2.4. Practicing Information Architecture in the Real World
Users. Content. Context. You'll hear these three words again and again throughout this book. They form the basis of our model for practicing effective information architecture design. Underlying this model is a recognition that you can't design useful information architectures in a vacuum. An architect can't huddle in a dark room with a bunch of content, organize it, and emerge with a grand solution. It simply won't hold up against the light of day.
Web sites and intranets are not lifeless, static constructs. Rather, there is a dynamic, organic nature to both the information systems and the broader environments in which they exist. This is not the old world of yellowing cards in a library card catalog. We're talking complex, adaptive systems with emergent qualities. We're talking rich streams of information flowing within and beyond the borders of departments, business units, institutions, and countries. We're talking messiness and mistakes, trial and error, survival of the fittest.
We use the concept of an "information ecology"[§] composed of users, content, and context to address the complex dependencies that exist. And we draw upon our trusty Venn diagram (see Figure 2-2) to help people visualize and understand these relationships. The three circles illustrate the interdependent nature of users, content, and context within a complex, adaptive information ecology.
Figure 2-2. The infamous three circles of information architecture
In short, we need to understand the business goals behind the web site and the resources available for design and implementation. We need to be aware of the nature and volume of content that exists today and how that might change a year from now. And we must learn about the needs and information-seeking behaviors of our major audiences. Good information architecture design is informed by all three areas.
Is this an oversimplified view of reality? Yes. Is it still useful? Absolutely. We've been using this model for over 10 years. It's held up well in all sorts of environments, from global web sites of Fortune 100 corporations to standalone intranet applications within small nonprofits. More importantly, we find these three circles incredibly helpful whenever we're confronted by a difficult question. After mouthing the trusty phrase "It depends"as all smart information architects dowe develop our answer by deconstructing the question into three parts that coincide with our three circles. For example, when asked what are the most important qualities that an information architect should have, the answer becomes quite simple: some knowledge of users and their needs (which might come from exposure to humancomputer interaction and a variety of other fields), content (think technical communication and journalism), and context (read a book on organizational psychology).
The three circles help with other tough questions, too, such as:
The answer to each starts with a balance among the three areas: users, content, and context.
Should technology have its own circle? Maybe. But we find that technology usually gets too much attentionand it would look silly to add a fourth circle.
Incidentally, we think it's important for information architects to have a good sense of humor. Perhaps you've already figured this out. The work we do involves high levels of abstraction, ambiguity, and occasionally absurdity, and to some degree we're all still making it up as we go along. A good information architect knows how to get the work done while having some fun along the way.
If there's one thing that many years of information architecture consulting has taught us, it's that every situation is unique. We don't just mean that web sites are different from intranets or that extranets should vary by industry. We mean that, like fingerprints and snowflakes, every information ecology is unique.
The DaimlerChrysler intranet is vastly different from that of Ford or GM. Fidelity, Vanguard, Schwab, and Etrade have each created unique online financial-service experiences. Despite all the copycatting, benchmarking, and definitions of industry best practices that have surged throughout the business world in recent years, each of these information systems has emerged as quite distinctive.
That's where our model comes in handy. It's an excellent tool for learning about the specific needs and opportunities presented by a particular web site or intranet. Let's take a look at how each of our three circles contributes to the emergence of a totally unique information ecology.
All web sites and intranets exist within a particular business or organizational context. Whether explicit or implicit, each organization has a mission, goals, strategy, staff, processes and procedures, physical and technology infrastructure, budget, and culture. This collective mix of capabilities, aspirations, and resources is unique to each organization.
Does it then follow that the information architecture of each organization must be unique? After all, companies buy generic office furniture. They invest in standard technology platforms. They even outsource important activities to vendors that service their competitors.
Still, the answer is a resounding yes. Information architectures must be uniquely matched to their contexts. The vocabulary and structure of your web site and your intranet is a major component of the evolving conversation between your business and your customers and employees. It influences how they think about your products and services. It tells them what to expect from you in the future. It invites or limits interaction between customers and employees. Your information architecture provides perhaps the most tangible snapshot of your organization's mission, vision, values, strategy, and culture. Do you really want that snapshot to look like that of your competitor?
As we'll explain later in more detail, the key to success is understanding and alignment. First, you need to understand the business context. What makes it unique? Where is the business today and where does it want to be tomorrow? In many cases, you're dealing with tacit knowledge. It's not written down anywhere; it's in people's heads and has never been put into words. We'll discuss a variety of methods for extracting and organizing this understanding of context. Then, you need to find ways to align the information architecture with the goals, strategy, and culture of the business. We'll discuss the approaches and tools that enable this custom configuration.
We define " content" very broadly to include the documents, applications, services, schema, and metadata that people need to use or find on your site. To employ a technical term, it's the stuff that makes up your site. Our library backgrounds will be evident here in our bias toward textual information, and that's not such a bad thing, given the heavily textual nature of many web sites and intranets. Among other things, the Web is a wonderful communication tool, and communication is built upon words and sentences trying to convey meaning. Of course, we also recognize the Web as a tool for tasks and transactions, a flexible technology platform that supports buying and selling, calculating and configuring, sorting and simulating. But even the most task-oriented e-commerce web site has "content" that customers must be able to find.
As you survey content across a variety of sites, the following facets bubble to the surface as distinguishing factors of each information ecology.
All of these dimensions make for a unique mix of content and applications, which in turn suggests the need for a customized information architecture.
When we worked on the first corporate web site for Borders Books & Music, back in the mid-90s before Amazon became a household name, we learned a lot about how customer research and analysis was applied towards the design and architecture of physical bookstores.
Borders had a clear understanding of how the demographics, aesthetic preferences, and purchasing behaviors of their customers differed from those of Barnes & Noble. It is no mistake that the physical layout and the selection of books differ significantly between these two stores, even within the same town. They are different by design. And that difference is built upon an understanding of their unique customer or market segments.
Differences in customer preferences and behaviors within the physical world translate into different information needs and information-seeking behaviors in the context of web sites and intranets. For example, senior executives may need to find a few good documents on a particular topic very quickly. Research analysts may need to find all the relevant documents and may be willing to spend several hours on the hunt. Managers may have a high level of industry knowledge but low navigation and searching proficiency. Teenagers may be new to the subject area but really know how to handle a search engine.
Do you know who's using your web site? Do you know how they're using it? And perhaps most importantly, do you know what information they want from your site? These are not questions you can answer in brainstorming meetings or focus groups. As our friend and fellow information architect Chris Farnum likes to say, you need to get out there in the real world and study your "users in the mist."