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Information architecture in the limelight: the World IA Day in Zurich
Structure for understanding: The World IA Day in Zurich showed how well-structured information creates sense in complex systems.
Information Architecture: bringing order into complex systems
Every day we are confronted with tons of information. Information architecture (IA) doesn’t reduce this load, but it structures the information, giving access to what is relevant. The World Information Architecture Day is an annual, world-wide event dedicated to foster IA. This year, the conference was held in Switzerland for the first time, with six speakers illustrating how IA is the foundational layer which makes our journey through the chaos of information possible. If done well, IA is invisible, but when it fails, fundamental concepts like flow, understanding and trust are broken.
Information architecture in a post-digital world
Andrea Resmini, co-author of Pervasive Information Architecture, jumped right in: We can no longer think about IA as being bound to websites. It’s not just sitemaps or labels on menus – what we are dealing with are complex processes which happen as much in the on- as in the offline world. “Digital” has become a given. With WiFi and mobile devices, being online is no longer connected to a fixed place, so that our usage of different on- and offline services is now weaved into a complex net.
Provocatively, Andrea proposed to retire the word “virtual.” There are no uniquely “virtual” phenomena: Facebook for instance is not just simulation but deeply embedded in the users’ lives. The use of Facebook mixes the physical and the virtual world, so that the two combined become something new: a blended space. There is no cyberspace the way we thought of it years ago, but there is a convergence between digital and physical in today’s world. Our challenge is to understand these new conceptions of space and provide the paths within it. Information architecture deals with creating links in such intertwined cross channel ecosystems.
The use and power of IA: four case studies
What followed after the inspiring introduction by Andrea were four prime examples of information architecture in action.
- Presenting the case of EPFL’s orientation tool, Nathalie Meystre showed us how IA can ensure that an application focuses on the needs of the user. She and her team optimised the application delivered by IT according to a six stage pattern, leading from functional → reliable → usable → convenient → pleasurable → meaningful. The application now organises the vastness of information about people, places and paths on the EPFL campus in an understandable manner which conforms with the users’ needs.
- Memi Beltrame started provocatively by saying that approaches like responsive design or mobile first are incomplete. These focus on the delivery of content, yet before we can do that, we first need to understand the complexity of the content: data driven design is key. Only if we understand how our content functions can we decide how to present it.
- Using the enterprise taxonomy of FIFA as an example, Adam Ungstad showed how good taxonomy can help organisations function. The new taxonomy for instance allows FIFA to publish content from an archive to targeted subgroups in their extranet. During the question round, Adam emphasised a key idea: The end users may not see the taxonomy (think about predictive text in a search bar!), but that does not mean that it isn’t there, allowing the user to access the right information at the right time.
- Lastly, Christoph Schmid presented an interesting case: What if you have to design the architecture of a project which is part of a larger system, whose framework conditions are not yet specified? A modular structure is needed, following the three steps deconstruction, reconstruction and modularisation. Using DoGo mapping, Christoph and team could conceptualise the entire environment of the project without having to specify a hierarchy and create a structure which links the information available in the best way possible.
The architecture of understanding
Information architecture pioneer Peter Morville concluded the afternoon with the message that we need to work on obtaining a profound understanding of the nature of our information to create an architecture of understanding. Only if we understand the complexity of the entire system can we simplify a situation and offer not naive simpleness but a simplicity which is based on knowledge of complexity.
Many of our systems simplify issues without understanding their true character. For instance, we often thing in either/or categories - thinking or doing, planning or acting - without realising that the two are connected: Planning also entails acting, trying, practising. Good planning requires an understanding of the external factors affecting our work and awareness of the complex nature of the system. Only then can we influence the system, by identifying the few critical aspects that really matter, the keystones which hold our system together. Information architecture needs a microscope to dig deep, a telescope to look far and a kaleidoscope to keep changing point of view. Only then can we create true understanding, based on which we can channel the stream of information and reduce complexity.
Information architecture is everywhere
In all aspects, the WIAD 2015 showed that information architecture is omnipresent – it is what allows us to find the right room in a building or buy a cinema ticket on our phone with just a few clicks. Even in this article, IA is at work: In editing it, I aim to structure the text in such way that the information contained is easily accessible. Informations is everywhere – information architecture is everywhere, as the invisible foundation which creates order and provides access.