At its core, information architecture is about making meaningful distinctions. We set aside things from each other, categorize, group, sort them, etc., to find and understand them more easily. We do this all the time — and not just with digital information.
For example, you’ll find a particular pair of socks more quickly if your sock drawer is organized than if you dump them there in a loose mess. And categorizing and archiving your receipts up front can save you headaches come tax time.
In both cases, your future self is the beneficiary of your organizational foresight. It’s relatively easy to categorize things for yourself since you understand how you expect to find things. However, organizing things for (and with) other people is more challenging since you must understand the other’s mental models in addition to your own.
When we moved into our current house, my wife and I talked about where to store items in our kitchen. We had different kinds of things to put away: cutlery, pans, cups, dishes, various foodstuffs, etc. Some were large (e.g., sacks of flour) while others were small (e.g., meat thermometer.) The new kitchen had many drawers and cabinets. We wanted to store items in places where we’d quickly find them later.
The room’s arrangement suggested some groupings. Functionally, it made sense to store pots and pans near the stove since that’s where we’d use them most. In addition, there are two large drawers underneath the stove. So, it made sense to store pots and pans there.
Other decisions weren’t as easy. For example, our kitchen has several similarly-sized drawers, each of which could’ve served as cutlery storage. Since we use cutlery often, we picked a drawer close to the middle of the kitchen at a height we can access without bending down. Small items we don’t need as often (such as the meat thermometer) can go anywhere — but must still be findable.
So, we talked about it. “What if we put x here?” Sure, but wouldn’t it be better to save that drawer for y?” — and so on. During these conversations, we got a better sense of each other’s uses and expectations for these items — i.e., of each other’s mental models of kitchen work.
The first few days, we tried things out. We fumbled around the kitchen looking for things. We quickly got used to the cutlery drawer, but remembering where we put other items took more time. Living with the arrangement, we realized some things might be best stored elsewhere. We kept discussing it, making small tweaks. Eventually, we settled into an arrangement that satisficed our needs.
Now we take our kitchen for granted, but organizing it took time and effort. And it’s not finished. The arrangement evolves as our needs change. For example, when I bought a Sodastream, we had to figure out where to store replacement gas canisters. And when we got a dog, suddenly we had to find space for large bags of dog food. New items displace existing items as our priorities change; the organization scheme shifts and adjusts as our needs evolve.
I love Radiohead’s song Everything in its Right Place — it’s a sort of IA anthem, speaking to the generative aspects of primal distinction-making. But when I hear it, I’m reminded that “right” is relative: what’s right for me might not be right for you, and what’s right for both of us will change as conditions change over time. IA is never done; “obvious” organization schemes require ongoing effort — whether they’re in digital or physical environments.
A version of this post first appeared in my newsletter.
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