How far ahead do you think in your work? The next release? What’s coming next year? The year after that? I bet that’s about as far as your organization incentivizes you to look to the future. Which is ok for some parts of a digital product — but not all.
Digital changes fast. But information architecture — i.e., the structural underpinnings of the product’s UX — sticks around long after other aspects of the system change. It behooves you to think ahead when designing an IA.
My favorite story about thinking ahead comes from Gregory Bateson via Stewart Brand. The dining hall at New College in Oxford is a 14th-century building with a roof supported by oak beams. In the 19th century, entomologists discovered the roof was riddled with beetles. The beams were buggy — literally.
The building’s stewards were concerned. Finding quality replacement beams might prove difficult. Then, an unexpected solution presented itself. The college forester informed the council that when the college was founded, a grove was planted to supply replacement beams for the building.
Five hundred years earlier.
Now, that’s thinking ahead!
I don’t expect you’ll plan for the evolution of digital systems that far ahead. But how far is it feasible? Thinking about IA beyond the next business cycle or two produces more resilient, robust, and, ultimately, valuable user experiences.
This doesn’t imply planning for specific future structural needs, which you can’t know in advance. Rather, it’s a call to consider the governance mechanisms required to ensure the IA adapts gracefully and usefully over time.
Plant the grove — or at least consider who might be the next forester and what they’ll be called to do.
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