A New Architecture for Information Systems

Finding Our Way

Navigating the practice of Information Architecture

A column by Nathaniel Davis
November 9, 2015

The business leaders, marketers, and product managers who set strategy for products and services will increasingly have to take into account the situational context of their customers and employees. If businesses are to take full advantage of the trend toward digital experience, they must reframe their current mental model of technology infrastructure as the system and address a physical-digital landscape that encompasses both the design of human-computer interactions and the enabling infrastructure that technology affords.

Information Systems

If you’ve worked in technology long, you’ve heard people refer to back-end technology as the system. In information technology (IT), you’ve also heard people using familiar terms like design and architecture in describing such systems—for example, systems design and systems architecture.

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Merriam-Webster defines a system as “a set of connected things or parts forming a complex whole.” Computers and the networks that connect them are incredibly and increasingly complex. Over several decades, they have matured, and we now entrust them with the masterful application of computation, signaling, mechanization, encoding, processing, and information output. These are the embodiment of the word system.

Historically, businesses—and society at large—have benefited tremendously from computing and networking technologies. As a result, engineers give thoughtful consideration to their architecture and design. Systems architects and engineers are highly respected professionals, and the leaders among them consult on strategy at the highest level in any company that has even the slightest computing and networking infrastructure. At this level, information systems (IS) failure is not an option. However, this was not always the case.

In its earliest applications, the primary purpose of electronic computing was to crunch numbers for accounting and financial analysis. System failure, in this case, was disruptive, but manageable. However, when technology moved into the domains of sales and marketing, failing to complete transactions and generate revenue introduced a new level of risk.

Today, enterprise information systems provide digital scaffolding throughout entire businesses and are vital to complex business operations and digital product success. In some cases, information systems offer competitive advantage; in others, opportunities for innovation. As a result, sound IT systems strategy constitutes a range of disciplines that are essential to maintaining reliability, including, but not limited to, systems architecture and design, software engineering, data management, and security.

A New System

Factoring in human beings has not always equaled human factors. Conventional thinking asserts that professions relating to information systems consider people as a design factor. However, in practice, the creation of IT systems primarily concerns the transactional states of machines and software and their ability to improve business processes and decision making. There is little regard for the user-interface functions that would produce acceptable human engagement.

Thus, while we may factor people into the design of information systems, the extent to which we systematically view actual human factors such as perception, cognition, culture, and accessibility is limited—and, as a result, teams commonly attend to them only after they’ve designed and built the system functionality. This approach is a sure route to perpetual iterations and a huge backlog of user-interface enhancements—assuming that you have a research and analytics practice in place to expose opportunities or discover UI shortcomings.

While computer-to-computer communications remain indispensable, we should not dismiss human-computer interaction (HCI), because it bears risks that can be equally disruptive to business performance. Some risks that correlate with human-computer interaction include poor security, slow performance, inconsistent affordances for interactions, and poor communications.

Information Architecture and Systems

To the information architect or theorist, information systems are indeterminate. We can study an information environment, or ecology, as a system, regardless of its modality. For example, information architecture can study Web content as a system of categories, labels, topics, media types, authors, and their interrelationships. Or we can study the targeted audience for content as a system of social behaviors and common language. However, the preferred approach would be to study Web content as a part, or subsystem, of the target audience’s social norms.

Thus, looking at the relationships between information systems, business, and marketing in the age of customer digital experience, we recognize that, when customers engage with computer interfaces, the system of record actually extends beyond the technology and into the domain of human-computer interaction and human experience. In such a real-world context, this is the system.

Further, just as we can describe a new system, we can also assume a new architecture. Today’s systems architects deliver a crucial business function—carefully planning the relationships between nodes that include networked devices, software, services, and data in the context of business activities. The artifact from these activities typically takes the form of a reference architecture. As such, information architecture activities relate equally to the concepts, contexts, language, and intents that foster UX planning, or architecture, activities that articulate a strategy and roadmap for digital user engagement.

As businesses and technologists embrace digital transformation and digital experience as vital strategic paradigms, they must mature their digital initiatives by extending their notion of the system to include the thoughtful consideration of information architecture and customers’ digital experience.

A Model and a Manifesto

It won’t be easy to change business leaders’ and technologists’ mental model for information systems and their related architectural activities. We must remember that information systems architecture is built upon decades of mind-blowing innovations and proven results. So, the first order of business for the field of Information Architecture—as well as UX professionals—is to assert our own reference model for digital experiences, then communicate it when the opportunity presents itself.

So, I’ll go out on a limb here and propose a model for digital experience architecture, shown in Figure 1, that leverages the UX design practice verticals that I’ve defined. [1] [2] Further, to help reduce ambiguity in my visual model for digital experience architecture, I’ve created an accompanying manifesto.

Figure 1—A model for digital experience architecture
A model for digital experience architecture

The UX design practice verticals cover four business information system activities:

  1. context analysis
  2. testing, research, and analytics
  3. design architecture
  4. infrastructure architecture

In the circular part of the model shown in Figure 1, design architecture and infrastructure architecture represent a complete architectural whole, in which design architecture focuses on human engagement and infrastructure architecture delivers technology enablement. Both have content and research at their center.

This model also recognizes that design and infrastructure have different development lifecycles. But this does not mean that they are incompatible. Since they share an integrated architecture, experienced design and technology leads should be able to propose an integrated process.

Finally, it’s important to note that this model for digital experience architecture refers to activities. It is not about roles or titles. Whether 1 or 500 people take responsibility for the activities that this model comprises is a matter of organizational structure and culture. However, with that said, the model does imply two important architecture roles:

  1. Design Architect—The best-suited candidates for this role will have deep experience in UX strategy and planning activities—for example, UX designers, UX strategists, UX architects, and information architects.
  2. Infrastructure Architect—IT systems architects and systems engineers will continue to fill this role.

Design and infrastructure architects serve as key advisors to the Product Manager, Product Owner, or Service Owner, who is accountable for business strategy, operations, and the delivery of a digital experience as a product or service.

The official PDF version of “A Model for Digital Experience Architecture” (PDF) is available on the DSIA Portal of Information Architecture Web site.

Digital Experience Architecture Manifesto

Humans and machines engage in digital experiences that define a new type of system architecture. This new system architecture derives from the integration of technology, human experience, and environment. Thus, we architect technology and user interfaces with equal rigor, and they present associated risks.

To Be Continued

In the digital experience economy, the architecture and design of user interfaces are as critical to a business’s success as the architecture and design of the technology infrastructure that supports them. Hence, the way businesses describe a system, or digital customer experience, ultimately determines their future successes and failures.

Advocating this new concept of the system and creating an architecture that’s tailored to the digital experience economy will benefit information architects and other UX professionals. Let’s experiment with these models and provoke businesses and technologists to engage in this important discussion. 

Founder at Methodbrain

Franklin Park, New Jersey, USA

Nathaniel DavisNathaniel has over 25 years of experience in human-computer interaction and is a leading advocate for the advancement of information architecture as an area of research and practice. He began practicing information architecture in the late ’90s, then focused on information architecture as his primary area of interest in 2006. He has made a study of information-architecture theory and how that theory translates into science, workable software, and methods that improve human interaction in complex information environments. Nathaniel was formerly director of information architecture at Prudential. His information-architecture consultancy Methodbrain specializes in UI structural engineering.  Read More

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