Designing the Frame

Information architecture is a systemic design discipline. The bulk of the work consists of establishing distinctions. These distinctions are in service to creating particular contexts that allow individuals to “find their own paths to knowledge.” As a result, the nature of the IA challenge is holistic; we’re fixing a whole so the brain gets in.

A system, you’ll recall, is a set of elements that interact with each other in particular ways that allow the whole to achieve a purpose. This calls for a “big picture” perspective: understanding the system’s purpose and how the interactions between its parts lead towards desired outcomes.

Consider an e-commerce website. A high conversion rate could be one desired outcome for such a system. Perhaps its current semantic structures aren’t doing a good enough job of supporting customers as they go through the purchasing process. The information architect will carefully consider labels and groupings that improve the customer experience. These labels and groupings establish distinctions in the customer’s mind. But the point is not the labels or groupings (or even the distinctions they create) per se; it’s how they work together as a whole to create a good experience.

Systems are important to information architecture on two levels. On one level, the thing we’re working on — what we’re enabling with our sets of distinctions — is a system. Like any other enterprise, an e-commerce website is a system. The business has inputs, outputs, and processes that transform the former into the latter. Information architecture defines the context in which these transformations happen, in much the same way that (building) architecture creates the context in which a “brick and mortar” store operates. Architects are frame-makers; they define the environments systems operate within.

On another level, the design of this frame is also a systemic undertaking; the information architecture itself is also the result of a system. The design of the context doesn’t stop when the website is put in production. Instead, the context is continuously re-created as conditions change. Perhaps customers are buying more of one type of product than another or the relationship with a supplier has ended or a new competitive threat has emerged. Whatever the case, the business is not a static entity. If the business is to serve its purposes — achieve desired outcomes — its architecture must evolve along with it.

This is an ongoing, dynamic, emergent process that requires design at a higher level of abstraction. Information architects are called to define the structure of the place, but they’re also called to define the (ongoing) processes that generate the structure of the place. Increasingly, we design not just the frame around the work, but also the systems that allow that frame to continue serving its purposes as conditions change.