… For Everybody

This is a transcript of the keynote speech I delivered at the 2015 Information Architecture Summit in Minneapolis, MN.

Thanks for giving me this opportunity to stand here before you. This is my tenth IA Summit, so in many ways I feel like I’m addressing friends and family. As a result, I feel comfortable telling you about one of the most exciting and terrifying episodes in my life.

It happened in early 1994. It had been about 18 months or so since I had graduated from architecture school, and I was working as a junior architect in a small architecture firm in Panama, where I’m originally from. I was doing the sort of menial, entry-level design tasks that usually get delegated to junior architects – designing bathrooms, taking measurements on site, etc. – and I was frankly starting to feel anxious and panicky. I had started questioning my choice of career.

Architecture

You see, I had spent five years learning about architecture: this magnificent, ancient, proud discipline where big, abstract ideas were turned into the environments within which – and through which – we conduct our lives. I had become particularly fascinated by a generation of architects who came into their prime in the first three decades of the Twentieth Century; people like Le Corbusier, Charlotte Perriand, Walter Gropius, etc.

What excited me about these people is that they weren’t just making buildings; they were doing so within the broader framework of having their work be a catalyst for change. They were living through a period of great turmoil – what is often called the machine age – in which industrialization was changing the world. In the span of a few decades, people had gone from horse-drawn buggies to motor-cars and airplanes, from hand-crafted to mass-produced, from brick and mortar to concrete and steel. So, lots of changes!

These early Twentieth Century architects saw the world changing around them and started to ask questions like: How do you live a human life under these conditions? How do you mold these societal forces into something that makes the world better for people? How do we create products that honestly express the technologies and materials of the age, but that also allow people to flourish, to be human?

Zeitgeist

There is a word that comes from German – zeitgeist – that I like very much. It means the spirit or mood of a particular period in history as articulated by the ideas and beliefs of that time. These architects were engaging their work in a dialog with the zeitgeist, quite self-consciously. Their work had a deeper meaning than just the buildings and furniture they designed. There was an ideology behind it, a drive to make the world a better place. Because their zeitgeist was centered on machines, their agenda was harnessing this industrial spirit of the times in the service of humanity. Many of their ideas haven’t stood the test of time very well – they were of their time, after all – and some of their legacy is considered controversial today. But the notion that design can be a catalyst for change at a societal level – at a structural level – while also exploring the possibilities of the technology of the time, stayed with me. It’s what excited me about architecture.

And here I was 18 months into a career in architecture, and was being asked to design poolside cabanas for rich people in a poor country. Given the zeitgeist of our time, I was having trouble seeing how there was a path from the type of work I was doing in architecture to the sort of human-centered, tech-driven, world-changing impact that excited me.

In parallel to this, I had started to become increasingly fascinated by the Internet. I first saw the Internet in 1992 when I was still in the university. I was exposed to gopher and was intrigued. But it wasn’t until a bit later when the first web browser came out that I really felt like I was experiencing something truly special. An understanding of what the web was trying to do would lead any learned person to conclude that here we were witnessing the birth of a potentially world-changing technology of a magnitude that we hadn’t seen in centuries. Here was what the zeitgeist was moving to! Moreover, the more I learned about it, the more obvious it became that my architectural training provided many tools that would come in very handy when working in this space.

Exciting (and terrifying) story

So this is where the exciting/terrifying part comes in. In early 1994 I went on holiday with my parents. They had rented a little cabin in a rainforest – a primeval place, with no electricity or telecommunications – and this is where I had “the conversation” with my dad. I told him that I had decided to leave my career in architecture to start a company “doing computer stuff.” Perhaps many of you who are of similar age to me experienced such a conversation. It’s worth noting that this was before there was even commercial Internet access in my country; as a matter of fact, my first web design client was our first commercial ISP! It’s fair to say that my dad was concerned.

I had no idea what I was doing or what I needed to do next. I would need to start a company, since no one would hire me to do this type of work. How would I do that? Did I need to incorporate? Did I need a lawyer? Should I get an accountant? How would I get clients? How would I let them know that I could help them, when they didn’t even know they needed help? How would I learn how to do things that I didn’t even know I needed to do? It was all very confusing. I felt disoriented and scared. But I also trusted this gut feeling I had – that by entering into this new line of work, I was coming closer to the force that had animated those Twentieth Century architects I so admired. I was aligning my work with the zeitgeist, so it would be OK.

Why?

This brings me to the reason why we’re having this conversation. After nine IA Summits, I’ve seen a lot of change in this community. Whether this is your first time joining us, or you’re an old-timer, the fact that you’re here means you are participating in an evolving conversation that has been many years in the making. Together, we are engaged in a dialog with the zeitgeist so that this new area of practice we are forging – information architecture – serves human needs. And not only do I believe it does serve human needs – I believe IA is the most important area of practice to be engaged in today if we are to craft a humane, dignified existence for ourselves and our fellow humans given our current conditions. We’ll get into the reasons why a bit later, but for now I’m putting that out there.

The problem is that while many of us understand this – even if we don’t express it as such very often – it hasn’t been easy to let the rest of the world know. The details quickly become esoteric, and it’s not like all of us understand them in the same way. So it should come as no surprise if my dad still doesn’t fully understand what it is I do. That said, there are many colleagues and “friends of IA” – people within our own ranks – who still don’t seem to get it either. Some are explicitly questioning the relevance of our discipline. I was going to read a few Tweets here, but I don’t want to put anyone on the spot. These are not ill-meaning people. Their idea of what IA is is simply informed by the state of the field a decade ago. They are not aware that the conversation has moved on. And frankly, perhaps neither are many of us. As a discipline, we haven’t done a very good job of articulating the case for information architecture in today’s environment.

I was given the opportunity to do just this recently – in a big way – and I’m going to share with you what I’ve learned. To do so, I need to get back to my exciting/terrifying story. A few years had passed at this point. I had incorporated, and had a couple of employees helping me out. I even had a business card that said “Information Architect” on it! So: legit. Our company was a few years old, and the web was getting hot! It seemed everyone wanted a website, and quite inadvertently I had become one of the few “experts” around.

But frankly, we had no idea what we were doing. We were winging it! In those early days, we were very focused on the technical aspects of the work: basically, cajoling early HTML into presenting things that looked as much like printed page layouts as possible given incredible constraints. New technologies were coming out all the time – Perl, Java, Flash, and more – it seemed like there was a new one every week! It’s fair to say we were paying more attention to the surface than to the underlying structures of things. We understood instinctively that our products needed to be usable and understandable, but we had few frameworks to help us achieve this.

Information Architecture for the World Wide Web

Then, along came this book. [Holds up a copy of “Information Architecture for the World Wide Web”, first edition.] This is my copy of the first edition of the polar bear book. It’s even autographed by Lou! This book came into my life at exactly the right time. I knew enough at this point about the materials I was working with to know what they could and couldn’t do, but wasn’t disciplined enough to do anything significant with them. Through insights from a field I knew close to nothing about – Library Sciences – this book gave me frameworks that allowed my work to get to the next level. I started to think about structure in a disciplined way, and started to rediscover the relevance of tools I’d learned about in architecture school – like conceptual diagrams – which I now saw presented back to me in a different guise as a key component for the creation of effective websites. Upon its release, the polar bear book quickly shot up the best seller charts for IT books. Clearly I wasn’t the only person in the world who was struggling with these problems, or who needed to hear this message at this time. This book engaged the zeitgeist of its time and offered solutions to issues many of us were facing. In many ways, it was the catalyst that led to the creation of the very conference we are kicking off now.

This was seventeen years ago. Back then, we had a concept called “Internet Years”: basically, innovation online was happening so fast, that one year in the Internet equaled x number of years in the “real world.” It’s kind of like dog years: if your dog is 5 years old, his equivalent human age would be 35. Well, if we go by Eric Reiss’s calculation that sets x for Internet years at 4.7 human years, then the first edition of the polar bear book is almost eighty human years old! The context that the book was written for – the zeitgeist it tapped into – is very different than today’s. The hyperlink is not an exotic novelty anymore. Experimentation in website navigation has taken a back seat to standardization and familiarity. Search is now ubiquitous and taken for granted. We no longer have to worry about incompatibilities between browsers. There have been two further editions of the book since 1998, and while they’ve improved upon the first edition, they have remained relatively consistent in their focus. And so much has happened since the last edition came out in 2006!

By the early 2010s, this situation had come to a head. Designers were now interested in creating apps for mobile devices, and clients were investing in social media like Facebook and Twitter. It wasn’t clear how IA could contribute to making either of these better. Fairly or not, the web stopped being the sexy new thing, and IA had remained closely tied to web navigation in most people’s minds. Our discipline seemed to have come out of sync with the zeitgeist.

As many of you know, there is a fourth edition of the book in the works. I am honored to have been asked to help Lou and Peter produce this new edition. So I’ve been living with this book for the past year, going over it very closely, asking questions: how has the broader context changed since this was written? Is it still relevant today? How can we best illustrate this particular point now? In other words, how can we address recent advances in our discipline’s conversation with the zeitgeist?

In revisiting the previous editions of the book, I found something interesting: even though most of the examples seem quaint now, the fundamentals have been there all along. People are still striving to find and make sense of information, it just happens that now they have different means to do so. We are still creating semantic structures, but now they are being manifested in small mobile devices which bring with them a different set of constraints and opportunities, including the ability to experience them in wildly different contexts. So one of the keys to reframing the conversation so that we can move forward is to stop thinking about the products of our work as websites, and start thinking of them as information environments that can be experienced in many different ways.

Information environments

As part of this reframing, we have also identified three principles that underlie information architecture. The first of these is that we experience these information environments as places made of language.

Places made of language

Think about the way we describe these experiences: we “go” online. We meet with our friends “in” Facebook. We visit “home” pages. We log “in” to our bank. If we change our mind, we can always “go back”. These metaphors suggest that we subconsciously think of these experiences spatially. And we interact with these products and services primarily through language: labels, menus, descriptions, visual elements, content. These semantic elements and their relationships with each other create environments that differentiate these experiences from each other and facilitate understanding (or not!). For example, the language employed by a recipe app on a mobile phone is bound to be different than that employed by an auto insurance company’s website. These differences in language and structure help define them as distinct “places” that people can visit to accomplish certain specific tasks.

In his book Understanding Context, our colleague Andrew Hinton argues that we make sense of these experiences much like we do physical places: by picking up on particular cues – words and images – which define what can and can’t be done in the environment, be it an idyllic open field in the English countryside or a Web search engine. These information environments we are designing are new (and very real) types of places, which are made of language.

Coherence across contexts

That brings us to our second principle: making these experiences be coherent across multiple contexts and still serve their business, usability, and findability goals. How does information architecture achieve this coherence? To begin with, it does so by asking the designer to think about these challenges in the abstract. Where other design disciplines are focused on specific instances of an artifact – the label on a bottle of detergent, the look-and-feel of an app’s user interface – information architecture has to work in abstractions to derive principles that can translate in multiple ways depending on the needs of different channels. A navigation structure that works well in a laptop web browser should function differently when presented in an app on a 5-inch touchscreen, but the language should be consistent in both.

In their book Pervasive Information Architecture, Andrea Resmini and Luca Rosati argue for consistency as a critical component of what they call a pervasive information architecture — that is, one that is experienced across multiple channels and contexts. In other words, when an organization serves its users via multiple channels, the users’ experiences between those channels should be semantically consistent and familiar. For example, a person using a bank’s mobile app should experience consistent semantic structures when using the bank’s website or calling the bank’s phone-based service. While the capabilities and limitations of each channel are different, the language structures employed in each should let the user know that they are dealing with the same organization. In order to do so, the semantic structures must be abstracted from actual implementations.

Systems thinking

The third key principle is that information architecture is a discipline focused on describing systems, as opposed to the parts of a system. You can’t design products and services that work effectively and consistently across various interaction channels if you don’t understand how they interact with and influence each other and with various other systems that affect them. Each interaction channel brings to the mix different limitations and possibilities that should inform the whole, so designers need to gain a high-level, comprehensive understanding of the entire ecosystem. Polar bear co-author Peter Morville’s book Intertwingled is an impassioned plea for systems thinking in the design of complex information environments. He calls out the dangers of low-level thinking when trying to design these new types of products and services. As a discipline, information architecture is ideally suited to thinking about these problems at a high level, systematically.

I must say this upfront before I scare you off: when I talk about systems thinking, I’m not suggesting that we need to design these systems upfront. We’re well aware that designing large-scale systems in one go is a fool’s errand. The best expression I’ve seen of this idea is Gall’s Law, which was postulated by systems theorist John Gall:

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. The inverse proposition also appears to be true: a complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a simple system.

Design is an iterative activity. The process of defining a large, complex system begins with a focus on a simpler, core system that evolves naturally over time as it comes into contact with real users, business conditions, and the constraints and opportunities inherent in the design and development process. So I don’t see systems thinking and agile methodologies as fundamentally opposed.

That said, having a systems-level view that is informed by (and that informs) day-to-day design activities is also a good way of ensuring that you are solving the right problems, another challenge for which IA is ideally suited. In his book Introduction to General Systems Thinking, computer scientist Gerald Weinberg uses a short story to illustrate what he calls fallacies of absolute thought. The story goes like this:

A minister was walking by a construction project and saw two men laying bricks. “What are you doing?” he asked the first.

“I’m laying bricks,” he answered gruffly.

“And you?’’ he asked the other. ”I’m building a cathedral,” came the happy reply.

The minister was agreeably impressed with this man’s idealism and sense of participation in God’s Grand Plan. He composed a sermon on the subject, and returned the next day to speak to the inspired bricklayer. Only the first man was at work.

“Where’s your friend?” asked the minister.

“He got fired.”

“How terrible. Why?”

“He thought we were building a cathedral, but we’re building a garage.”

So you need to ask yourself: am I designing a cathedral or a garage? The difference between the two is important, and it’s often hard to tell them apart when your focus is on laying bricks. Sometimes designers start working on a garage, and before they know what’s happening they’ve grafted an apse, choir, and stained-glass windows on it, making it hard to understand and use. With its focus on systems instead of individual artifacts, information architecture can help ensure that you’re working on the plans for a great garage (the best in the world!) – or a cathedral, if such is the problem you’re trying to solve.

So, three principles: places made of language, coherence across contexts, and systems thinking. In addition, we have also identified two key goals that information architecture strives to solve for. They are: making information findable, and making it understandable.

Findability

Let’s start with making stuff findable. When we talk about findability, we mean facilitating people’s access to the information they need. Findability has been within the purview of IA from day one. The foundations for our perspective on findability is based on the field of Library Sciences and the work of pioneers like Marcia Bates. I would venture that most people who know about IA think that structuring information for ease of retrieval is the primary – if not exclusive – purpose of IA. Much of the first edition of the polar bear book was focused on findability, and making information findable has been central to our discipline’s engagement with the zeitgeist thus far.

That said, it’s important to acknowledge that IA is not just about creating taxonomies, configuring search engines, building synonym rings, defining metadata, and all the other wonderful tools that we have to make information easier to find. Findability is not an end in itself. Central to the work we do is the realization that people use the products and services we design because they have an information need. It may be that they need to file an expense report in their company’s intranet, or perhaps are looking for details on the cancer that their parent has just been diagnosed with. Findability is about solving human needs through access to information. It is our job to facilitate that access. This is what I refer to as the “information” focus of information architecture.

Understandability

Now let’s talk about understanding. As it applies to information architecture, I see understanding as creating a framework within which information is presented, which sets information in a particular context. One of the many things I’ve learned from the work of Richard Saul Wurman is that we only understand things in relationship to other things. The frame around a painting changes how we perceive it, and the place the frame is hanging in changes it even more. For example, we understand an image displayed in the Walker Art Center differently than one hanging in one of the bathrooms in this hotel. So context matters. Place matters. When designing an information architecture, we are engaging in a new type of placemaking: one that alters how we perceive and understand information.

When you visit a bank’s website and peruse its navigation structures, headlines, section headings, images, and other information elements, your senses and nervous system are picking up semantic cues that tell you that you are now “in a bank.” You would be hard-pressed to confuse the bank’s website from that of a hospital. Just as you can tell the difference between a bank and a hospital in the real-world by picking up on features of their respective physical environments, you can tell the difference between a bank’s website and a hospital’s website by picking up on semantic elements of their user interfaces. You understand the information presented in the site differently because you see it framed as “a bank”. It is our responsibility to frame information so that it can be understood correctly, regardless of the context it is being accessed in. This is what I refer to as the “architecture” focus of information architecture.

Information architecture is distinct and valuable

So three principles: places made of language, coherence across contexts, and systems thinking. And two goals: findability and understandability. These are unique characteristics that make our discipline distinct and valuable. No other design discipline has this particular focus. And importantly, these principles and goals are independent of particular technologies. Today we’re still abuzz about smartphones with their everywhere-access to the net and touch-based paradigms. But we can already see that voice-driven interfaces like Siri are going to be a big thing, and if you believe the hype, soon we’re all going to be wearing devices with screens that make yesteryear’s smartphones look luxuriously roomy. And of course, networked devices keep getting smaller and cheaper, permeating our physical environments and adding smarts to connected doorknobs, thermostats, cars, and all sort of unexpected everyday tools both on our bodies and our surroundings.

These devices need to interoperate among themselves — and with us — and they will generate and collect unprecedented amounts of data. Issues like privacy, the relationship of the individual to society, and our systems of governance, are under tremendous strain as a result of these changes. These technologies can either empower us through previously unattainable insights into our collective and individual patterns of behavior and increased engagement with the social fabric, or can serve as tools of unprecedented oppression and inequity. Given the nature of our zeitgeist, it is not enough for designers to focus on the design of individual artifacts. Our challenge – our responsibility – is to help ensure that these brave new information environments – and many others we can’t even imagine now – serve human needs first. Because of our particular focus, I believe that information architecture is uniquely suited to help us engage these challenges in a meaningful way.

Information archtiecture is for everybody

It’s on us to find ways to make this case compelling and clear, both to ourselves and to the world in general. For a good example on how to do this, see IA Institute president Abby Covert’s new book How To Make Sense of Any Mess. It’s subtitle – Information Architecture for Everybody – perfectly captures the essence of the mission we are on: making sure that people in all walks of life understand that IA is about meeting human needs through better access to information.

I’m going to start winding down this talk now, but I’m not planning to wrap up my exciting/terrifying story. You see, I still don’t know how it turns out! It’s still evolving. A little over a year ago, my family and I moved to California, and I’m now working as a partner in Futuredraft, a digital product design consultancy in the Bay Area. Like other big changes in my life, this one has been a exciting, yet also a little scary and disorienting. Before moving to California, I’d been told by friends that IA was barely discussed there anymore. This was disconcerting, because the most important and influential information environments in the world are being created there. In my experience, the situation is less daunting, but I still sense echoes from that earlier part of my career when I knew I had the answers to questions people were about to start asking. To me, the signs are clear: advances in technology keep changing our context at an ever-faster pace, driving us toward ever greater interconnectedness. As a result, we are hitting the limits of artifact-centric thinking in our increasingly ecosystem-driven world.

Change

Change can be scary and disorienting. It’s also inevitable. But if you go back to examine your core principles, and realize those principles are fundamentally sound, you can more easily see how they can help you best create value for people by engaging the zeitgeist. I believe that the need for designers who can think systemically, who can create these places made of language that work well across contexts, is becoming more important every day and will continue to do so. And when mobile apps are no longer where it’s at, and long after the phrase “Internet of things” sounds as quaint as “horseless carriage,” people will still need to find information, and understand it once they do.

Information architecture

So you could say that I’m doubling down on information architecture. I believe that the world needs thoughtful people working to ensure that information environments serve human needs. Those people are in this room. But they’re also out there in the world, self-identifying as user experience designers, interaction designers, product managers, content strategists, and a whole range of other titles. Many of these folks don’t yet understand why they need to know about information architecture. It’s our job to help them do so.

So now I invite you to enjoy the rest of the Summit. As you attend presentations and participate in hallway conversations over the next few days, I ask that you put our principles and goals to the test. How is what you’re hearing conducive to effective placemaking? Does it work well across contexts? Is it considering the big-picture, whole systems perspective? Does it primarily facilitate finding, understanding, or both? Discuss these issues among yourselves, and – more importantly – in public, with your peers and colleagues from other disciplines. Thank you!

Thanks!

Thanks to Andrew Hinton, Peter Morville, and Louis Rosenfeld for providing feedback on drafts of this speech.