Architect Everywhere

This year, World IA Day was celebrated in 57 locations around the world. That’s a lot of people gathering to learn and talk about information architecture! This article, which is based on the keynote presentation I gave at WIAD San Francisco, is inspired by the thought of all these folks — mostly designers — coming together around this year’s theme: “Information Everywhere, Architects Everywhere”.

I think most of us who design digital products and services have a pretty good grasp of what we mean by “information”. Information is our raw material; we are immersed in it every day. However, I suspect “architecture” is more elusive. In what sense is what we do architecture?

Earlier in my career, I used to think that architecture was a useful metaphor for the work I was doing. I would tell clients that “I’d do for their websites what architects do for their buildings” or that “site maps are to websites what plans are to buildings”. However, I’ve come to realize that architecture is more than a metaphor in what I do. In this article, I hope to persuade you that the apps and websites we design are architecture in a very real sense, and to make you more aware of your role in the creation of architectures made of information.

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The Smart Sketchbook

Like yours, my life has been changed by the smartphone. The iPhone in my pocket is an incredible device that lets me take amazing pictures, send and receive emails, access the web, become oriented when trying to navigate unknown environs, and so much more. It’s the perfect mobile communications complement to my larger (notebook) computers, which serve a whole range of other needs. However, as amazing as all of these digital devices are, there is a huge aspect of my workflow that has remained mostly analog over the years: sketching. I’ve been looking for a long time for an efficient way for my sketching to leverage the benefits of being digital – a “smart sketchbook”, if you will – and now I’m ready to share a solution that works for me.

Thinkpad Tablet 2

Sketching and the shortcomings of paper

As a visually-oriented person, sketching is how I take notes, formulate ideas, explore possibilities, avoid dead ends, and – most importantly – give shape to the amorphous stuff that my subconscious mind has been working on while I’m sleeping, showering, walking in the park, or otherwise goofing around. It’s also a very efficient way of capturing ideas in interviews, meetings, and other situations in which a laptop sets up a physical barrier between me and the person(s) I’m communicating with. In short, sketching is the most effective (and socially acceptable) channel I’ve found for talking with myself. I’ve been doing it informally since I was about eight years old, and formally since attending architecture school over twenty years ago. At this point in my life, it’s fundamental to how I think and work, and I do it mostly on paper. (For a good overview of the importance of sketching in UX design, see Bill Buxton’s Sketching User Experiences.)

As you may surmise, I love sketching. However, there is a downside to sketching on paper when doing UX work: at some point the drawings and notes must make the leap to digital, and with paper this is very inconvenient. For example, now that I’m working remotely, I want to be able to communicate and iterate on ideas with my team. In the office, we would do this by sketching together in person. Now we must find another way. I’ve tried various approaches:

  • Scanning pages with a flatbed scanner. (Kludgy, time-consuming, and who has access to a flatbed scanner in a coffee shop?)
  • Scanning pages with a smartphone. (Faster, and more convenient, but keeping pages flat for scanning can be a challenge. On iOS, I use and recommend Readdle’s Scanner Pro.)
  • Transcribing and refining sketches using an app like OmniGraffle. (Time-consuming, and loses some of the spontaneity and ambiguity that sketches have and which can lead to good things. This will be the subject of a future post.)

So there are limitations when making the leap from analog to digital, but it’s doable. However, a more serious limitation is paper’s inability to make the leap in the other direction: from digital to sketchbook. For example, there are many times when I’m doing research that I wish I could include a crop of what I was looking at on my screen into my sketchbook, so that I could annotate it or compare it with other specimens. I’ve also wanted to include photographs or videos of stuff in the real world, or copy text blocks from emails or other digital documents, into my sketchbook. And of course, it’s not possible to access my old sketches if I don’t have the physical notebook with me, nor is it possible for me to do a text search on my handwritten notes. None of these use cases are well served by pen-and-paper, and I’ve started to find these limitations increasingly constraining.

I’ve been looking for a long time for technology that would allow me to bridge this digital-analog divide. Now that I have a phone that is smart, I want a sketchbook that is smart too.

My previous setup

Before I describe what I want a smart sketchbook to do, I’ll give you a peek into the system it’s meant to replace. I’ve always (since childhood!) preferred to draw with stark fine black pens on smooth off-white stock. Recently, I’ve been using Pilot Precise V5 pens on Leuchtturm medium-sized notebooks (which I’ve found to be more durable than the Moleskine equivalents, and can be had with a subtle dotted grid which I love). I always start a new page when sitting down to think about a particular project or idea. I always write the name of the project/idea/topic on the upper left corner of the page, and the current date on the upper right corner. (So notes are organized chronologically, rather than by topic or project.) When a notebook fills up, I always write the start date and the end date on the spine with a metallic Sharpie pen. I have a shelf full of these notebooks stacked in chronological order. It’s a fairly well organized system, but highly dependent on chronology, and because it’s paper-based, can’t be easily re-sorted.

What I want from a smart sketchbook

A smart sketchbook would be to a sketchbook what a smart phone is to a phone: it should provide the basics (sketching, taking down notes) while augmenting them with the ability to obviate the digital-analog divide outlined above. It should allow me to capture ideas with the fluidity, precision, and freedom afforded by paper, but directly into digital so that I can enjoy all the benefits and flexibility afforded by the digital medium: fast random access to my work, treating digital objects as part of the subject matter and canvas of my doodling, easily sharing and/or collaborating on ideas, etc.

Specifically, these are the things I want from a smart sketchbook:

  • Drawing on the sketchbook should feel like using pen on paper.
  • The sketchbook should have a canvas that can be arbitrarily subdivided into notebooks or categories.
  • It should allow me to arbitrarily organize notes by other facets besides chronology. (And wouldn’t it be awesome if I could search my handwritten notes?)
  • It should have a modern web browser.
  • It should allow me to crop elements from said web browser and paste them into the canvas.
  • It should have a camera so that I can include quick snapshots into my sketches and notes.
  • It should allow me to easily share notebooks or pages with others and with myself using standard file formats (like PDF).
  • It should allow me access the other project documents (which I keep in Dropbox).
  • It should have a decent PDF reader.
  • It should have a decent image management app.
  • It should provide mobile internet access.
  • It should have a portable form factor, as close as possible (in size and weight) to the third-gen iPad (my other tablet device).
  • It should have an all-day battery, a la iPad.

Bonus points:

  • It should allow me to share the drawing process in real-time. (Double-bonus points: allow me to do so collaboratively over the Internet!)
  • It should serve as an agenda on a pinch; this means it should include a decent calendar app and allow me to access my task lists (which I manage in OmniFocus and Asana) and contacts.
  • It should read (and ideally, produce) standard file formats such as XLSX and DOCX.
  • It should be able to run a good plain text editor (ideally one that understands Markdown).
  • It should be able to ride au naturel in my day pack like my paper sketchbook does… durability is important!
  • It should be able to serve as an e-book reader. In my case, this means a decent implementation of Kindle.app and a decent ePub reader.

Some approaches I tried (and gave up on)

Like I said, I’ve been trying to build the perfect smart sketchbook for years, and at this point have spent thousands of dollars and countless hours with various setups. Here are some I’ve tried, and why they didn’t do the job:

  • iPad & stylus. You may be thinking, “this sounds like a job the iPad could do”. So did I, and embarked on a quixotic (and expensive) multi-year quest for the elusive Perfect Stylus. At this point I’ve tried over a dozen different styluses (or is it styli?), and feel confident in telling you that as long as the iPad relies solely on capacitive touch for input, it will be impossible for me to sketch on its screen with the precision and fluidity I’m after. Drawing on the iPad with a stylus is akin to drawing on a very small whiteboard with a dry-erase marker. It has its uses, but the experience is very far from pen-on-paper.
  • Paper sketchbook & Scanner Pro on iOS. As I mentioned above, Scanner Pro is my preferred scanning app on iOS. It allows me to take a snapshot with the iPhone’s (or iPad’s) camera and then correct the image for perspective distortions and contrast adjustments. Used in combination with an iPad, it satisfies many of the points I outlined in my list. However, there is still the issue of not being able to include digital objects in the sketches themselves. This method also turns the sketching exercise into a phased affair: first you work on paper, then you stop to take pictures (an awkward, slow process if you’re a prolific sketcher), then you process and organize them. This takes a LOT of time. There’s also the problem that now you have a “master” document (the paper version) and a secondary captured version; you need to be very disciplined about capture, lest important things get left out of your digital repository. It’s too much hassle; I would much rather have to manage a single system than two.
  • Notecards with Fujitsu ScanSnap scanner. I’m one of those insufferable nerds that swears by his Fujitsu ScanSnap scanner. The advantage of using a ScanSnap is that it can automatically scan dozens of double-sided loose leaf sets of documents on one go, so scanning is much faster than with a flatbed scanner or a scanning app like the one outlined above. The downside is that the ScanSnaps can only take loose leafs, so for a while I tried foregoing a notebook in favor of individual notecards which I would then feed into the scanner. Like the previous attempt, this is a phased process, which I find inconvenient. This system became very messy very quickly, so I didn’t stick with it very long. (I still use the ScanSnap for most of my other scanning needs. It’s an essential piece of kit.)
  • Galaxy Note devices & LectureNotes. Most of this year I used a Galaxy Note II as my primary smartphone, with a terrific note-taking app called LectureNotes. This system was the closest I’d come to achieving the elusive smart sketchbook: the Note has a Wacom digitizer and stylus, and so offers a much more pen-like experience than the iPad. The only real complaint I had was that the screen wasn’t big enough to do the type of sketching that I do. Samsung has since released the Galaxy Note 8, which features a much larger screen (akin to a medium Moleskine). My partner in the office bought one, and it seemed a great solution, but I thought there was too little difference between it and my phone to justify carrying both of them. Then my Note’s screen broke, and Samsung’s tech support was so bad that it turned me off their products. That said, the Galaxy Note 8 is the closest solution I’d seen, until… [Drumroll]

The Lenovo Thinkpad Tablet 2 and OneNote

This is it folks, I think I finally found the smart sketchbook I’ve been looking for: the Lenovo Thinkpad Tablet 2. The TPT2, as I’ll be referring to it throughout the remainder of this article, is a small (iPad-sized) Windows 8 slate computer which offers most of the features I’m looking for in a smart sketchbook:

  • Size and weight similar to (actually lighter than) my iPad 3.
  • Pressure-sensitive Wacom digitizer and stylus.
  • A full, modern, desktop web browser (and the ability to install many others).
  • Two cameras. (Front- and rear-facing.)
  • OneNote, the best note-taking app I’ve ever used. More on this below.

TPT2 with the iPad 3

Because this is a full Windows 8 computer (and not a neutered RT device), there are lots of apps available for it, including the real filesystem-syncing Dropbox app. (Unlike iOS, with Windows you have access to the device’s filesystem.) You can run Microsoft Office on it, and while MS Office isn’t touch-optimized, you can pair the TPT2 with a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse to create a highly portable mini-desktop. I’ve been using Microsoft’s Wedge keyboard and mouse, both very well-designed products that complement the TPT2 beautifully:

TPT2 with keyboard and mouse

Unlike the Microsoft Surface, the TPT2 (at least the model I have) also has an LTE radio, so I can go work in the beautiful City Park if I feel like it. And also unlike the Surface, the battery on the TPT2 lasts about as long as an iPad’s (around eight and a half hours, in my experience). It’s also worth noting that the SIM-enabled 64 GB TPT2 costs less than the comparable iPad model, and has a microSD slot which has allowed me to expand storage by an additional 64 GB.

The TPT2 is a pretty cool smart sketchbook out of the box, but I’ve added two other accessories that have taken my sketching experience to a whole different level. The first is a matte film made by 3M that you stick on the TPT2’s glossy screen. This has two important effects: 1) it reduces reflections considerably, making the surface of the screen reflect light more like paper does, and 2) it adds tooth to the surface of the screen, so that when you slide the stylus across it feels like you’re writing on paper and not on glass. The other item is Wacom’s Bamboo feel pen, a metallic stylus that feels more like a real pen than the chintzy plastic one that comes with the TPT2. The combination is surprisingly similar to pen-on-paper.

And then there is OneNote, a fabulous note-taking application made by Microsoft and available as part of the Office suite. This app allows you to combine text, images, and “ink” into pages that can be arranged arbitrarily into notebooks that can be categorized in any way you can think of. OneNote integrates with the other office apps, and notebooks can be shared with other people for collaboration. The lot synchronizes over the air using Microsoft’s SkyDrive service (which in my experience is more reliable than iCloud for this sort of task), and can be accessed online using any modern web browser in (almost) real time. And that wistful little side point about being able to search your handwritten notes? Yes, OneNote does that too. The whole feature set is extraordinary: I’m still learning new things after many months of using it.

OneNote comes in two versions: the “desktop” version (currently OneNote 2013) and the “modern” version. The latter is free and is a bit slower and less functional than the desktop version, but has a really cool advantage: it can be used in Windows 8’s split screen mode to take notes alongside other apps. For example, I use this feature to take rich marginal notes when reading books on the Kindle app:

Kindle.app and OneNote marginalia

This is much more convenient than having to switch back and forth between apps, as would be the case in an iPad. Data in both the desktop and modern versions of the app is kept in sync using SkyDrive, so you can switch between them depending on your needs. (I learned of OneNote’s potential for UX sketching in a series of articles in the Cooper website; I urge you to explore them if you’re into this topic.)

So what’s not to like? Well, there are a few downsides to the TPT2. The first is that it achieves its magical price-weight-size-battery life combo by using a skimpy Atom processor like the ones used in netbooks. This means it’s not a fast device; for sketching it’s fine, but large animated transitions (like the ones in Flipboard) stutter. Another shortcoming is that the TPT2 has a relatively low-resolution screen; reading text on a high-density screen like the one on the iPad 3 is much more comfortable and paper-like. Another downside is that the TPT2 sometimes has a hard time keeping up when there are two Bluetooth input devices in use (for example, when using the mouse and keyboard, the latter sometimes lags, stutters, and repeats keystrokes). Also, even though you can charge the TPT2’s battery using any USB charger, it charges VERY slowly (sometimes even leaving it overnight is not enough). And of course, I don’t have access to Apple-only apps like OmniGraffle and OmniFocus.

The main downside, however, is that this is a Windows device. After more than a decade of primarily using OS X-based machines, I’ve gotten used to the wonders of no-hassle, low-maintenance personal computing. Even with its elegant modern UI, Windows 8 is still Windows: I still have to worry about device driver incompatibilities, I still have to dig into the registry sometimes, and I still have to occasionally put up with the dreaded Blue Screen of Death:

TPT2 Blue Screen of Death

I waited a while to upgrade after Windows 8.1 came out, and there were still driver snafus and little technical niggles to deal with when I did. These types of inconveniences are rare in Appleland; I wish my Windows sketchbook were as reliable and trouble-free as my Apple devices. If you decide to tread into these waters, be prepared to set aside time for hunting down and fixing tech issues with the OS.

Are the inconveniences worth it? Thus far, the answer for me is yes. Apart from finally getting close to achieving the smart sketchbook I’ve wanted all these years, it’s also given me the opportunity to explore Windows 8’s modern UI, which I find more elegant, intuitive, and coherent than iOS 7. Mind you, I’m setting the bar rather low: I’m not trying to replace my laptop with this device; it’s meant to replace my paper sketchbook. It does so wonderfully, and it does a lot more besides. But there is one device that it has mostly supplanted in my toolbox: the iPad, which still offers a much better reading experience but which I can’t use for sketching or some important productivity tasks.

Even while it’s somewhat slow and hampered by a fussy OS, the TPT2 + OneNote combo is the closest I’ve found to the perfect smart sketchbook. There are rumors of a faster and higher-res Thinkpad Tablet 3 in the pipeline for next year, so I will be paying close attention to developments in this area. For the time being, I’m actively exploring new ways in which this new, more organic, way of working digitally can make me a more productive UX designer.

Density in Information Environments

Some information environments are denser than others. By this I mean that they present a higher number of information nodes in a constrained space/time. The user’s ability to understand and navigate the environment will be greatly affected by the density of the information in the space, and managing this information density — ensuring that it’s just right for the objectives, audience, and content of the space — is a critical function of information architecture.

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Semantic Environments and Information Architecture

One of the (many) ways in which we define information architecture is as “the structural design of information environments”. I’ve always found this phrase “information environments” alluring, given that I spend most of my conscious time in online “spaces” that seem to exist somewhere between various screens and my two ears. (I wince sympathetically when I hear people say that they “live out of their inbox”; this is one of many figures of speech that belie the fact that we experience many of our interactive digital tools spatially.)

But what is an “information environment”, really? Is it something we can design? How do you go about it?

These questions have been simmering in my mind since I first read the phrase, years ago. Recently I came across an old book that has given me new insights: Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk: How We Defeat Ourselves by the Way We Talk and What to Do About It, by Neil Postman. First published in 1976, Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk is a self-help primer on general semantics aimed at the public. It makes many important and illuminating points about human communications, but one idea that especially resonated with me is what Mr. Postman calls the semantic environment, a concept that sounds very similar to what I understand by “information environment”, and which I think could help us produce more effective information architectures.

The semantic environment

Before I attempt to mangle Mr. Postman’s elegant description, I must point out that when we talk about “information environments”, we’re talking about places where people go to understand things and each other. In other words, we’re talking about spaces in which people communicate, which they do using language.

It’s obvious to say that people communicate with language, but it’s also easy to fall into the trap of thinking that communication is only about language. Mr. Postman argues that communication is not about stuff or bits or messages (what he calls the “Ping-Pong ball” theory of communications: I say something to you, you say something back, I retort, etc.), rather, it’s a situation that people participate in “like the way a plant participates in what we call its growth”.

These “situations”, which he calls semantic environments, are where and how we communicate with each other. They include

  1. people (and their social roles and relationships),
  2. their purposes,
  3. the rules of discourse by which those purposes are normally achieved, and
  4. the particular talk (words) being used in the situation.

Note that only the final point addresses what we normally think of as “language”; the other three are about context.

We inhabit many different semantic environments as we go about our lives. For example, religion is one such semantic environment: we use a particular set of words, in particular ways, when we are in church. Semantic environments are also composed of many subenvironments. For example, the Confessional is a semantic environment within the broader environment of religion: there are special rules and words that apply to that situation that would be inappropriate in the more public sphere of religion as a whole. Science is another semantic environment, and one with completely different rules, purposes, and vocabularies than religion.

Effective communication requires that you be able to identify the environment (or subenvironment) that you’re currently participating in, and use the correct communication structures (rules and words) for that particular environment. Many misunderstandings (and lawsuits) result from people not using the right words in the right sequence in the right environment. Think, for example, of the phrase “you look hot”: its interpretation will depend almost entirely on contextual factors, and the wrong interpretation could lead to a punch in the face (or worse). In short, the effectiveness of words depends on the relationship between them and the totality of the situation the people using them are in.

Polluting the environment

All of this sounds obvious, but in practice many situations are highly ambiguous. Lacking clear ambient or interpersonal signals, we may find ourselves unwitting participants in a semantic environment that we are unprepared for. Given the messiness that characterizes human relationships, this happens more often than we’d expect, so clear differentiation between semantic environments is key to successful communication. As Mr. Postman says, “when language becomes undifferentiated, human situations disintegrate: Science becomes indistinguishable from religion, which becomes indistinguishable from commerce, which becomes indistinguishable from law, and so on.” The name he gives to this process is pollution, and he means it in the same sense that we do when talking about the physical environment:

To pollute a river means to introduce into it elements that cannot be absorbed, elements that do not fit, elements that have no function in the life system of the river. And that is how you pollute a semantic environment. You introduce a language whose tone or point of view or vocabulary has no function in the meaning system of that environment.

He acknowledges that there is no such thing as a “pure” semantic environment: all environments contain some degree of “garbage”, or “unassimilable matter”. However, as in the physical world, some semantic environments can become so compromised by extraneous elements that they become toxic (e.g., unable to achieve the communication purposes that they exist for). George Orwell spent much of his career examining how political powers intentionally pollute semantic environments to make communication difficult or impossible; his essay Politics and the English Language is required reading if you’re into this stuff. And if you want to experience a highly polluted semantic environment for yourself (and are in the U.S.), tune your TV to Fox News or MSNBC at any given time. (But please, do so only briefly and out of anthropological interest, lest you suffer irreversible brain rot.)

What about information architecture?

You may be wondering, “what does any of this have to do with information architecture?” Well, I think one of the most important functions that IA provides is to identify and clarify the various semantic environments and subenvironments that affect a product. This goes well beyond the creation of semantic structures, which is what many people consider the purview of IA to be, to include such things as the roles and relationships between the people interacting in (and with) the product, the intended and actual purposes of their interactions, and the rules that govern those interactions (both on- and offline).

One of the challenges that we face when designing for these digital experiences is that they lack many of the subtle nonverbal cues that help people identify the semantic environment they’re participating in. Part of what IA should do is afford these cues, so that users can not only find their way around, but also understand what type of environment they’re supposed to be participating in. Because all of this is still relatively new (especially when compared to physical communication, which we’ve adapted to over many thousands of years), sometimes clients will ask us to include “unassimilable matter” into semantic environments, causing no end of trouble. Information architects need to be able to understand—and defend—the integrity of semantic environments in order to make them as “clean” (understandable) as possible.

Take for example a project to redesign the website of a telecommunications company. The final website can be seen as a semantic environment. However, it will not be a very effective one unless we acknowledge and accommodate the fact that it will actually be composed of a variety of subenvironments that serve different purposes for different people, and that some of these subenvironments may actually be in conflict for each other: a potential client looking to upgrade her mobile phone plan will have different needs and expectations than one that who is angrily looking for support because her phone isn’t working. For these experiences to be successful, each user should able to go about her business as effectively as possible, with as little “pollution” as possible; in other words, each subenvironment should be as “clean” as possible. Advertising may be considered toxic to the “support” subenvironment, but easily could creep in unless it’s clearly called out as such. These rules obviously need to accommodate the variety of channels and contexts that are required by today’s digital products, and need to be managed in order to achieve environmental integrity and “cleanliness” while evolving to respond to changing contextual forces. I hold the view that identifying, defining, and managing these ground rules—and the broader semantic environments they serve—is part of IA’s remit.

How do you go about doing this? Well, that’s an ongoing project for me, and one that I hope to write more about in the future. For now, here’s a list of questions culled from Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk that can help you define semantic environments (and keep you from polluting them):

  • What is the general area of discourse I am designing for? Does it employ the language of law? commerce? religion? etc.
  • Who are the people performing within the semantic environment?
  • How well do they know the environment’s rules?
  • How well do they know the environment’s language?
  • Is there potential for ambiguity over what sort of environment this is? What can create such confusion?
  • What are the intended purposes of this environment?
  • What are the purposes that are actually being achieved by the way this environment is currently organized?
  • Is there a difference between what is intended and what is being achieved?
  • Are there contradictions in purpose between the environment and its subenvironments?
  • Are there conflicts between the intended or actual purposes of the environment and the needs of the individuals in the situation?
  • What are the environment’s key terms, including its basic metaphors?
  • Who controls these metaphors?
  • Who or what is in charge of maintaining the definitions?

Architectures

This paper was originally published in the Journal of Information Architecture, Issue 1, Vol 3.

(Young Egyptians), gazing through the windows of the Internet, have gained a keener sense than many of their elders of the freedoms and opportunities they lack. They have found in social media a way to interact and share ideas, bypassing, in virtual space, the restrictions placed on physical freedom of assembly.

— Mohamed ElBaradei,
New York Times, February 10, 2011

We live in strange times. Governments are being brought down by people congregating in “virtual space”, while century-old media empires are crumbling as their traditional business is decimated by “digital editions”. We meet with friends in Facebook, as opposed to face-to-face, and “log in” to our bank in order to pay our bills. In short, it’s become clear that digital space is taking over from physical space as the container for ever more of our day-to-day interactions with our institutions and with other people [1].

We implicitly perceive these digital containers of experience as spaces, as Mr. ElBaradei explains in the quote above. Our language strains with clumsy architectural metaphors such as “gazing through the windows of the Internet” in order to describe the ways we inhabit and use them.

Who designs these spaces? And — more importantly — are they aware that they are designing space when they do so? I argue that the answer to the first question should be “information architects”, and the answer to the second should be “they should”.

Human beings have been designing spaces to host our interactions — to stage our experiences — for thousands of years [2]. In traditional architecture, we have a rich field that can serve as a springboard to for the design of effective information environments. However, much of the discussion in the field of information architecture has focused on linguistic approaches to the structuring of information environments. The designers of many of these “virtual spaces” have thus far approached these design challenges as literary exercises on one extreme, and as visual design exercises on the other.

In this article, I will take a closer look at traditional building architecture as a precedent for the design of effective information environments, and will propose a way of thinking about information architecture that allows us to deploy linguistic and spatial approaches to information architecture design in tandem.

But first, let’s recap what we mean by traditional architecture.

Environments For Inhabitation

The primary products of architecture are cultural artifacts that we call buildings. They are intentional compositions of forms and spaces organized as structures that provide environments for humans (and other animals) to inhabit.

Before we delve into this definition, it’s worth noting that architects design many other cultural artifacts besides buildings: drawings and paintings, models, books, cutlery, cloth patterns, etc. When they do, they are not producing architecture: rather, they are employing architectural methods to produce other cultural artifacts. By definition, architecture refers to the design of inhabitable environments.

We say buildings are intentional compositions because they are designed by people for the purpose of inhabitation. Although for us they are a given, buildings are not required for human habitation: there are many non-designed (non-intentional) inhabitable environments in the world, uncomfortable as they may be. (The fact that we refer to our remote ancestors as “cave men” highlights the central role that architecture — and by extension, culture — plays in our self-identity as a species).

Let’s examine the two components of architecture I introduced above — forms and spaces — individually.

Forms are the physical component of buildings. They are the tangible elements that make up a building, such as its brick walls, stained glass windows, wooden columns, copper roof, stone paved paths, garden layout, etc. Forms can contain other forms: for example, a wall can contain a window. While they are discreet elements, they are comprised of building materials such as bricks, sand, and glass, that can be considered discreet forms in and of themselves.

Spaces are the voids between a building’s forms. They are defined by (and define) the relationship between these forms. Spaces are not “real” in the same sense that forms are: they are only experienced in time by the person inhabiting the building. Spaces do not exist independently of this individual experience. This leads us to an important consideration we tend to easily overlook: architects are, by definition, in the business of designing for experience.

Most interestingly, forms and spaces cannot exist independently of each other. They are inextricable parts of a whole: they are the yin and the yang of architecture.

Culture And Politics In Building Architecture

Over thousands of years, architecture has evolved to serve functions beyond the provision of merely inhabitable environments. Architecture has been used to educate the illiterate (for example, the cathedral in Chartres), express relationships of power (the Forbidden City in Beijing), comment on the urban context (the Guggenheim museum in New York), and embody the zeitgeist (any work by OMA [3]), among others.

Architects cannot help but be cognizant of the fact that their interventions on the environment will have a cultural impact that extends far beyond providing cover from the elements [4]. Some architects even focus on these cultural functions as the primary force that informs and animates their work.

0301-04-arango-01
Annunciation and visitation, Chartres Cathedral. Photo: Bellacella. Released under a CC 2.0 license.

Because architecture is an area of practice with a long history, all architectural artifacts also exist in constant dialog — self-conscious or not — with their precedents. For example, the design of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. can only be appreciated in full if the viewer knows the classical language and forms of Roman and Greek architecture. Without such knowledge, while one can certainly experience the building itself, much of its cultural meaning is absent from its design.

Environments For Understanding

While information architecture shares many traits with building architecture [5] there is however one crucial difference: the objective of IA is not the production of environments for inhabitation, but for understanding. Just like architecture enables environments for inhabitation by the organization forms and spaces, information architecture enables environments for understanding by the organization of nodes and links. Let’s look at these two components in more detail.

Nodes

Nodes are discreet units of meaning. They consist of content elements — texts, images, videos, etc. — that jointly communicate a concept or idea. A node can be as simple as a single word, and can be infinitely complex. A web page is a node, but so are the sentences, images, and visual elements that comprise it.

One of the information architect’s critical responsibilities is defining a node’s boundaries so that it conveys meaning optimally. Is a discreet idea best presented as a paragraph of text? An illustration? A video? A single word? The answer will depend on the requirements of the particular artifact being designed, the content available, the needs and capabilities of the artifact’s users, and the architect’s experience.

I refer to the minimal self-contained unit of meaningful content as a pericope, a term that comes from Biblical studies. A pericope is a special type of node that continues to communicate its intended meaning even when experienced outside of its originally intended context [6].

Links

Much like spaces, links define (and are defined by) the relationships between two or more nodes [7]. There are many types of such relationships. For those of us reared on the web, the most obvious example is the hyperlink, in which a node (a word or group of words) refers to a second node (a web page, or a section thereof) in such a way that clicking on the node causes the user’s display to load and present the second node.

There are many linking approaches that can be used to establish relationships between nodes. Some obvious ones:

  • Sequential: one node follows another in sequence. For example, multiple words can be strung together to form sentences, which can in turn be strung together to form paragraphs, sections, chapters, and entire treatises.
  • Spatial: the relationship between two or more nodes is defined by their geometric position relative to each other. For example, the content of two images can be compared by placing them side by side.
  • Hierarchical: one node contains another. The most obvious example is a website’s navigation sitemap. It’s also worth noting that pages themselves are collections of nodes (words which are contained by paragraphs, images, etc.) Pages are thus hierarchical containers.
  • Conceptual: one node triggers conceptual associations with a second node in the user’s mind, even though the second node is not itself present. This linking strategy is dependent on the user having previous knowledge of the second node. For example, the effect of Marcel Duchamp’s painting L.H.O.O.Q. is dependent on the viewer having previously seen Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
0301-04-arango-02
Duchamp, M. (1919). L.H.O.O.Q. Image from Wikipedia.

It is worth noting that one such linking strategy can be used to represent another, depending on the medium used. For example, a company’s organization chart can be effectively presented as a spatial structure, even though it is a hierarchical structure.

An Expansive Definition Of IA

Using these concepts, I define information architecture as the intentional composition of nodes and links as organized structures that facilitate understanding. Note that this definition places many traditional cultural artifacts under the remit of information architecture: books, maps, sales charts, Gothic cathedrals, and more. Indeed, the authors of these works were producing works of information architecture when they defined the relationships between the nodes of meaning that comprise them.

This definition also highlights another important difference between building architecture and information architecture: while the end product the former can only be an inhabitable environment, the end product of information architecture can be many different things: a website, a movie (for example Ray and Charles Eames’s Power of 10 [8]), a book, (for example one of Wurman’s Understanding series), a game such as chess, and the location of products in supermarkets. Indeed, as more of these cultural artifacts become dematerialized (read: digital), their purely informational nature is becoming more prominent and the need for well-designed information architectures is becoming ever more obvious.

Note that this definition promotes a specific objective: to produce structures that facilitate understanding. Just as arbitrarily organizing forms and spaces does not guarantee that an inhabitable environment will result, arbitrarily organizing links and nodes does not guarantee that the end result will be understandable. The architect employs structure and order to facilitate habitation. The information architect employs structure and order to facilitate understanding.

In this light, the profound differences that information architects have long perceived to exist between “Wurman IA” and “Polar Bear IA” are merely superficial. Both “branches” of IA aim for the same objectives using similar strategies, but focus on employing different link-node structures.

Culture And Politics In Information Architecture

I’ve suggested above that information architecture has been practiced unwittingly in some form or another for thousands of years. However, as a self-aware area of practice, IA has only been around for three and a half decades [9]. Just as the first architects were primarily focused on perfecting techniques for the construction of human habitats (keeping nature at bay, keeping structures erect, etc.), the first information architects have been thus far focused on perfecting the techniques that lead to understanding (node organization, findability, etc.) As the field matures, and as more of our daily interactions involve information environments, we must become also increasingly proactive in our role as agents of cultural and political change.

Just as no building exists outside of its cultural and historical context, no information environment exists in a vacuum. There are few means of societal control as powerful as the ability to define the boundaries of discussion and the language used for the exchange. To put it bluntly: all taxonomies are political [10]. As designers, it behooves us to be keenly aware of the power inherent in defining the terms that allows others to find and use information, and to wield it conscientiously and responsibly.

It is also incumbent upon us as practitioners in an incipient field to find means of discussing our successes and failures, as building architects have been doing for years, to give us shoulders to stand on as we build the practice. Wurman’s Information Architects (1997) was one such attempt. It is time that changed.

Conclusion

The transition towards information spaces as the stage for our day-to-day interactions will continue unabated. Information architects are uniquely positioned to design these spaces thoughtfully and effectively. Seeing our role as digital placemakers allows us to better understand — and employ more effectively — our work as a critical cultural component, that influences the way our institutions serve us and our fellow human beings experience reality.

References

  1. Arango, J., Hinton, A., & Resmini, A. (2011). More Than A Metaphor: Making Places with Information. 11th ASIS&T IA Summit Denver.
  2. Bachelard, G. (1969). The Poetics of Space. Beacon Press.
  3. Bowker, G. C., & Star, S. L. (1999). Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. The MIT Press.
  4. Brand, S. (1994). How Buildings Learn. Penguin Books
  5. Coward, L. A., & Salingaros, N. A. (2004). The Information architecture of cities. Journal of Information Science, 30(2), 107—118.
  6. Lynch, K. (1960). The Image of the City. The MIT Press.
  7. Passini, R. (1984). Wayfinding in Architecture. Van Nostrand Reinhold Company.
  8. Resmini, A., & Rosati, L. (2011). Pervasive Information Architecture. Morgan Kauffman.
  9. Rosenfeld, L., & Morville, P. (2006). Information Architecture for the World Wide Web (3rd ed.). O’Reilly Media.
  10. Wurman, R. S. (1997). Information Architects. Graphis Inc.

1. Coward & Salingaros 2004.

2. Bachelard 1969.

3. From the oma.nl website: OMA is a leading international partnership practicing architecture, urbanism, and cultural analysis. Our buildings and masterplans around the world insist on intelligent forms while inventing new possibilities for content and everyday use. OMA is led by seven partners — Rem Koolhaas, Ellen van Loon, Reinier de Graaf, Shohei Shigematsu, Iyad Alsaka, David Gianotten and Managing Partner, Victor van der Chijs — and sustains an international practice with offices in Rotterdam, New York, Beijing, and Hong Kong.

4. Brand 1994.

5. A topic I addressed with Andrew Hinton and Andrea Resmini in our presentation at the 11th ASIS&T IA Summit, Denver. See References.

6. Note that this characteristic does not extend inside the pericope itself: a pericope’s constituent elements lose some or all of their intended meanings when experienced in isolation.

7. Lynch 1960, Passini 1984.

8. Eames, R. & Eames, R. (1968). Power of 10. Available on Youtube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0fKBhvDjuy0

9. So far, the most comprehensive effort at outlining a preliminary history of information architecture can be found in Resmini & Rosati 2011.

10. Bowker & Star 1999.

The IAI Vision project

Think big!It’s important that we refine our definition of what IA is and what IAI does. However, it’s essential that we think about this in the context of the overall vision of the organization.

A few months ago, I started a project within the IAI board of directors to help us hone the organization’s vision. As a longtime member of the IAI, I was missing some of the verve of the early days when it felt like a new field was being born — one that would change the world — and our organization would be its midwife. I felt that somewhere along the line we’d lost track of why we were doing things to focus on what we were doing, and that re-stating our vision could help bring us back on track.

We have a natural resistance to pinning this down because the word “vision” evokes tacky posters wallpapered over gray and tan cubicles. However, it doesn’t have to be like that! Some visions are incredibly energizing and can lead to great things (e.g. “A computer on every desk and in every home.”) The objective of this project is to develop such a vision for the IAI. The “how” is something that we’ve struggled with; we started by having a series of discussions with our board of advisors, and then surveying them to get their individual hopes and expectations for the profession. It was a good start, but clearly not enough.

The impact we can achieve using online tools and conference calls is limited. Creating a powerful vision is an activity that requires the special mind meld that can only occur when people meet face to face in an isolated setting. Inspired by the prospects of such a meeting (being discussed now in the IAI mailing list), and in the hopes that this will help spark a broader discussion, I share with you here the initial “call to action” posted on the internal IAI board’s Basecamp site earlier this year. Your thoughts are most welcome.

The IAI Vision

What is this project about?
This project aims to develop a compelling vision statement for the IAI, and a strategy (and roadmap) for the implementation of this vision.

That previous sentence makes this exercise sound much more bureaucratic than it is — this is an incredibly exciting opportunity for us to grow the IAI and have a more meaningful impact!

Why do we need to do this?
Because most of us are passionate about IA, and believe that it will change the world for the better. Unfortunately that passion is not being accurately conveyed, represented or harnessed by the Institute.

We see signs of this in our members’ confusion about our role vis-a-vis other professional organizations, comments made by our advisors in our last meeting, comments made by Glenn Harvey [1] in his report to the board, the low turnout during our last annual members meeting, and the (relatively) low posting frequency in the IAI Members mailing list.

We all want the IAI to grow. The vision will help us grow in a coherent way, and will make it clear to all of us why we must grow. It is a critical part of our growth strategy.

But don’t we have a vision already?
Our current business plan has a section titled Mission and Vision, which defines the IAI’s current mission: “The IAI is a global organization that supports individuals and organizations specializing in the design and construction of shared information environments.”

The business plan also presents a 2-year goal of making “Information Architecture” a household term, and details our positioning, strengths, and opportunities.

I suspect these statements contain the seeds of our vision, but they are not the vision per se.

What is a “vision”, after all?
It is our shared understanding of how Information Architecture — and the IAI — will change the world, and what we’re willing to do to achieve that change. In other words, the vision provides an answer to the question “Why does the IAI exist at all?”

What are the outcomes of this project?
Like the word implies, visions are nebulous things. The primary outcome of this exercise is a vision statement, which is another term that sounds more bureaucratic than it should be. (I personally prefer “elevator pitch” or “mantra”.) The vision statement captures the vision in a form that can be easily transmitted from one mind to another. It should be clear, memorable, and exciting/energizing. We should also strive to make it infectious.

WE ARE CHANGING THE WORLD — IT SHOULD BE EXCITING!

Litmus test: if at the end of the process we are squirmy about printing out the vision statement and posting it in our cubes for the world to see, we haven’t done a good job.

Litmus test: if you tell it to your sister/brother/father/etc., and receive a puzzled look, we haven’t done a good job.

Litmus test: if you tell it to a neophyte IA, and s/he doesn’t ask you where s/he can sign up, we haven’t done a good job.

(more litmus tests?)

Once we’ve captured our vision in a statement, we need to convey it to the world (or at least, to our constituency). This doesn’t mean we put up a traditional “mission/vision” page in the website — it means that we make tangible changes to what we are doing and how we are doing it. In other words, the vision should help us make decisions about which projects to pursue, how to pursue them, and how we communicate about what we’re doing. We need to plan out how we’re going to do this.

“We communicate with passion — and passion persuades.” – Anita Roddick

Found a great example of a corporate vision in today’s NY Times:

Volvo’s 2020 Vision: The Injury – Proof Car
http://www.nytimes.com/reuters/technology/tech-volvo-safety.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

Seven words! And they reveal so much: what they stand for/care about, what they believe they can achieve, the timeframe, etc. It’s a futuristic concept, yet totally grounded in the needs of their clients. I bet it’s also very energizing to Volvo designers and engineers.

Notes:
[1] Glenn Harvey was the first candidate we engaged for the role of Executive Director. He prepared a report for the board on his perceptions of the current state of the organization from the perspective of someone outside the field.

Meet Your Peers

An experiment in new media, originally published in Boxes and Arrows: A series of short (1-2 minute) video interviews with folks from the IA community. Everyone was asked the same three questions (or variations thereof):

  • What is your job title?
  • What does your day-to-day work look like?
  • Where is your career going / What does the future look like for your job?

(Alas, the post requires that you have Flash installed.)