Definition: A configuration of objects.
Also referenced as: Structures (noun) Structural (adjective) Structuring (verb) Structured (verb)
Related to: Alternative, Architect, Category, Classification, Connection, Facade, Flexible, Hierarchy, Information Architect, Information Architecture, Navigation, Order, Pattern, Perception, Place, Placemaking, Prototype, Relationship, Schematic, Scope, Sequence, Sitemap, Sort, Space, Taxonomy
The word structure was used 30 times across 18 pages
Here are some of the many messes we deal with in our everyday lives:
We made these messes.
Everything around you was architected by another person. Whether or not they were aware of what they were doing. Whether or not they did a good job. Whether or not they delegated the task to a computer.
Information is a responsibility we all share.
We're no longer on the shore watching the information age approach; we're up to our hips in it.
Imagine trying to design a luxury fashion magazine using a technical system for grocery store coupons. The features you need may seem similar enough until you consider your context. That's when reality sets in.
When architecting information, focus on your own unique objectives. You can learn from and borrow from other people. But it's best to look at their decisions through the lens of your intended outcome.
These relationships can be one-way (e.g., dropping a package into a mailbox) or two-way (e.g., calling the postal service to see if it was delivered).
Start by creating a box for each concept, each piece of content, and each process. Arrange the boxes based on how they relate to each other. Play. See what reveals itself as you move things around. Try a few different arrangements before you add the arrows.
Keep it simple. The more you add styling and polish, the less you'll feel comfortable changing and collaborating on the diagram.
|Object: a specific thing.|
|Interface: a point where a user affects that thing.|
|Location: a particular place or position.|
|Journey: the steps in or between locations.|
|Structure: a configuration of objects and locations.|
|System: a set of structures working together.|
|Ecosystem: a collection of related systems.|
If we were to write a dictionary, we'd be practicing lexicography, or collecting many meanings into a list. When we decide that a word or concept holds a specific meaning in a specific context, we are practicing ontology.
Here are some examples of ontological decisions:
To refine your ontology, all you need is a pile of sticky notes, a pen, and some patience.
There will always be several structures you can use.
When you set out to arrange something, how do you decide where the pieces go? Is it based on what looks right to you, what you believe goes together, or what someone told you to do? Or maybe you let gravity or the alphabet determine the order?
Common examples of taxonomies include:
Later, you overhear a coworker saying, "Sorry, it looks like we're sold out of Michael Jackson right now."
Your manager looks under "J" and checks the inventory, which says the store should have a single copy of Thriller.
You remember that it was part of the shipment of records you just filed. Where else could you have put that record, if not under "J"? Maybe under "M"?
Classifying a tomato as a vegetable says something about what you know about your customers and your grocery store. You would classify things differently if you were working on a textbook for horticulture students, right?
Because your structure may change a hundred times before you finish making it, you can save time and frustration by thinking with boxes and arrows before making real changes. Boxes and arrows are easier to move around than the other materials we work with, so start there.
For example, let's say we're working on bringing a product to the market. To support this process, we might create:
These are all important pieces individually, but we need to look at them together to answer questions about the whole such as:
When you see the world through the eyes of other people, you can spot weaknesses and opportunities for improvement. Don't hide from other stakeholders or wait until the end of the project to talk to users.
Information architecture is like the frame and foundation of a building. It's not a building by itself, but you can't add the frame and foundation after the building is up. They're critical parts of the building that affect the whole of it. Buildings without frames do not exist.
Imagine trying to open a fancy restaurant in an old Pizza Hut. The shape of its former self persists in the structure. The mid-nineties nostalgia for that brand is in its bones. Paint the roof; change the signage; blow out the inside; it doesn't matter. The building insists, "I used to be a Pizza Hut."
(Now type "used to be Pizza Hut" into Google's image search and enjoy the laugh riot!)
If you find yourself needing to promote this practice, here are some ways you can talk about it:
You: "Wow, we have lots of information floating around about this, huh?"
Them: "It's a bit unruly, isn't it?"
You: "Yeah, I think I can help though. I recently learned about the practice of information architecture. Have you heard of it?"
Them: "Never heard of it. What is it?"
Them: "Is it hard? Do we need an expert?"
No one comments on the plumbing or electricity of a building unless the toilet is clogged or the lights aren't working. Then all of a sudden, pipes and wires are a hot topic of conversation.
Similarly, people don't compliment or even critique information architecture unless it's broken.
The "information architecture part" is almost invisible when separated from how something looks and how it's made. For example, we can't evaluate the quality of the structure of this eBook without considering how it was written, edited, designed, illustrated, typeset, marketed and delivered.
If you practice information architecture for the glory, get ready to be disappointed.
But if you practice it for the clarity it can bring, get ready for some seriously interesting work.
Be the one not bringing the ideas. Instead, be the filter that other people's ideas go through to become drinkable:
With those skills, you'll always have people who want to work with you.