Information Architecture, Systems, and Stories

Since 2011, I have been a regular attendee and sometimes speaker at the IA Conference (formerly known as the IA Summit). Information architecture and content strategy are innate disciplines for me. My brain naturally organizes things. It is also ever curious about why things are the way they are and jumps pretty quickly to a way things could be.

There are some intellectual giants who share their ideas at this conference. There are people who share what they've been working on so that others might take an idea and run with it. And there are people who absorb it all and geek-out in conversations with like-minded people.

As for me, I straddle these three areas over the course of the conference. And then incorporate them into my practice so my clients can benefit from new ideas. This year I want to share the takeaways with a broader audience. (Also, you should totally sign up for emails about the 2020 conference so you can attend or even speak!)

Five themes emerged for me out of IAC19:

  • Information architecture (IA) - it's a discipline and the people who do it aren't all information architects
  • Systems - we do not operate in a vacuum, neither do the things we make
  • Experience - people have an experience with our products and websites; whether its a good one or not depends largely on the quality, organization, and structure of the information
  • Listen - we need to do more of this
  • Stories - tell them, hear them, rewrite them

More information architecture

Lou Rosenfeld, the co-author of Information Architecture for the World Wide Web (Information Architecture for the Web and Beyond in its 4th Edition), made the distinction between the discipline of information architecture and information architects. There are plenty of people who architect information but they are not all information architects.

IA is more than just menus on a website. Information architecture as a discipline makes information findable and understandable. With more information than ever before, it is more urgent than ever that we deliberately consider the information we produce, how we classify it, and how it gets organized.

Several talks addressed the idea of navigation being more than just menus. Navigate is a verb (Andrew Hinton, in What We Talk About When We Talk About Navigation). Menus are only one way people explore information (Anita Cheng, in Using Navigation to Reframe What's Possible).

Now that you know this is a discipline, you can seek out people who practice it to help you make sense of your information so that it is more findable and usable for the people who need it. This is one of our main tenets.

Pay attention to systems

Systems thinking breaks things down into their component parts to understand them. All your properties, your tools, your information, your people, your technology, and your values operate in an ecosystem. You must consider how each thing fits into the bigger whole to get better outcomes.

When you consider the system, you start to see opportunities to connect things that didn't seem related. That leads to finding efficiency in processes and engagement with the people who benefit from what you create.

Dan Klyn's new Ontology, Topography, Choreography (OTC) model has choreography as the generator of a system. Sometimes the way you choreograph your system means leaving things out. And that means asking lots of questions. We must remember that we operate in a three-dimensional world. Just because something is on a screen doesn't mean it's two-dimensional.

Consider the experience

The things we produce in the systems we create have an experience. It can be a bad one. It can be a good one. Or it can do great harm. Remember that people – humans – are having an experience with your product in context with the rest of their life. Your values seep into the experience you deliver. We can no longer ignore that bias results from the lack of inclusion and diversity in the design process or in the teams designing things.

Digital has the opportunity to create connectedness. This was the promise of the world wide web in 1989. Yet too often things are created in isolation and with little thought given to who will experience them and what affect it has on them. Ask yourself: Are we delivering the experience our audience expects? If not, time for some IA, content strategy, and deliberate design work.

Listen to the people you serve

Listen to the people who are experiencing your products and information. This does not mean that you should ask your audience what they want on your website. Instead, you need to uncover the problems they have. Figure out the intent of and meaning behind a click. You can do this through testing and other types of user research.

We also need to listen for verbs more. What does someone want to do? The content you create needs to support the tasks and actions people want to take. The content doesn't exist to serve your organization, it's exists to serve the people you seek to serve. Unless you are creating art or fiction, you need to start with what people want not what you want to say.

Tell stories

This can get personal - for us, our teams, and our audiences. Donna Lichaw, author of The User's Journey: Storymapping Products That People Love, has used her design background to help individuals find their own story. What do you want to do, achieve, or change. (See, verbs!)

As you think about your story, think too about your audience as the hero of the story you tell about your organization, your product, your service, your government agency. That person is a character, a hero, an archetype. What does he or she want most? Why do they want it so much? Rather than a series of links, how can we use story – the journey people are taking – to organize our content? (From Sara Hayden and Eric Chuk's Telltale techniques: Applying storytelling to enhance information architecture and UX)

Stories help you get to truth, which Lou views us was Facts + Understanding. By listening, considering the experience, and thinking in systems, we can get closer to the truth. Stay away from stories we make up – about ourselves and about our audience. Stories also help us connect with each other.

The year ahead

Donna's opening talk about the stories we tell ourselves was a perfect invitation for me, personally. As I listened, and shared, and processed what I heard, I am more committed than ever to helping people and organizations tell their stories and serve people who have real problems. If I'm a natural IA, I'm also a natural problem solver, as are all the people who work for Tanzen.

If you want to find a new way to solve problems and tell your organization's story, let's talk. Let's find a way to architect your information, people, processes, and systems.