Time, space and information architecture

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Creative Director of UX Architecture at BBC, Dan Ramsden, shares his thoughts on information architecture, and how it relates to time and space before his presentation at UX New Zealand 2016. 

Information architects create places made out of information, so thinking spatially has always been a big part of what we do. But IA isn’t just about space. IAs should always be thinking about the experiences that their spaces contain. Experiences happen in time. I’ve spent some time thinking about time and space, so that I can be a better information architect.

What do you mean by IA?

Before I get into time and space, I thought I’d explain what I perceive information architecture to be. I think IA is the intentional arrangement of things and their parts to make meaningful, resilient and useful places for experiences to happen in. And you can quote me on that. I’ve struggled over that definition, but I do think it covers most of what’s important in IA.

“IA is the intentional arrangement of things and their parts to make meaningful, resilient and useful places for experiences to happen in."

IA should be intentional, however there’s lots of IA that isn’t intentional. Some designs and designers haven’t understood that the arrangement of things always creates IA. They create unintentional architecture. They make conscious design decisions that results in IA, but the IA isn’t part of the design. As Richard Saul Wurman told us: “The creative organization of information creates new information”. Unintentional IA creates new information, but it’s not necessarily the information you intended to convey.

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The second part of my definition introduces the idea of ‘things and their parts.’ IA identifies the things you care about and the smaller parts that those things can usefully be broken down into.

I sometimes use the example of a deck of cards to talk about this ‘ontological’ thinking. What do you think about when I say ‘deck of cards.’ Is it one object? Or 55 objects? Does it include the box? Are the Jokers included?

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Schrodinger put a theoretical cat in a box to learn more about the nature of the universe. I’ve done the same with some cards. What are the things and parts that we care about and need to define? There’s the deck, cards, suits, and values. I do the same kind of thinking at the start of any project. I build a ubiquitous, shared language to describe the 'things' in the design.

Structure

Once we know all the parts in play, we can start to explore, document and design the relationships between them all. This is the art of taxonomy — relationships create connections (and separation).  So, as we form connections we start to create structures.

We form connections, organize things and make stuff that's greater than the sum of the parts. But organizing 'things' and their parts to create structures was simpler in the past. You could pick something up, pop it on a shelf and the world was a little more organized. Things could only live in one place at a time. And in the past, places were simpler too. A place could only exist in a single place at a time. Only larger places could contain smaller places  –  the TARDIS didn’t make sense when it was invented. Things are different now, and so are the places that contain them.

Since the dawn of time we’ve thought of knowledge as emanating from tree-like structures. Adam and Eve had a tree of knowledge. We cut down trees, turned them into paper, then collected the paper into books for centuries. These books of pages were collected into chapters, placed onto shelves, and labeled using a hierarchical system.

A lot of our early websites did the same. These sites felt like trees. We worked either top-down or bottom-up — but mostly thinking vertically — forming trunks and branches. It’s like we were building 20th century Towers of Babel; vertical structures, ordered and solid, but each containing separate information ecosystems. We embraced the science of separation at the expense of the art of connection.

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It’s particularly tempting to focus on difference if you start by thinking about websites, rather than things. Website and 'page-thinking' encourages you to think about separation; you want to get the user to the page that they want, rather than all the others on your site. But to be honest, it’s been some time since I designed a page. We don’t make pages anymore. We design canvases for ‘content’ to flow into. 'Content' isn’t always a static 'document' anymore. Documents aren’t always fully composed at a single point of creation. The things and the places that we make out of them have changed.

Perhaps information architects have rarely created static structures. Now more than ever, the structures we create are alive with possibility. The dynamism in the structures we create forces us to think hard about the experiences they contain. So, as well as structure and space, I also think about movement, interactions, and time.

Movement

When I thought about movement in the past, I pictured edges and boundaries. My structural work defined the shape that my users moved through. Movement belonged to the user ;  I sketched routes from A-B, C-D and other flows between letters that seemed appropriate. I thought about containment and paths. But these were often prescriptive plotted paths. I described journeys for ‘sunny days’ when the user and I were on the same page (or set of pages).

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I now think about the structure and the 'things' moving, just as much as the movement of the audiences that are exploring and using the structure. This is more complicated and challenging, but I rarely create fixed, immovable structures to contain static documents anymore. I create canvases or organic systems that respond as they're explored, manipulated and used.

How might we create more organic information architecture and environments that respond to movement? What are the static and immovable elements in these designs? It’s as if the users and the structures are in a dance. The structural rules aren’t just concerned with the static arrangement of parts. These rules and information architecture extends to the movement and interaction of the user and the parts.

Interaction

Designing both structure and the movement of elements and actors means that every part of my information architecture is intentional.

The structures I create are information spaces designed to be moved through. The arrangement of parts I create aren’t static. The places I design are more like Hogwarts than Hampton Court . Often, their structures are flexible and organic and respond to the interactions that they enable and contain.

Interactions are now richer than directed movement through a fixed structure. I think of more fixed IA as being transactional  — move one way to get 'specific', the opposite for 'more general'. Interactive information architectures mean that we can support users moving in more than two fixed directions. So I'm trying to make my IA, and the ways I describe it, more interactive.

Asking for a ‘sitemap’ doesn’t suit the world we live in, unless we’re also able to describe the interactions the ‘site’ contains. We might need to describe a range of interactions. A ‘sitemap’ may describe states or configurations created through initial arrangements, re-arrangement and interactions. We might also describe the laws that govern structural arrangement, movement and interaction. We need to experiment with ways to describe what information architecture is now.

We don’t make pages anymore. We don’t make fixed structures. Websites aren’t just folders of documents, virtual buildings, shelves and things. The web (in fact most modern services) are made of all different sorts of places.

Great information architecture should always be intentional. Start by thinking about the parts in play. Build a shared ubiquitous language. Work in multidisciplinary teams to describe the relationships and arrangement to create structure — build places.  Consider the movement and interactions that your design will contain and enable. Refine each of these levels of your design as it evolves: ontology, taxonomy and utility, and you can be more confident that you’re an intentional information architect. You can also be more confident that your design will be meaningful, resilient and useful.

Want to hear more? Come to UX New Zealand!

If you’d like to hear more about what Dan has to say about information architecture, plus a bunch of other cool UX-related talks, head along to UX New Zealand 2016 hosted by Optimal Workshop. The conference runs from 12-14 October, 2016, including a day of fantastic workshops, and you can get your tickets here. Got a question you'd like to ask Dan before the conference? You can Tweet him here: @danramsden

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