Information architects establish distinctions that make things easier to find and understand. We set things apart into groups that make sense to people. By definition, things in one group are different from things in another group — if for no other reason, by the fact that they are in different groups. When done well, the groupings are obvious; recognizable yet distinct. In many cases, groupings are not obvious. Arriving at the right grouping is often anything but.
Consider the avocado. Botanically, it’s a berry. Most folks probably don’t think of avocados as berries, which they associate with sweet dishes. People usually consume avocado with savory dishes: salads, guacamole, etc. If you were asked to group avocados with other items, where would you place them? It depends on many factors. Who is the audience for the grouping? What is the purpose of the grouping? What other items are being grouped?
Arriving at the right grouping requires understanding what avocados mean in a particular context to particular people. Avocados will be grouped differently in a grocery store than in a botanical lab. Grocery shoppers may think of avocados as vegetables, regardless of what botanists think. Botanists may think of avocados as berries, regardless of what grocery shoppers think.
One of the challenges of establishing effective information architectures is that we’re often tasked by botanists to establish groupings meant for grocery shoppers. While the botanists may understand that a different grouping is required for a different audience, the novel grouping may feel wrong to them. In their world, avocados will always be berries.
Existing incentive structures may make it difficult for the botanists to imagine alternative groupings. Remember, we’re talking about meaning. For these folks, having avocados show up in a group under anything other than the “berry” group can be interpreted as an existential threat, especially if these groupings are exposed to people outside the organization — and doubly so if revenues are being measured against the groupings. (“My team is responsible for berries. We ‘own’ avocados.”) As a result, information architects must often work within political environments that nudge towards particular groupings for reasons other than making things more findable and understandable.
This is challenging, but it can get even trickier: sometimes you want avocados to be found while also changing people’s perception of what avocados are. (Maybe the organization is trying to re-position them in the market.) These cases require walking a fine line. On the one hand, you want grocery shoppers to be able to find the avocados in the groups they expect them to be in. On the other, you also want these people to start thinking of the avocados as being part of a different group. On the other hand (yes — this is complex enough that it requires three hands) you have the botanists wanting to drive their preferred view of things.
How do you do it? There are various things you can try. For example, you can use one grouping for the mechanisms that allow people to find their way to the avocados and another for the context where the avocados sit in. You can also try to re-frame the avocado by establishing a marketing campaign. (“Avocados: The new miracle smoothie ingredient!“) You can establish thesauruses that map one term (“avocado”) to another (“berries”). In any case, you should carefully test the new organization scheme. When grouping things in novel ways, data is your friend.
IA work boils down to grouping things in ways that come across as “obvious,” even if they’re new. Where you place the avocado will depend on how people understand it to begin with; what it means to them. But where the avocado shows up will also affect how people understand it and what it means to them. Of course, what’s obvious to one set of people will be anything but to another set.
Ultimately, information architecture aims to change behavior through distinctions. IA has the power to do this. But grouping and labeling things to change behavior also entails great responsibility. The distinctions we layer on the world change how we understand it, the things in it, and ourselves. We must vie to establish distinctions that help nudge things towards positive outcomes at various levels. Yes, we’re helping sell more avocados, but we also want to know this will be good for those of us who eat them and for the societies who produce and consume them.