Under pressure from the market, your organization is prompted to change. Perhaps the company hasn’t met its sales targets in the last couple of quarters, and something must be done to get customers excited about buying. Or maybe a new competitor is entering the space, or a new technology threatens our primary product. Whatever it is, the organization must respond — now!

But not all responses can take effect now. Some take more time than others. For example, launching a new family of products takes longer than tweaking the website that describes existing products. The appropriate response may be to start down both paths now, with the understanding that (parts of) the website redesign will be public before the new products come online.

The launch of a new range of products changes how customers understand the existing catalog, so the structure of the website must accommodate these future-facing developments. As a result, the website’s designers need to be aware of the company’s product roadmap so they can produce a new information architecture. Through new language and grouping, designers will create distinctions that will allow prospects and customers to find their way within the new range of products.

So far, this is a fairly standard scenario. However, it’s worth considering approaching things from the opposite perspective: what if the act of describing the distinctions of a range of products helps inform the product roadmap? In other words, what if we treated information architecture not as a tool for representing a strategic direction, but as an exercise in distinction-making that helps define what the direction should be?

Here’s an example. When Steve Jobs came back to Apple in 1997, the company was in deep trouble. It was months away from bankruptcy. Among its many problems, Apple’s product catalog had grown bloated and undifferentiated; the company lacked clear direction. Jobs drew a simple diagram that set things back on track:

Steve Jobs's product matrix

This model whittled the company’s extensive range of products down to just four categories: professional desktop computers, consumer desktop computers, professional portable computers, and consumer portable computers. Gone were all the other things Apple was making — including the Newton, a product that was considered one of Apple’s most innovative at the time. This was a tough call that was reinforced by a simple, coherent, understandable set of distinctions​.

What’s interesting about this diagram is not just that it allowed the company to understand how existing products fit — or didn’t fit — into an understandable structure, but that it also revealed gaps in the product family. There were no clear products that fit into the consumer portable quadrant, for example; Apple developed the iBook to meet this part of the market.

Creating this diagram was an act of information architecture. Jobs established a new set of distinctions using a simple, coherent model that informed strategic decisions about what products needed to be developed.

Conceptual modeling of this sort is a key part of the design process when re-designing an information environment’s navigation systems. The upside: the skills designers bring to bear when establishing new distinctions can also be used to inform what products will be required to serve market needs. Rather than reacting to existing strategic product decisions, IA can help strategic decision-makers understand the space they’re acting in more clearly so they can make more informed, confident decisions about where to go next.