People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.
— Steve Jobs
Strategy calls for making choices. That means saying “yes” to some things and “no” to others. The latter is the harder of the two.
Leaders often face options that seem equally compelling but are mutually exclusive; choosing one means forgoing the other. Economists talk about the opportunity cost of a decision: the potential value we give up when we choose one option over another. Let’s say you have enough budget to invest in one of two promising projects. The opportunity cost of choosing project A is whatever value project B would’ve generated. If it turns out B’s value would’ve been higher than A’s, you made a poor choice.
How do you know?
Ultimately information architecture is about making distinctions; dividing things into categories. To do this effectively, designers need to take a comprehensive approach to understanding the problem space. This includes not just an organization’s content (including its products and services) and its customers, but also the context it’s operating in: the language people use to describe it, what its competitors are up to, market trends, and more.
These are strategic concerns. Developing a successful business strategy requires more than a deep commitment to the purpose of the enterprise and a firm belief in its ability to succeed; it also requires seeing clearly at the highest levels. Things that are clear in retrospect often emerge from ambiguous beginnings. Information architects are experts at disentangling the most complex of these messes, allowing organizations to see their current context more clearly.
Strategy also calls for envisioning possibilities. As with other design disciplines, IA makes the possible tangible. Specifically, IA makes tangible integrated sets of language structures and processes that influence how people perceive a particular part of the business. This can result in a navigation system for a complex website, but it can also result in a new structure for the company’s sales organization or a new approach to dealing with customer support. Information architecture operates at a more abstract level than other design disciplines, so its output is more broadly applicable.
Yes, IA is often in service to creating information environments that are easier to use; of making information easier to find and understand. But there is more to it than this. The process of understanding the problem space — and of establishing the distinctions that will make the environment coherent — forces strategic product conversations that are often overlooked, especially in fast-moving business contexts. And the act of modeling the information environment is often a powerful catalyst for clarifying strategy at the level of products and for the organization as a whole.