For the last few years we’ve been running workshops to share our practice and teach and learn from other designers and IAs. In 2018 we lived up to our values by being playful and exploring new ideas for how to architect experiences in invisible structures. We used the example of designing for voice. But our thinking and methods can be applied to developing the information architecture of any system.
The goal of the workshop was to think about how to architect invisible structures. IA provides the foundation for experiences because it defines the context and setting. IAs collect and arrange information. The information can be design elements, interfaces, interactions, pages or workflows. The intentional arrangement of these things can create the feeling of a coherent place that you can inhabit – an information environment. These intentionally architected environments are easier to make sense of and use. They are more coherent, connected, efficient and resilient.
Whether a person is using VR, voice or visual interfaces there’s always a layer of invisible influence. Information sits on top, underneath or behind the visible and more easily perceived properties of things. This invisible stuff helps us make sense of the world. An ‘invisible’ but intentional structure of meaning can connect ‘interfaces’ together to make them easier to understand, navigate and use. That’s what IA creates.
But designing and communicating things that are invisible is really hard.
In the workshop we started by asking teams to design a voice interaction. We gave them a recipe for ‘fluffy American pancakes’ and asked them to design a voice assistant called ‘Beeb’. Teams were made up of one person playing the role of the user, another being the device and the rest acting as designers and researchers.
We purposefully kept the timings tight and then added even more difficulty by asking users to rotate around teams for each iteration. Users took their knowledge and assumptions of the design they’d just worked on with them. New users brought a new set of assumptions and expectations. It showed how starting by thinking about interface or specific interactions in isolation can create a fragile system. As soon as the user asked for something that wasn’t part of the script and hadn’t been anticipated, the whole experience fell apart.
We then shared a canvas we’ve been using to encourage people to not just design experiences but to architect them too. You can download the canvas here. The canvas helps us keep a divergent mindset as we kick off an audit of needs and information. Then we start to converge and sort the information and interactions that our software and services might enable.
Our canvas asks you to start with user needs. It can also help you to list potential information and states – structured contexts that might be useful as you start to build a system.
Our workshop participants quickly got to grips with mapping out the structures as well as the interfaces and interactions. They were able to make more intentional decisions around what to communicate and make possible at different points in the experience.
Intentional IA can increase the coherence and connections in a system to make it easier to make sense of. But IA also has an impact on efficiency and resilience. Good IAs switch their focus between which information to include and how to arrange it. More information and transactions are usually less efficient. But they’ll mean your design will likely work for a broader range of people and contexts. Likewise, more ‘states’ in the structure can either add clarity or complexity depending on the way they’re implemented. You can use our canvas to audit and record these building blocks as you consider different arrangements to build your architecture.
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