Information Architecture

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I’ve been presenting on this topic for quite a while. It’s officially an obsession. And I’m happy to say there’s actually a lot of attention being paid to context lately, and that is a good thing. But it’s mainly from the perspective of designing for existing contexts in the world, and accommodating or responding appropriately to them.

For example, the ubicomp community has been researching this issue for many years — if computing is no longer tied to a few discrete devices and is essentially happening everywhere, in all sorts of parts of our environment, how can we make sure it responds in relevant, even considerate ways to its users?

Likewise, the mobile community has been abuzz about the context of particular devices, and how to design code and UI that shapes the experience based on the device’s form factor, and how to balance the strengths of native apps vs web apps.

And the Content Strategy practitioner community has been adroitly handling the challenges of writing for the existing audience, situational & media contexts that content may be published or syndicated into.

All of these are worthy subjects for our attention, and very complex challenges for us to figure out. I’m on board with any and all of these efforts.

But I genuinely think there’s a related, but different issue that is still a blind spot: we don’t only have to worry about designing for existing contexts, we also have to understand that we are often designing context itself.

In essence, we’ve created a new dimension, an information dimension that we walk around in simultaneously with the one where we evolved as a species; and this dimension can significantly change the meaning of our actions and interactions, with the change of a software rule, a link name or a label. There are no longer clear boundaries between “here” and “there” and reality is increasingly getting bent into disorienting shapes by this pervasive layer of language & soft-machinery.

My thinking on this central point has evolved over the last four to five years, since I first started presenting on the topic publicly. I’ve since been including a discussion of context design in almost every talk or article I’ve written.

I’m posting below my 10-minute “punchy idea” version developed for the WebVisions conference (iterations of this were given in Portland, Atlanta & New York City).

I’m also working on a book manuscript on the topic, but more on that later as it takes more shape (and as the publisher details are ironed out).

I’m really looking forward to delving into the topic with the attention and breadth it needs for the book project (with trepidation & anxiety, but mostly the positive kind ;-).

Of course, any and all suggestions, thoughts, conversations or critiques are welcome.

PS: as I was finishing up this post, John Seely Brown (whom I consider a patron saint) tweeted this bit: “context is something we constantly underplay… with today’s tools we can now create context almost as easily as content.” Synchronicity? More likely just a result of his writing soaking into my subconscious over the last 12-13 years. But quite validating to read, regardless :-)

I’m pasting the SlideShare-extracted notes below for reference.
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Here’s an excellent article written up at the ASIS&T Bulletin, by some talented and thoughtful folks in Europe (namely Andrea Resmini, Katriina Byström and Dorte Madsen). I’ll quote the end of the piece at length.

IA Growing Roots – Concerning the Journal of IA

Even if someone’s ideas about information architecture are mind-boggling, if they do not discuss them in public, embody them in some communicable artifact and get them to be influential, they are moot. This reality is the main reason behind the upcoming peer-reviewed scientific Journal of Information Architecture, due in Spring 2009. For the discipline to mature, the community needs a corpus, a defining body of knowledge, not a definition.

No doubt this approach may be seen as fuzzy, uncertain and highly controversial in places. Political, even biased. But again, some overlapping and uncertainty and controversy will always be there: Is the Eiffel Tower architecture or engineering? The answer is that it depends on whom you ask, and why you ask. And did the people who built it consider themselves doing architecture, engineering or what? The elephant is a mighty complex animal, as the blind men in the old Indian story can tell you, and when we look closer, things usually get complex.

The IA community does not need to agree on a “definition” because there is more to do. An analytical approach must be taken on the way the community sees itself, with some critical thinking and some historical perspective. The community needs to grow roots. We hope the Journal will help along the way.

I especially like the Eiffel tower example. And putting a stake in the ground saying let’s not worry about a definition, we have more work to do. This is the sort of mature thinking we need at the “discipline” level, where people can focus on the academic, theoretical framework that helps evolve what the bulk of IA folk do at the “practice” level. (Of course, that flow works in the other direction too!)


Months ago, I posted the first part of something I’d been presenting on for over a year: a simple way of thinking about social design choices. I called it the “Cultivation Equation for Social Design.” I should’ve known better, but I said at the end of that post that I’d be posting the rest soon … then proceeded to put it off for a very long time. At any rate, here’s the second part, about Motivation. The third part (about Moderation) will be forthcoming, eventually, but I make no promises on timing.
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In the closing talk for this year’s IA Summit, I had a slide that explains the various layers that make up what we use the term “Information Architect” (or “Information Architecture”) to denote. I think it’s important to be self-aware about it, because it helps us avoid a lot of wasted breath and miscommunication.

But I also stressed that I don’t think this model is only true of IA. So please, feel free to replace “IA” in the diagram with the name of any practice, profession or domain of work.

To understand this diagram, especially the part about Practice, it helps to have a basic understanding of what “practice” is and how it emerges from a community that coalesces around a shared concern. The Linkosophy deck gets into that, and my UX as Communities of Practice deck does as well, while getting into more detail about the participation/reification dynamic Wenger describes in his work.

Here’s the model: I’ll do a bit of explanation after the jump.

title and role stack (small version)

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In the “Linkosophy” talk I gave on Monday, I suggested that a helpful distinction between the practices of IxD & IA might be that IxD’s central concern is within a given context (a screen, device, room, etc) while IA’s central concern is how to connect contexts, and even which contexts are necessary to begin with (though that last bit is likely more a research/meta concern that all UX practices deal with).

But one nagging question on a lot of people’s minds seems to be “where did these come from? haven’t we been doing all this already but with older technology?”

I think we have, and we haven’t.

Both of these practices build on earlier knowledge & techniques that emerged from practices that came before. Card sorting & mental models were around before the IA community coalesced around the challenges of infospace, and people were designing devices & industrial products with their users’ interactions in mind long before anybody was in a community that called itself “Interaction Designers.” That is, there were many techniques, methods, tools and principles already in the world from earlier practice … but what happened that sparked the emergence of these newer practice identities?

The key catalyst for both, it seems to me, was the advent of digital simulation.

For IA, the digital simulation is networked “spaces” … infospace that’s made of bits and not atoms, where people cognitively experience one context’s connection to another as moving through space, even though it’s not physical. We had information, and we had physical architecture, but they weren’t the same thing … the Web (and all web-like things) changed that.

For IxD, the digital simulation is with devices. Before digital simulation, devices were just devices — anything from a deck chair to an umbrella, or a power drill to a jackhammer, were three-dimensional, real industrially made products that had real switches, real handles, real feedback. We didn’t think of them as “interactive” or having “interfaces” — because three-dimensional reality is *always* interactive, and it needs no “interface” to translate human action into non-physical effects. Designing these things is “Industrial Design” — and it’s been around for quite a while (though, frankly, only a couple of generations).

The original folks who quite consciously organized around the collective banner of “interaction designer” are digital-technology-centric designers. Not to say that they’ve never worked on anything else … but they’re leaders in that practitioner community.

Now, this is just a comment on origins … I’m not saying they’re necessarily stuck there.

But, with the digital-simulation layer soaking into everything around us, is it really so limiting to say that’s the origin and the primary milieu for these practices?

Of course, I’m not trying to build silos here — only clarify for collective self-awareness purposes. It’s helpful, I believe, to have shared understanding of the stories that make up the “history of learning and making” that forms our practices. It helps us have healthier conversations as we go forward.


In 2008 I had the distinct honor to present the closing plenary for the IA Summit in Miami, FL. Here’s the talk in its entirety. Unfortunately the podcast version was lost, so there’s no audio version, but 99% of what I had to say is in the notes.

NOTE: To make sense of this, you’ll need to read the notes in full-screen mode. (Or download the 6 MB PDF version.)

(Thanks to David Fiorito for compressing it down from its formerly gigantic size!)

Giving this talk at the IA Summit was humbling and a blast; I’m so grateful for the positive response, and the patience with these still-forming ideas.

If you’re after some resources on Communities of Practice and the like, see the post about the previous year’s presentation which has lots of meaty links and references.

IASummit 2008

Meet me at the IA Summit
Some very nice and well-meaning people have asked me to speak as the closing plenary at the IASummit conference this year, in Miami.

This is, as anyone who has been asked to do such a thing will tell you, a mixed blessing.

But I’m slogging through my insanely huge bucket of random thoughts from the last twelve months to surface the stuff that will, I dearly hope, be of interest and value to the crowd. Or, at the very least, keep their hungover cranial contents entertained long enough to stick around for Five-Minute Madness.

“Linkosophy” is a homely title. But it’s a hell of a lot catchier than “Information Architecture’s Role in the UX Context: What Got It Here, What It’s About, and Where It Might Be Headed.” Or some such claptrap.

Here’s the description and a link:

Closing Plenary: Linkosophy
Monday April 14 2008, 3:00 – 4:00PM

At times, especially in comparison to the industrial and academic disciplines of previous generations, the User Experience family of practices can feel terribly disorganized: so little clarity on roles and responsibilities, so much dithering over semantics and orthodoxy. And in the midst of all this, IA has struggled to explain itself as a practice and a domain of expertise.

But guess what? It turns out all of this is perfectly natural.

To explain why, we’ll use IA as an example to learn about how communities of practice work and why they come to be. Then we’ll dig deeper into describing the “domain” of Information Architecture, and explore the exciting implications for the future of this practice and its role within the bigger picture of User Experience Design.

In addition, I’ve been dragooned (but in a nice way … I just like saying “dragooned”) to participate in a panel about “Presence, identity, and attention in social web architecture” along with Christian Crumlish, Christina Wodtke, and Gene Smith, three people who know a heck of a lot more about this than I do. Normally when people ask me to talk about this topic, I crib stuff from slides those three have already written! Now I have to come up with my own junk. (Leisa Reichelt is another excellent thinker on this “presence” stuff, btw. And since she’s not going to be there, maybe I’ll just crib *her* stuff? heh… just kidding, Leisa. Really.)

Seriously, it should be a fascinating panel — we’ve been discussing it on a mailing list Christian set up, so there should be some sense that we actually prepared for it.

There are some insightful comments on how moderation architectures affect the emergent character of social platforms in Chris Wilson’s article on Slate:
Digg, Wikipedia, and the myth of Web 2.0 democracy.

He explains how the rules structures of Wikipedia and Digg have resulted (ironically) in highly centralized power structures and territorialism. A quote:

While both sites effectively function as oligarchies, they are still democratic in one important sense. Digg and Wikipedia’s elite users aren’t chosen by a corporate board of directors or by divine right. They’re the people who participate the most. Despite the fairy tales about the participatory culture of Web 2.0, direct democracy isn’t feasible at the scale on which these sites operate. Still, it’s curious to note that these sites seem to have the hierarchical structure of the old-guard institutions they’ve sought to supplant.

He goes on to explain how Slashdot’s moderator-selection rules help to keep this top-heavy effect from happening, by making moderator status a bit easier to acquire, at more levels of involvement, while still keeping enough top-down oversight to keep consistent quality levels high.

So, my article is up… thanks to all the excellent editors who pushed me to finish the dang thing over the last seven months. Procrastination is a fine art, my friends.

Personas and the Role of Design Documentation – Boxes and Arrows

Here’s a nugget:

A persona document can be very useful for design—and for some teams even essential. But it’s only an explicit, surface record of a shared understanding based on primary experience. It’s not the persona itself, and doesn’t come close to taking the place of the original experience that spawned it.

Without that understanding, the deliverables are just documents, empty husks. Taken alone, they may fulfill a deadline, but they don’t feed the imagination.

Edited to Add:

Already I’m getting some great feedback, and I’m realizing that I may not have made things quite clear enough in the article.

The article is meant as a corrective statement, to a degree. I focus so strongly on what I see as the *first* priority of methods and documentation in design work—shared artifacts for the design process, because I think this has gotten lost in the conventional wisdom of “documents for stakeholders.” So, I amped up my point in the other direction, trying to drag the pendulum more toward the center.

I was careful to point out that stakeholder communication is also, of course, a very important goal. But it is a SEPARATE goal. It may even require creating separate deliverables to achieve!

We too often get caught up in using documentation as a tool for convincing other people, rather than tools for collaborative design among the practitioners. I may have overstated my case, though, and, alas, obscured these caveats I scattered throughout.

In short: I wanted to emphasize that personas are first and foremost the act of empathetic imagination for design; and I wanted to emphasize that all design documentation is first and foremost an artifact/tool for collaborative reflection, shared understanding and iteration. As long as we remember these things, we can then go on to make all the persona descriptions and slick stakeholder deliverables we want and need to get the rest of the job done.

Maybe I should’ve used that “in short” statement in the article? But, I guess if I’d kept revising, it’d have taken me another six months!

Please do keep the feedback coming, though. Mostly, I’m wanting to spark conversations like these!

Note: This is something I had embedded in a few very long presentations from last year, and I’m realizing it would probably be useful (to me if nobody else) to elaborate on it as its own topic. Here’s the first part.

social equation

There’s a lot of writing and thinking happening around the best approaches to designing platforms for social activity. I certainly haven’t read it all, and it keeps being added to every day. But from what I have read, and from the experiences I’ve had with social design factors, I distilled the basics down to a simple equation. “Cultivation equals Motivation divided by Moderation.” It sounds like a no-brainer, to those of us who’ve been thinking about this stuff for a while. For me, though, it helps keep focus on the three most important elements to consider with any social design undertaking.


Cultivation requires that we recalibrate the approaches we’ve inherited from traditional top-down ideas of social management & design. In other words, it’s cultivation rather than dictation. To ‘cultivate’ something implies that there is an existing culture — some organic, emergent, collective entity — that exists regardless of our intrusion, with its own natural rhythms and patterns.

Communities Happen

How do we help a community maintain its health, value and effectiveness for the individuals involved in it? We certainly don’t start re-defining it and prescribing (or pre-scripting) every process and action. Rather than dictating the content of the culture’s behavior, we create and manage the right conditions for the community to improve itself on its own terms. This is much more like gardening than managing in the traditional sense.

You can’t create a community by fiat. You can’t legislate or force participation — then all you get is a process, not social interaction. Social interaction may take place under the surface, but that’s in spite of your central planning, not because of it. Communities happen in an emergent way, on their own.

Mistaking the Ant-Hill for the Colony

It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that the software for an online community actually is, in some way, the community itself — that the intentionally designed technology “network” is the social network. But these technological tools are a medium for the thing, not the thing itself. It’s like mistaking the ant hill for the ant colony. We often point at ant hills and say “there’s an ant colony” but the social behaviors of the ants exist whether they happen in that pile of earth or another.

Social software platforms tap into conversations that already exist in some form or another. At best they can enable and amplify those conversations and help them broaden outside of their original confines, even redefine themselves in some way. Of course, many of the connections people make on these platforms may never have happened without the software, but there had to be the propensity for those connections to happen to begin with.

Designing for social activity, then, is about creating infrastructure that helps communities and social patterns behave according to their own natures. Even the social character of the network isn’t created by the software. Rather, the platform’s architecture encourages only certain kinds of extant networking behaviors to thrive.

Take, for instance, LinkedIn vs MySpace. LinkedIn didn’t create the behavior of calm, professional networking interactions, introductions and linking between peers. That kind of behavior was going on long before LinkedIn launched. But its architecture is such that it allows and encourages only that kind of social interaction to take root. MySpace, on the other hand, is much more open architecturally; linking is much more informal, and self-expression is almost completely unfettered. The nature of the MySpace platform, however, essentially guarantees that few will want to use it for the sober, corporate-style networking that happens on LinkedIn. (Lots of professional work goes on in MySpace, of course, but mainly in the creative & performing arts space, where self-expression and unique identity cues are de facto requirements.)

So the character of the platform’s architecture — its rules and structures — determine the character of social behavior that your platform is most likely to attract and support. But once you’ve done that, then how do you cultivate it?


One important factor is something you can’t create artificially: the cultivators have to be invested in the community they’re cultivating. This cannot be faked. There are too many levels of tacit understanding — gut-level feel — necessary for understanding the nuances of a particular culture involved to do otherwise. You have to be willing to get your hands dirty, just like in a garden. Communities are fine with having decisions and rule-creation happening from some top-down component (which we’ll talk about in a minute) but only if they perceive the authority as having an authentic identity within the community, and that any design changes or “improvements” to the platform are coming from shared values.

Example: one reason for Facebook’s public-relations troubles of late is that a number of the design decisions its creator has made have come across as being less about cultivating the community than lining the pockets of investors. Privacy advocates and regular users revolted, and forced Facebook to adjust their course.

Another example: MySpace managed to give new users the impression that the people running the site were just “one of them” by creating the ubiquitous persona of “Tom.” Tom is a real person, one of the co-founders of the platform, who has a profile, and who “welcomes” you to the network when you join. He’s the voice for announcements and such that come from those who created and maintain MySpace. Tom is real, to a point — recently, it was discovered that Tom’s age and information have been tweaked to make him seem more in line with the service’s target demographic. It’s arguable that by the time this disillusioning revelation occurred, MySpace had grown to enough critical mass that it didn’t matter. I suspect, though, that the Tom avatar still serves its purpose for millions of users who either don’t know about the news, or think of him more as the Ronald McDonald of the brand — a friendly face that gives the brand some personality, even if they don’t care if it’s a real person.

If you’re cultivating from an authentic stance, and you understand that your role isn’t dictator, then it’s a matter of executing cultivation by striking the right balance between Motivation and Moderation.

Next up … Motivation & Moderation. Stay tuned.

There’s been a lot of talk over the last couple of years about a collective Eureka moment where we’ve all come to realize that the Internet, the Web, and designing User Experiences for those platforms, is “really about People … not products and information.”

I think it’s great that more folks are coming to this realization.

But in the same breath, some of these folks will then say that Information Architecture is hopelessly out of touch with this reality … that IA is ‘dead’ or that there’s no such thing as an information architecture, since it’s all user-driven nowadays. I’m not going to point to specific instances, because I’m not posting this to start more flame wars … just to finally state something I wish I’d blogged over a year ago.

What these (I’m sure well-meaning) people don’t seem to grasp is that the IA community has been focused on social infrastructures for a very long time. Some of the most successful writing and design has come from members of this practitioner community — witness Epinions, Slideshare, and PublicSquare just to name a few platforms. Members of this community have published books and blogs at the forefront of social design thinking.

In fact, in the much-maligned “Manifesto” the IAI posted back in 2002, there was this language:

* One goal of information architecture is to shape information into an environment that allows users to create, manage and share its very substance in a framework that provides semantic relevance.
* Another goal of information architecture is to shape the environment to enable users to better communicate, collaborate and experience one another.
* The latter goal is more fundamental than the former: information exists only in communities of meaning. Without other people, information no longer has context, and no longer informs.

I’ll take the blame for some of the corny language in that document — but hey, it was a manifesto for crying out loud … a bit of purple prose is par for the course.

The point is, this has always been part of our community’s focus. If people don’t realize that, they’ve not been paying attention.

There. It feels good to get things off one’s chest, no? :-) Ok… carry on.

Kevin Kelly’s article Bottom Up is Not Enough is making the rounds, and rightly so. Here’s a snippet:

Here’s how I sum it up: The bottom-up hive mind will always take us much further than even seems possible. It keeps surprising us in this regard. Given enough time, dumb things can be smarter than we think.

At that same time, the bottom-up hive mind will never take us to our end goal. We are too impatient. So we add design and top down control to get where we want to go.

He does speak to “how” we do that, but the word for me is “recalibrate” — we need to recalibrate the apparatuses we use for managing & governing collective behavior. It’s all about cultivation, not dictation.

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