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I want to kick off the new year by reminding myself, and you my dear reader, of five basic truths about information architecture.

1. There will always be multiple audiences to balance

I had a student recently inquire in IA Office Hours about how to choose an audience to design for when two were vying for his attention. This was a good reminder of one of the patterns I have noticed: there are almost always two audiences for any given thing we might be doing.

This student was talking about appealing to an executive audience versus a technical audience. We talked about thinking through the business model and conducting a cost-benefit analysis of reaching each, but ultimately we agreed the immeasurable part is the gut feeling he had about which to serve over the other.

Balanced Scale

When I worked at Etsy we had a constant balance (read: struggle bus) between serving buyers and serving sellers. I was hired at a time when sellers were the core audience for the business, and buyers were more of a side focus.

As we introduced basic buyer-focused programs like free shipping, and better customer service, including return support — it required changes to the policies and processes sellers were used to. Spoiler Alert: Sellers were pissed and said Etsy didn’t value them anymore.

This project is not an anomaly, at Etsy or at any other job, in fact most decisions being made can not serve multiple audiences equally.

A basic truth of information architecture is that a BIG part of IA practice is in determining how to serve the right audience, and in the case of two audiences, how to balance the varied needs, and often different understandings amongst them.

2. Intention is the only way to good

“Is this IA any good?” might seem like a simple enough question, but it’s one of the hardest types of questions I am asked. In fact I generally decline when I am asked to judge IA work I was not involved with or familiar with the inner/behind the scenes working of.

In my humble, but educated, opinion here’s three common reasons why judging IA work from the outside is near impossible:

  • Because, reasons: There are quirks, personalities, and market dynamics that are always at play when making decisions that are influencing an information architecture. But no one is standing there pointing out those things when we trash the IA from an outsider perspective. For all we know it could have been 50% worse than what we see now and this is a MASSIVE win for the team who made it and the audience it is meant to serve.
  • IA happens in real time: Some level of erosion of meaning overtime is to be expected in systems, but we never know at what stage of decay we are looking at an IA. Sometimes things change at a pace where you have to react tactically quicker than you can be strategic. When we are merely judging an IA by its cover, we can’t know the time-based reality that surrounds it, nor can we understand the layers of timeliness it went through to get to today.
  • People are terrible … at change: It need not matter if the change is for their own betterment in the long run, people hate change. This is one of those fundamental human problems when it comes to practicing IA. The truth is that the balance of people’s comfort with change impacts the effectiveness of any idea. So often what we see from the outside is the version of the IA that could withstand people’s hatred of change.

No matter how many times I reiterate the three points above, this continues to be the hardest part of information architecture to teach.

People desperately want to know the answer, the pattern, the “right” way — yet time and time again all we are ever left with is something that only works when it lines up with our very specific intentions, and is influenced by our very specific context.

A basic truth of information architecture is that an IA can only be judged in context to a specific audience and intention. 

3. Things get clearer when the diagrams come out

Halfway through the course I am currently co-teaching with Alfi Oloo he described a turning point moment that I had experienced many times before. It was the moment that the students had finally “gotten it” — finally understood the objective of the course and what their journey through it might look like.

I pointed out that earlier in that week we had introduced a diagram that had been successful in helping to push many of them along on the process we are on together. Then I explained how common it is to see things become just a little clearer as soon as the diagrams come out.

I believe that this is because things almost always get clearer when we get out of our heads, and into the world around us.Diagrams allow us to put what is inside on the outside. Those tangles and out of control sized messes seem more manageable when captured, no matter how big or how twisted the material.

A basic truth of information architecture is turning discourse and mental models into objects — like diagrams — helps people see problems and potential solutions more clearly. 

4. Incentives matter more than you think

One of the most common pieces of advice I give to people struggling to understand why their IA proposals have not been adopted is:

“You must better understand the incentives of the people saying no.”

There is always a reason why they are saying no, and often it is all wrapped up in how they are incentivized and measured by themselves and others.

Last year one of the most popular pieces I wrote for this blog was about incentive architecture. In it I wrote:

Someone can see a mess, admit it’s a mess, and even complain regularly about a mess — but it’s not until something changes in their incentive that people actually make sense of their messes.

A basic truth of information architecture is we do not work in a vacuum of our own intention and incentive. We work within and must make decisions within a complex, and delicate web of other people’s diverse incentives, intentions, backgrounds and context.

5. We have to zoom out to zoom in

Sometimes I feel like a broken record when I ask people if they have a picture of their mess yet. 

I will stop asking as soon as the most common answer is “Of Course!” and not “No I should do that but…”

Like all forms of recovery tools — people need to come to solutions on their own time and on their own terms for it to truly take hold and impact personal change.

When we have a zoomed out picture we allow ourselves to dull the edges of the details enough to capture the trends, connections, opportunities and contextual realities of the spaces in between the places.

I tell people to draw a picture of their mess because the act of zooming out actually allows us to zoom in more effectively, and in better connection to the larger context. Without the zoomed out view our zoomed in view is flawed because it is not attuned to a larger context. We are drawing a tree while ignoring its forest.

A basic truth of information architecture is that a zoomed out view on a system can provide invaluable insight into how to make the zoomed in pieces more effective, efficient and resilient to reality.