Real IAs Ship

Photo: Michael Gwyther-Jones

Great ideas are worthless without execution. An amazing new product that doesn’t ship isn’t a product at all; it’s a mirage. Mirages can be enticing, but they don’t slake thirst. (They’re enticing precisely because they hold the promise of slaking thirst.) A product can’t start generating value until it’s in customers’ hands. This requires that it move off PowerPoint decks and InVision prototypes and onto users’ computers, phones, chatty cylinders, etc. As Steve Jobs said, “real artists ship.”

Information architecture deals with abstractions: conceptual models, ontologies, taxonomies — distinctions that create contexts within information environments. In their “purest” state these things are far removed (in mindset and often in time) from the code running on customers’ devices. For those of us who define these semantic structures, losing touch with execution is an occupational hazard. We can fall in love with the amazing models we’ve made, forgetting they are but a means to an end: a product or platform that serves specific needs in a market. This product-market fit should be topmost in the mind of anyone involved with the design of such a system — regardless of the level of abstraction at which we’re working. The more rarified the air we breathe, the more important it is that we keep our sights fixed on the real needs that drive the project.

For information architects, this means zooming down the ladder of abstraction to the functional artifacts that make it into users’ hands. It means creating feedback mechanisms to allow our abstract constructs to evolve based on the things we learn from real customers. It means understanding the materials out of which these systems are made: code, databases, APIs, networking protocols. It means understanding business metrics. It means understanding the dynamics of the development process. It means understanding people.

Abstract constructs created for their own sake — or without a clear execution plan — may be interesting intellectual exercises, but are of little value to the people we serve. Information architecture can bring coherence and clarity to products and platforms — but only when they ship.