Information Architecture Versus User Experience
Paul: A few years ago, at the IA Summit, someone gave a talk about User Experience superseding or eclipsing information architecture, with the suggestion that information architecture would become less relevant or, at most, a niche profession. I’m wondering, first of all, do you know what talk I’m referring to? Second, do you think this has happened as that speaker predicted? How do you view information architecture vis-à-vis User Experience?
Peter: I absolutely know what you’re talking about—and my answer is yes and no. It may be hard to believe, especially for Millennials, but there was a time, at the beginning of this century, when information architecture was sexy. Designers, writers, librarians, and even software developers all around the world were changing the titles on their business cards to Information Architect. From my perspective, all this attention was exciting and fun, but also a bit disturbing. We were starting to worry about the dumbing down and commodification of information architecture. Fortunately, the era of Peak IA was short lived. Soon afterward, it became even more fashionable to be a UX designer. People updated their business cards, and the world moved on.
So, while it’s fair to say that user experience eclipsed information architecture, sadly, that’s creating real problems today because in no way has information architecture become less relevant. In my consulting work, I often encounter UX teams that lack the experience and expertise to tackle big information-architecture challenges. I often work with them to fix Web sites and applications that have grown into findability nightmares. Many designers are great at shaping individual user interfaces, but are unable to take the holistic ecosystem perspective that’s central to information architecture.
This situation is complicated by stakeholders who struggle to align strategy and execution—especially in digital and cross-channel contexts. As a result, a growing percentage of user experiences are worse today than in the past. Even as organizations spend more on digital, it’s actually getting harder to find answers and complete complex tasks. This is crazy! If we hope to fix this problem, UX designers—or whatever we call them next—must get better at understanding, evangelizing, and shaping information architectures. As the world grows more complex, information architecture only grows more difficult, while at the same time, becoming more vital than ever.
Paul: So what I hear you saying is: one casualty of the success of user experience has been that we’ve lost some core skills along the way—or if not necessarily lost, they’ve become de-emphasized—and that’s causing problems now.
Peter: Yes. The assumption that a UX designer knows information architecture is often incorrect. To scale up and meet demand, organizations have hired inexperienced people. Amidst all the noise about agile, Lean, mobile, and social, we’ve lost core principles of information architecture, and now we’re starting to feel their absence.
Moving from Information Architecture to Planning for Strategic Design
Paul: This brings me to my next question. Your latest work has centered on topics that are near and dear to my heart: planning and strategy. I’m excited that you’ll be conducting a workshop on this topic at UX STRAT’s next event, XD Silicon Valley. But I’m wondering, what led to this shift in focus from the information-architecture topics you’ve written and spoken about in past years, to this new emphasis on planning and strategy? How does it compare or contrast with the work you’ve done in the past?
Peter: In addition to the Polar Bear book, which is now in its fourth edition, I’ve written other O’Reilly animal books—Ambient Findability and Search Patterns—plus Intertwingled. Each successive book I’ve written has been a way of reframing what I do—for myself as much as for my readers.
Right now, I’m planning to write a book about planning, which is, in a sense, what I’ve been doing all along. As an information architect, I help my clients to plan better Web sites, applications, digital strategies, and user experiences. Stakeholder interviews, user research, sketching, and prototyping are tools for understanding and imagining desirable futures—and there are myriad ways to mix and match these tools to fit the context. No process, method, or deliverable works across all organizations of varied sizes, types, and cultures. In strategy, design, and planning, there is no one right way, so we must be flexible and creative in how we structure and evaluate our work. In short, planning is the information architecture of time, and there are more ways to organize it than we may think.
Paul: What exactly do you mean by the term planning?
Peter: Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by the future. I used to drive my parents crazy by incessantly asking, “What’s next?” My mind is always playing with mental models and what-ifs. I love exploring and questioning both goals and paths. My goal for this new book is to write for a general audience, frame planning as a core life skill, and help people become better at planning.
While we can’t really predict the future, we act as though we can all the time. We plan our day, our week, the quarter—and we do this without questioning how we do it. Planning is an invisible skill that we acquire as we grow up. We learn by trial and error—and by emulating our parents, teachers, and peers. Planning becomes part of who we are and what we do. But we’re not explicitly taught how to plan, and we’re often unaware that there may be better ways to plan. We spend most of our lives on autopilot—doing stuff the way we’ve always done it. The act of planning creates a teachable moment in which we can question goals, strategies, tools, and tactics. I’m writing the book because I see planning as a lever for learning and a catalyst for change—not just at work, but in all aspects of life. My goal for the workshop is to apply these ideas to strategic design in digital contexts.
Paul: There seems to be a general consensus on what planning is. However, when it comes to strategy, there is more disagreement and contention. Can you help me understand—both from the context of the workshop and from the context of your book—what you mean by the term strategy? What does strategy entail? What are its components?
Peter: In certain contexts, some perceive strategy as a bad word. I’ve actually heard clients say that, when consultants use the word strategy, it means they’re going to be expensive. I don’t see it that way. Strategy need not be costly or complex. A strategy is a plan to achieve a goal. In a competitive environment, having no strategy or bad strategy leads to failure. In organizations, it’s vital that strategy be widely understood, communicated, and applied. Too few UX professionals can answer the question: “What’s our business strategy and how does it connect to our work?”
So we tend to use shorthand terms like digital strategy, which is artificially constrained because user experiences are often cross-channel experiences. When I use the word strategy, I’m talking about connecting the dots from business strategy to our work. How are we advancing that strategy? How are we helping to build a sustainable competitive advantage? Strategy involves choice. It’s not about copying best practices or optimizing for efficiency. It’s about making difficult tradeoffs that play to an organization’s unique strengths.
Information Architecture and The Internet of Things
Paul: There are some interesting technology innovations that are driving corresponding design innovations—for example, the Internet of Things (IoT). Is this something you’re working on and thinking about? What specific challenges do you see for information architects when it comes to the Internet of Things?
Peter: I used to think about the Internet of Things more than I do now. Back in 2005, when I wrote Ambient Findability, I was fascinated by what Bruce Sterling called spime, or smart objects, that we can locate precisely in space and time. I was excited by the potential of GPS (Global Positioning Systems), RFID (Radio-Frequency Identification), and AR (Augmented Reality) to enable ambient findability, creating a world in which we can find anyone or anything, from anywhere, at any time.
These days, I’m less techno-utopian and more concerned about the dark side of ambient findability. The Internet of Things still doesn’t solve problems I care about. I have an Amazon Echo, so I can ask Alexa to play music or turn on a lamp. Right now, it’s just an expensive toy, but I do expect that to change. That’s why I bought the Echo and why I’m interested in voice and gestural interactions. We’ll continue to embed intelligence in objects and environments. Eventually, we’ll need information architects to apply structural design and systems thinking to ensure that all these spime speak the same language and the parts fit into a coherent whole, so the smart home doesn’t become a little house of horrors.
Paul: If everything is talking to everything else in a smart way for information processing and logistics, it seems like each thing’s having its own information architecture is going to be a severe limitation. Do you think something more universal in terms of information architecture is on the near-term horizon?
Peter: Tim Berners-Lee sketched out the most famous vision of a universal information architecture in a 2001 Scientific American article titled “The Semantic Web.” While there are some great ideas in that article that have already been implemented, I’ve always seen the grand vision of a single, shared vocabulary as naive and unrealistic. Language is messy, political, and contextual.
Instead, organizations have discovered they can exert control over structure and language within bounded ecosystems. The first big example was the iTunes ecology, in which the iPod, desktop software, and an online store each provided different features and functions, but these pieces connected within an ecosystem and talked to each other. Since then, ecosystems have opened up to accommodate the products, services, and innovations of multiple organizations, with an ecosystem information architecture that is centrally designed and managed.
This is what Amazon is doing with the Alexa ecosystem. Using the Alexa Skills Kit, independent designers, developers, and organizations can build skills that utilize the Echo, as well as third-party devices. When I recently made myself buy an Amazon Echo as an experiment, I also bought a TP-Link smart plug, so I could turn a lamp on and off using voice commands. A few days after getting everything set up, the system stopped working. It was hard for me to identify the source of the problem. Was it the Alexa service, the Echo device, the TP-Link service or device, or my Wi-Fi connection? This was frustrating, but suddenly became funny when I realized I’d spent 45 miserable minutes just trying to turn on the lamp. Also, there are times when I ask Alexa to turn on the lamp, and my wife says, “What?” I answer, “Nothing, I was just talking to Alexa,” then Alexa says, “What?”
You’ve got to look at the ecosystem from a holistic perspective. What happens when you put multiple devices together with a group of people and all of them are talking and listening? It’s messy and could easily spiral out of control, in a confusion of tongues that is evocative of the Tower of Babel. Companies often sell us clean, sterile visions of ubiquitous computing that simply don’t align with organic reality. Systems thinking and information architecture will prove essential to the design of useful, usable, desirable ecosystems.
Developing Technologies’ Impact on Information Architecture
Paul: What about the information-architecture implications of virtual reality?
Peter: We talked earlier about how information architecture has changed over the past 20 years because of radical changes in context. Yet, if you go back to the first edition of the Polar Bear book, from 1998, you’ll see that many of the core principles of information architecture have stood the test of time. They are based on human psychology and language—things that don’t change so quickly, if at all. Those timeless principles for the way we structure, organize, label, search, and even navigate information still hold up in virtual reality. But we’re also adding new ways of interacting with information and objects and moving within and between places. It’s fascinating territory.
Paul: At the UX STRAT USA 2017 conference in Boulder, Colorado, next September, the topic of one keynote address will be artificial intelligence. It seems to me that artificial intelligence is advancing rapidly and is going to have a dramatic impact on human experience in our lifetime. I’m wondering, as a design leader, what are your thoughts about how we should attempt to shape this new technology?
Peter: It’s impossible to predict how artificial intelligence (AI) will unfold. We’re seeing amazing progress, along with misinformation and misunderstanding. Will self-driving cars go mainstream in the next ten years? Will the singularity occur in the next 20 years? I have no idea. But I do believe that, if we want AI to help humanity, we must pair it with what I call the two IAs—information architecture and intelligence augmentation. Can we design user interfaces that help us to see, understand, and shape invisible algorithms? Can we nurture our intelligent computers so they will help us to make wiser decisions? I’m not sure, but I sure hope so.
Peter’s Workshop: Planning for Strategic Design
Paul: Well, back to the present. For people in San Francisco or Silicon Valley who may have an opportunity to attend your XD Silicon Valley workshop on May 25th, what can they expect to learn?
Peter: My argument is that, as the world grows more connected, planning becomes more, not less important. Companies can no longer succeed by having executives in corner offices craft annual strategic plans that everyone else implements. We all need to engage in strategic and incremental planning on a regular basis. The good news is that, because planning is a skill, we can improve our ability to plan. That’s the goal of my workshop: to help participants get better at planning within the context of strategic design. We’ll accomplish this by making planning visible. We’ll explore elements of planning that are hidden in plain sight.
Takeaways from the workshop include
- making a business case for strategic design
- integrating planning with agile, Lean, and design thinking
- estimating cost, time, and risk
- understanding when and how to change goals and metrics
I don’t have all the answers, but that’s why this is a workshop. Through conversations and hands-on exercises, we can tackle these wicked problems together.
Paul: This sounds like an important topic. Will you gear this workshop to practitioners, leaders, or both?
Peter: Planning is a topic that is relevant to both practitioners and leaders. I recently taught the first instance of this workshop at the Information Architecture Summit, in Vancouver. I was delighted to have all sorts of people as participants, including designers, design managers, strategists, and even a CEO. This allowed rich conversations across what are too often silos. I’m hoping for similar diversity in May.
Paul: Switching gears a bit, let me say, I’m very happy that you’re going to be joining the UX STRAT community this year for the first time. Many conference attendees feel that this community is their tribe, so let me be the first to welcome you to the tribe.
Peter: Thanks! I’m really looking forward to it. When UX STRAT first appeared in my glass rectangles, I knew I’d like to be there because the intersection of user experience and strategy is where my flavor of information architecture is most powerful.
Paul: Any closing thoughts or advice for the UXmatters readers who are reading this interview?
Peter: I’m collecting quotations about planning. One of my favorites is from the famous composer Leonard Bernstein, who said, “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.” Therefore, let me humbly suggest to our readers that you don’t have time to be less than good at planning, so please register for this workshop, and we’ll see you in Palo Alto!