better. They are more efficient, connected, resilient and meaningful – they’re more useful.
I think if we can encourage designers to adopt IA as a second language, or maybe even a first language, so they assess things from an IA perspective before approaching it with their usual skills, we’ll all make better things.
It’s down to us to make that happen. Because things have changed and will continue to change. There were the glory days of fairly static web publishing where all the stuff we knew from library sciences gave us clues about how to order and shape the web. But then things got more dynamic and we started having to adapt what we knew to take account of shifting meaning and structures. The taxonomic structures we’d relied on started being inverted by the prevalence of search engines. Linked data now enables us to build models based on ontologies and new publishing technologies and apps mean utility is just as important as content and context which used to guide us.
IA extends into and throughout experiences, maybe it always did. But now it’s so hard to picture a digital experience that doesn’t rely on sound IA, that our discipline is indivisibly intertwingled with the rest of the elements of user experience – experiences are suspended in the architecture that surrounds them.
It’s as if the ice that supported the polar bear has melted and presented lots of opportunities and challenges. And while we need to find a way to guarantee that IA gets the chances it needs to be effective as a specialism. I think there’s an imperative for us to extend our concern beyond the specialism, stop worrying about what we do as a minority and help the majority in the lowlands – the people who will drown first under the weight of information that’s coming.
Because information is everywhere. Every designer handles it and creates structures and architectures out of it. There’s a quote that I like from a book called ‘The Reflective Practitioner’ and it describes two modes of activity in competent professionals. It talks about this high hard ground where a competent professional can apply theory as technique and operate with skill and proficiency. It’s cool up there, you feel safe and you’re in your comfort zone. But it’s hard to find significant value up there – it’s not innovative or earth shattering. But there are dangers to being out there and not knowing what you’re doing – you can feel vulnerable and exposed.
And then there’s a swampy lowland where the route towards progress is less certain, where you’re less sure of your footing but where the experts with confidence can finds ways to deliver the real value.
I think this is the challenge that stands in front of us. We need to pull designers onto that high hard ground of creating information architecture with confidence and skill. IA is now a part of their job.
And when they occupy the high ground and are more conscious of the role IA plays in the designs they create and we stop people creating IA unconsciously – we can move with more confidence into the swamp… giving us time and focus to explore it with skill and specialism. We can free up our time to solve the complicated IA challenges, explore and exploit the opportunities in the swamp – solve the big problems and make the world a better place. New York used to be a swamp, all it took was some architects to turn it into something special.
That’s the way we think about what we do at the BBC. I lead a team of UXAs, user experience architects. We’re a team of IA specialists. But we don’t just do IA. We do three things. We support other designers to create intentional information architecture. Of course, we also do IA and we’re increasingly being asked to connect up parts of the BBC. We’re the team who most often work outside of the vertical structures of individual products to build services that deliver connected experiences across all the BBC has to offer.
But to give us to the time to do that, to wander down into the swamp and solve the big problems, we need help with the everyday IA, we need to convince designers that they’re part of the solution, because the only other thing to be is part of the problem.
So we’ve started spreading the word that everyone creates information architecture, it always exists. The problem is that it’s just not always the result of conscious decisions.
I talk about how, whenever we combine elements, components, feeds, information into experiences we create architecture. And problems occur and opportunities are missed when these structures are unintentional architecture – the result of other design decisions, rather than conscious choices about the implied information architecture.
In December we got all 140 of us together to make that point. I started off talking about this unintentional architecture. I talked about how when bits of information are combined, that combination affects the information and the meaning. I showed them this picture – which I like and it shows how easy it is to become an unintentional architect. Obviously – I’m from the BBC and it’s election season so – other political parties are available. But there are lots of examples like this.
I love this unintentional Venn diagram. I doubt Reuters wanted to imply so little intersection – but they did. And designers love this too. It shows how they play with information. And the more you enter into conversation about the interplay between design and IA, the more they get it.
For example, because there are 4 square tiles rather than 2 rectangular ones – this is a UX nightmare. And it’s a great metaphor for how the shape of things can curtail our ability to make meaningful experiences. It encourages designers to consider the shape of things.
Because in both the virtual world and the physical world there are shapes, atoms, molecules, feeds, components. But in the real world there are clues that help you work out what you’re supposed to do.
You might work out that this is a corridor and the odd and even numbers are on separate sides which accounts for the confusing overlaps of spans. But in the virtual worlds of products, apps, websites it’s often difficult to give users those clues and affordances – especially if the IA you’re creating isn’t really considered.
There are some things in the real world that are hard enough to make sense of. I don’t know what led to this lift control.
But it’s another example of how bad IA breaks experiences. It knocks you out of that ability to treat things as if they were designed for you. Sometimes stuff just feels like it was designed for a system, rather than a someone – an actual human who needs to make sense of the thing before they can use it. Other times it feels right – there’s a choreography within a design that ensures usability.
The lift control fails because people assumed that the interaction was intuitive, forgetting that the underlying architecture can break or enhance any experience – something you would previously have thought of as simple becomes difficult while something difficult can be made much more achievable. You just need to have designed the information architecture.
We’ll try an experiment. I’m going to show you some numbers. I’d like you to remember how many there are, what they are and the order they appear in. I’ll then show you the same amount of information that I’ve done some IA with.
And that’s all we try to do, even when we’re doing the most complex IA imaginable. Information architecture supports people to make sense of stuff. We create things that are easier to make sense of, so that they are meaningful and can be used and enjoyed, rather than requiring complex decoding before you interact with it.
And that’s sometimes what we need to do to with IA – we need to make it make sense to the people we work with or sell it to. We need to communicate the process and the recommendations that emerge from that process with that sort of clarity. Because I’m not sure anything is ‘intuitive’ without conscious decisions going into it at some point. And we need to think about how we talk about IA and how we encourage others to think about it, to make that IA mindset an intuitive style of thinking for designers. Because IA is a bit like magic, it’s an invisible art.
We spend a long time making sure IA isn’t boiled down to deliverables. We stress that answers are usually contingent. We work hard to make sure that people know that design work isn’t all wireframes and photoshop layers. Some great design work is just thinking. And a lot of IA is just thinking really hard about something. But thinking can too often be invisible. Just like magic, the technique of a lot of great IA can become invisible, steeped in mystery.
We need to make it visible. If magic is about making the possible seem impossible, IA is about defining and extending the possible – and we can do it out in the open. IA isn’t magic. There’s no coven of secrecy. We should sharing – our power isn’t based on secrets, it will be built on co-operation.
We should be sharing techniques, making sure that designers think about the structural implications of their skeletal and surface designs. Talking to product owners to connect a strategy to the most effective types of implementation. We should be boiling IA down to it’s basic principles and making sure that everyone has the confidence to apply that mindset to make sense of the challenges they face.
Everyone can be an IA – we just need to share it and keep it simple.
Every design creates information architecture. Every system, interface, service, product, app is surrounded by context – it exists, there’s no use ignoring it. Because when we do ignore the contexts we’re creating they become unintended consequences rather than designed experiences. If you want to design something, you need to consider the IA – otherwise your beautiful UKIP poster might end up next to an advert for tents, metaphorically.
And while everyone makes information architecture – not all information architecture is created equal. And not all information architects are created equal. We still need experts, specialist IAs who do the heavy lifting. But we follow the same principles and we talk about IA the same way – as delivering benefits to users by making things more meaningful.
We define problems and spaces before design can solve them… IA is a necessary condition for great design – so every designer should consider it. But we can’t berate designers for creating unintentional architecture and bemoan the state of the world if we don’t show people how to do it. So document your process – take a step back and think about the most fundamental skills, processes and thinking you do as an IA and then explain it to someone else. And be around for them to ask questions. Architect happiness for yourself and others by sharing the way you do IA.
I don’t think all of the biggest challenges for IAs are about skills or professional practice. It’s convincing people that IA is the way to answer the tricky problems and creating the confidence in others to adopt our mindset from time to time.
For non-specialists, great IA can look like magic, so it’s hard to understand how it’s done, how the principles can be applied to any design challenge. We can’t rely on magic. IA isn’t intuitive. Explaining IA is part of doing IA. We make it possible for others to make sense – and we can do the same thing when we’re convincing colleagues and peers to think more about information architecture.
So stick with it, encourage everyone to consider the IA that surrounds them and that they contribute to. Share your passion. Inform and inspire others to see the beauty in the IA that surrounds them and we really can architect a happier place for us all to live and work in. Make friends – remember a stranger is just an IA you haven’t met yet.
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