“Good fit” in the design of information spaces


I delivered this Ignite-style presentation at the Reframe IA pre-conference workshop at the 2013 IA Summit in Baltimore, MD.

Presentation summary:

The design of information environments is an increasingly complex challenge. The combination of variables such as the amount and diversity of information, business goals and requirements, legal, social, and cultural issues, heterogeneous audiences, and the diversity of access device form-factors makes it difficult to design comprehensive information architectures that achieve what the architect Christopher Alexander calls “goodness of fit”.

The field of architecture — the design of physical environments — also faces similarly convoluted design challenges. The design of an urban complex, for example, presents many challenges which mirror those outlined above. Over the centuries, architects have developed various different approaches for meeting these challenges. One such approach is the design method outlined by Alexander in his 1964 book Notes on the Synthesis of Form, which later evolved into his more popular work on pattern languages.

Alexander proposes a method which proceeds from a structured analysis of requirements to a synthetic design solution based on “diagrams”, which are predecessors of the patterns in his later work. In producing solutions to design challenges, he identifies three possible paths:

  • The unselfconscious process, which has been employed by traditional societies to resolve simple design challenges by direct interaction with the built form and its context, developing fitness-to-purpose over multiple iterations.
  • The selfconscious process, which is practiced by most working architects today, who are working in a detached conceptual position with regards to the built form and its context, and therefore using an incomplete picture of the challenges involved.
  • The model put forth in the book, in which the contextual and programmatic challenges of the project are formally defined using set theory. This allows the architect to resolve design challenges at different levels of focus, from the most granular and simple, to the broadest and most complex.

Although Alexander’s work is explicitly aimed at solving architectural issues, it has applications in other design fields as well. This presentation takes the position that the methods proposed in “Notes on the Synthesis of Form” and Alexander’s later work can be applied to the field of information architecture to achieve humane information environments that also meet programmatic needs.

Photo of Mr. Alexander: http://bit.ly/WWLkRB