Information Architecture Expert Panel – Part One

The Structure of Complexity

With the 2020 events for World IA Day (est. 2012) and the IA Conference (est. as IA Summit in 2000) approaching, the team here at Boxes and Arrows is taking this opportunity to highlight the importance of Information Architecture (IA). We reached out to some pillars of the IA community to ask them for their thoughts on, where information architecture is today, and where it’s going. Their response was so enthusiastic that we will be breaking this into multiple posts.

My thanks to the generosity of Abby Covert, Peter Morville, Jorge Arango, Donna Spencer, Madonnalisa Chan, Dan Klyn, Andy Fitzgerald, Grace Lau, Dan Brown, Andrew Hinton, Lou Rosenfeld, and Boxes and Arrows patron saint, Christina Wodtke. The time and insights they provided to bring this post together are very appreciated.

“IA is all around us and is mostly practiced by people who don’t even know they are doing it.”

– Abby Covert

If you’re unfamiliar with IA, Abby Covert, information architect, teacher, and author of How to Make Sense of Any Mess: Information Architecture for Everybody, has a straightforward description of it:

“Information architecture is the way we arrange the parts of something to make sense as a whole, whether that be arranging screens in a mobile application or arranging various pieces of signage at a baseball stadium. IA involves the careful consideration of the language you use and the structures you enable for users to understand something. So IA is all around us and is mostly practiced by people who don’t even know they are doing it.”

One of the recurring themes in the answers across the board was summed up nicely by Jorge Arango, information architect, professor, and author of Living in Information: Responsible Design for Digital Places, and co-author of Information Architecture for the Web and Beyond.

Jorge believes that “today’s designers need to know about information architecture because they will spend critical parts of their lives in information environments; that’s where they’ll work, learn, shop, gossip, etc. Alas, many designers are drawn to superficial aspects of the work — how products and services ‘look and feel’ – where they have less agency in changing systemic behavior.” He cites that changing this reality is one of the reasons he teaches information architecture. 

Abby also approached the topic from a teaching lens. She believes that “emerging designers are being handed a messy world fraught with complexity and systemic issues to design their way through and around.” And in regards to her teaching experience, she notes that “young designers need bravery and clear tools and methods to work through the overwhelming complexity of designing responsibly in today’s rapidly changing world. Information Architecture provides those tools and methods.”

“We are drowning in information, a lot of it poor-quality, a lot of it created just for SEO, and some amount of it fake.”

– Donna Spencer

Donna Spencer, freelancer and author of A Practical Guide to Information Architecture, also emphasized the amount and quality of information we’re surrounded by: She states that “we are drowning in information, a lot of it poor-quality, a lot of it created just for SEO, and some amount of it fake. IA has always been about creating meaning, helping people learn and be better informed, letting them make good decisions. Good IA can help that all be easier.”

Thoughts around information overload were echoed by information architect and digital experience designer, Andy Fitzgerald: “We currently create and retain information at a greater rate than at any point in human history. The amount of data everyday people have access to has gotten to the point that in order to find, use, and make sense of these resources, we need automated help from algorithms that can index, aggregate, and infer from this huge collection. This means that we have systems built on systems, many of which we don’t understand because they result from machines “learning” on their own. While I suspect there’s no getting away from turning some problems over to algorithms (big data is the poster child here), it is vitally important that the foundational structures of understanding encoded in language are intentional, transparent, and responsible.”

When asked why IA is so important now, Andrew Hinton, design leader and author of Understanding Context, says that “We have fundamentally altered the human environment with digital technology, which has saturated our everyday surroundings with hidden mechanisms and meanings – whether we’re talking Facebook or the healthcare system or Uber, or ‘smart homes’. So, when designing something new for people, it’s become more important than ever to challenge ourselves about each part of what we design and how it relates to all the other parts of our environment. And, to me that means asking central questions of information architecture practice: what is this particular thing, how does it relate to other things, and what kind of place are we making or altering with those things and relationships?”

“Information overload doesn’t just happen to people: information is overloading our institutions.”

– Dan Brown

And the urgency of the need for clearly architected information was echoed in a very visceral way by Dan Brown, founder and principal at EightShapes design consultancy, author, and creator of the Information Architecture Lenses game:

“We are in an avalanche of information now. I mean, right in the middle of it. We are well past the tipping point — the transition from “oh those rocks look so pretty” to “oh those rocks are coming to get me” was instantaneous. And it’s killing us… It’s killing the institutions that we’ve spent centuries building and refining. Information overload doesn’t just happen to people: information is overloading our institutions.”

Dan goes on to propose that the solutions we need aren’t for the information architects. He says that “ maybe we don’t need something for the professionals so much as we need tools for the lay-folk, those who deal with just as much information as anyone else, who need a way to own the information, instead of being owned by those who control it.”

“IA is, to a large degree, structural. It maps out a container for what a product or service can be.”

– Lou Rosenfeld

In all of the communication with these thought leaders of design, there is a clear sense that Information Architecture is a vital skill that designers for the most part, are overlooking the importance of. Lou Rosenfeld, publisher and founder of Rosenfeld Media, and co-author of Information Architecture for the Web and Beyond, believes that considering design without considering IA is like “talking about the circulatory system in absence of the whole body. IA is, to a large degree, structural. It maps out a container for what a product or service can be. It gives the other design disciplines a skeleton upon which to hang what they do. It’s omnipresent.” 

And Lou is concerned that, “many designers and product owners only worry about the cosmetic aspects of experiences, then complain when experiences are bad. We don’t take a longer term view of how experiences need to be designed. We aren’t willing to invest beyond the things that are cosmetic.” To illustrate his meaning further, he notes that a “good example is voice design. Try to do that without any sense of syntax. You might get lucky and intuit things, but most people can’t pull that off consistently. You have to have a sense of grammar, syntax, the structure of a conversation. It’s the same thing with the structure of any product or service. I’m kind of riled up with our inability to think in the long term. And that’s not a problem with IA, that’s a problem with people. We get distracted by the shiny things.”

The responses from some of the thought leaders of IA call out a clear message: We are not doing enough and not understanding enough about the nature of information to give the world better ways of dealing with it. 

In order to get a better grasp on what we are doing right or wrong, in our next post in this series focusing on IA, we will tackle a topic that many of our respondents mentioned: the ethical responsibilities of Information Architecture.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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