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Information Architecture and the Sofa

Imagine you just moved into a new apartment. You have an amazing sofa and a big screen TV. You’ve envisioned exactly how you’re going to set up your living room. It will be awesome. Your friends and family will come over and be in awe at the beautiful way you’ve designed your new space.

But what happens next is anything but. You lug your sofa up 3 flights of stairs only to find it’s 6 inches too long for the space you planned and covers the sliding glass door to your patio.

You set up your TV above the fireplace only to find the cable and electrical plugins are located 10 feet away. You must run a length of unsightly cords across the room.

And where is that bookshelf going to go? There isn’t any space created for it. I guess it’s going to have to go to your crazy cousin who doesn’t even own a vehicle and needs you to deliver it. We’ve all been there.

red-sofa

Your UX designer may have experienced the same thing in a digital space with your information architecture.

You laid out the infrastructure of the site beautifully, but what they’re left to design around really stretches their creativity to its outer limits.

Information Architecture is not web design, in the same way architecture is not interior design. But they are fundamentally tied together.

Architects (information or otherwise) need to consider the role the designer plays in the final product. We need to understand what new technology the UX designer might want to employ or new design trend they may follow.

We need to work hand in hand with our designer to understand the vision of the final product. There will be compromise. You may get that new navigation menu you wanted, but have to concede the placement of certain buttons. Your designer is important in the process. They are not just there to slap color on you architecture. Your collaboration is integral to the final user experience.

Great architecture with horrible design is just as bad as confusing architecture beautifully designed.

The same is with IA. We may not pick the “wallpaper” or “furniture”, but we need to build a system with that arrangement in mind.

Another thing to keep in mind is which spaces rely on the placement of other spaces. A sofa placed perpendicular to the TV will not create a great user experience when binge watching Doctor Who. Or a TV placed near a window may create a glare that makes daytime TV watching out of the question (sorry, no more Judge Judy).

Once you think you’ve considered every possibility of sofa/TV combination and architected accordingly, you may think you’re done. But have you considered A/B testing post-architecture? What if during user testing you find out the acoustics in the room actually make the sofa/TV arrangement better in a different location? Does your architecture allow for such deviation?

These are important question every IA should be asking themselves before finalizing the architecture. It’s not as easy to re-architect your site as it is to redesign it.

Theory and Practice of Information Architecture

“Theory pursued in the absence of a dialogue with practice, turns inward on itself leading to the ever circular systems of abstractions that lead only to other abstractions. Practice without an inquiry into theory becomes a purely commercial activity where the only value that gets assessed is value to the marketplace.”

-Jesse James Garrett (IA Summit 2016)

Full video here

Understanding Content and Context

Contexnt

If you’ve spent anytime researching or working with Information Architecture (IA), you have certainly come across this venn diagram.

content-context-venn

It shows that IA is at the convergence of content, context and the user. Rosenfeld and Morville referred to this as the “information ecology”.

Context is the business goals, funding, politics, culture, technology, resources and constraints

Content is documents, signage and data types or the structure of things

User is the audience, customer or agent

Although this diagram has been useful for many years to help show 3 important factors of good IA, it falls short in a few areas.

Because of this, we need to change how we look at this diagram.

First, I propose “understanding”, not Information Architecture, is at the convergence of user, content and context. Instead of being at the center, Information Architects are the unseen force arranging the meeting of these areas.

Although there are 3 areas influencing IA, all we really have control over is 1/3 of the venn diagram, the content. Context and user are predefined variables outside of our control. As we manipulate the content circle we increase, or decrease, the overlap of content and context and user, thus increasing, or decreasing, understanding. This means we need to thoroughly understand the relationship between user and context, prior to working on forming the content of our site and/or app.

Secondly, I believe the definition of context is partially, if not completely, wrong. Context is not the business goals or resources. Context is actually made up of 4 basic parts: the environment, culture, psychology and physiology of the user at the time of the interaction with “stuff and things”. Or as Andrew Hinton puts it in his book, Understanding Context, context is the “where” and “who” of the user.

The 4 basic parts of Context:

Environment: the surrounding climate, location and artifacts where an interaction is taking place (i.e. outside, inside, summer, fall, traffic, London). The interactions our users have with our systems is different when they are stuck in traffic in a big city versus when they are at home on the couch. A users information need is different in these 2 environments.

Culture: a users core belief systems established through nature and nurture (i.e. religious or political beliefs, sexual preference, gender identity, nationality). Language will have different semantics on site created for the African trophy hunters compared to GLAAD.org. Understanding your users core beliefs is key to not only serving them better, but to prevent alienating them with “harmless” syntax.

Psychology: a users mindset or emotions at the time of the interaction (i.e. happy, angry, distracted, frustrated). A users mindset when sitting down to binge watch their favorite TV shows on Netflix is different than when going to their banks website to find out why their paycheck wasn’t deposited and caused their mortgage payment to bounce. The users tolerance of poor navigation or confusing interactions is different because of their psychological state.

Physiology: the users actual body state (i.e. blind, deaf, left handed, tall, fat). The buttons and colors on an app designed for children may need to be designed differently than for professional sumo wrestlers. Button interactions may be more difficult for people with larger hands and will need be designed with this in mind. Blind users may need different queues instead of the normal audio queues after a button is pressed or an action took place.

Because of the above definitions, I believe that the user and context circles are even more “intertwingled” than the original venn diagram illustrates – even to the point of complete overlapping. Thus, we can simplify the venn diagram to merge user and context together into one circle.

content-context-venn2

In the end what you are left with is that understanding is at the intersection of context and content. Our job as information architects is to organize the meeting of content and context. The closer we move them together, the greater the understanding for the user.

content-context-venn3

This new arrangement is important to understanding the role of IA in creating understanding. If we don’t know the beginning point of context, then how do we know if we should move the content circle right, left, up or down. To fully understand context, you must understand how environment, culture, psychology and physiology inform the user behavior. Mind you, this is no easy task, but critical.

Because context plays such a critical role in understanding, Information Architects must wear several hats to bring about this understanding. We must be anthropologists, psychologists and content specialists. We must study human behavior within these contexts in order to inform our work.

Instead of using a clichéd venn diagram to describe our work, I propose a new word: Contexnt or maybe Contenxt. Okay. I’m still working on it. Instead, below is a visual representation of this ideal.

content-context-understanding

When content and context completely overlap we will bring about great understanding and great user experiences.

5 Fundamentals of Information Architecture

IA is not voodoo, smoke or mirrors. It is a real science and vital to creating the best, most engaging user experience your customers need and deserve. Without IA your customers will get lost in the navigation or confused in the meaning or worse, just leave and never come back.

So it’s important not only for IAs, but for those who work with IAs, to understand what it is they do and why it’s essential.

1. Information is Not Data

While it might seem like information architecture is arranging the data to help a user, this is way too simple an explanation. Information is the connection between data and user. How does the arrangement of the data, within a given context, brings about understanding of the system(s) to the user? This is the question an information architect asks themselves on a daily bases.Continue Reading →

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