Information Architecture Lenses

Perspectives on Structure

Information architecture is the practice of designing the virtual structures that underpin digital products. I’m continually impressed with how fundamental and difficult this work is. With digital products becoming more complex and specialized, information architecture remains as essential as ever. These structures demand deliberate and vigorous attention.

A few recent projects where IA plays a major role: This enormous corporate intranet could benefit from streamlining and simplification. This complex array of regulations across all 50 states could benefit from a scalable management system. The tools for higher education administration lack a framework permitting deep analysis.

These are IA problems: problems that demand a robust underlying structure in their solutions.

In working on these problems, I caught myself looking at my ideas from different perspectives. For example, I can look at a label from the user’s perspective and ask if it would make sense to them. But I can ask deeper questions: does this label align perfectly with the content it represents? How well does this label set expectations when users click on it? How would a description or example help clarify this label?

Taking lenses to labels.

In working on complex structures, though, I’m not just looking at labels. As it turns out, information architects make lots of choices about the underlying structure, and evaluate that structure through lots of perspectives, or lenses.

I’m creating a set of lenses for the practicing information architect. The lenses aren’t for evaluating quality or correctness, but instead the strength of the decisions and the robustness of the structure.

As of this writing I’ve identified 43 lenses. Here are four of those lenses in some detail, and I’ll put a complete list at the end of the article.

Education Lens

How does the navigation teach users about the product?

Good navigation teaches users about what they can do with the product. While our instinct is to make the navigation a comprehensive map of the entire system, looking through this lens means seeing navigation differently. Instead of asking ourselves “do I have a place for everything?” we’re asking ourselves “have I told users what they need to know?”

Each lens comes with some questions to help you adopt this perspective. These are the questions for the education lens:

  • How does your structure teach people about what’s in it?
  • What approach does your structure take to educate people about it?
  • How does it establish a basic foundation, and then embellish?
  • Which concepts are the most important ones for people to understand?

The point here isn’t for you to go through every question and have an answer. Instead, they’re meant to trigger new insights about your decisions about the structure.

EightShapes recently helped the World Bank develop the navigation for their public web site. One project objective was to ground the navigation in a user perspective. During the course of the project, we learned that many users don’t know what the World Bank is, or what it does. Because we were trying to get away from the politics-driven information architecture, we saw the navigation as an opportunity to teach people about the Bank and its mission.

Simplifying the main categories and embedding narrative in the megamenus, the new navigation helps users understand the role and mission of the World Bank.

Label/Concept Fit Lens

What is or is not covered by this label?

For the purpose of this lens, I define a “concept” as something from the information space that is expressed in your product’s structure. Perhaps it’s a category or a type of content or a function. Concepts are abstract until they’re embodied in the product or web site. This lens asks you to compare your understanding of a concept with the label you’ve chosen for it.

In the world of personal finance, everything is an “account”. This is the underlying concept from the source domain. Every institution has its own way of embodying this concept, which you can see from the different main menus from two different banking sites.

We have so many words for “money”.

Here are questions you can ask yourself:

  • Does the team have a mutual understanding of the concept independently of the label?
  • Does the label appropriately cover the concept?
  • Is the concept obscured by preexisting meaning of the label?
  • How can you test the efficacy of different labels?

One of the reasons I like board games so much is that they’re microcosms of IA problems. This weekend, my kids and I tried Champions of Midgard, a viking-themed game. In the game Trolls and Draugrs are attacking your village. You can also go on quests to defeat other mythical beasts which the game refers to as “Monsters”. Collectively, however, Trolls, Draugrs, and Monsters are called “enemies”. This caused some confusion as we were playing because “Monsters” seems like a label that could include all three of these. (If a troll isn’t a monster, I don’t know what is.)

From Champions of Midgard. In the game, the beasts on the left are “monsters” but Trolls and Draugrs are not. IA anyone?

Precedence Lens

Would it be OK for other people to make this same decision?

Making decisions about structure is, in a way, setting rules. By assigning content to a category, for example, you’re not just assigning that one piece of content: You’re establishing a rule for that and all similar pieces of content. Your decisions, therefore, establish precedents: Other people see the example and expect to be able to copy it. “That content got featured on the home page, so mine should get featured, too.”

Any decision you make can be extrapolated to a rule, and therefore may be unwittingly giving someone else permission to do the same thing. To apply this lens, ask yourself:

  • What precedent does your decision set?
  • Are you expecting this decision to be an exception?
  • What are the natural consequences of this decision?
  • How might people abuse the rule you’re establishing?

Look at just about any intranet and you’ll see precedence in action. I’d venture that the majority of design decisions on an intranet rest on the rationale: “That’s how THEY did it.” And because it’s the precedent, not an actual rule, that drives decision-making, there are slight variations to every instance.

The bane of every Intranet is the quicklinks panel, mostly because it sets a precedent. Now EVERYONE wants to be in the quicklinks menu. Example from Nielsen-Norman Group.

On a recent intranet project, I was adamant about avoiding a “quick links” menu on the home page. There were a variety of reasons for this, but chief among them was the fear that everyone would put themselves in the quick links menu, or add one to their page.

Distraction Lens

If at their destination, will users find the navigation distracting?

Users pay attention to navigation to understand where they are. They interact with navigation when they have somewhere to go. For any other task, the navigation encroaches on valuable screen real estate. The more elaborate the navigation, the more it occupies space on the screen, the more it gets in the way of the primary purpose of the screen. Enter, the distraction lens.

ProPublica.org’s category pages offer a few navigation mechanisms to zero-in on an article. The primary article template maintains the intrusive navigation and distracting right rail. But an alternate article template uses a more minimalist approach to navigation.

To apply this lens, you can ask:

  • What is the bare minimum navigation needed to help people get elsewhere in the structure?
  • What can you cut out without sacrificing clarity of context?
  • How much of the screen are you willing to dedicate to navigation?

On the intranet project, we eliminated a traditional “global navigation”. With such a huge information space, it would have been impossible to create a single menu system to encompass the entire structure. More importantly, inserting such a menu on every page, regardless of its location or purpose, would have introduced a major distraction on the page.

The Utility of Perspective

There is no one way to design a structure. Even different organizations within the same domain, like the personal finance example above, exhibit differences in how they expose their content through navigation. If my work over the last couple years is anything to go by, there are still many unsolved IA problems.

In my IA practice, I’ve rejected generic guidelines intending to be applicable to myriad domains and circumstances. Instead, I prefer lenses, different ways to look at my design decisions to evaluate them within the context of the domain.

43 Lenses and Counting

All this started when I began updating my article “8 Principles of Information Architecture.” As I sought to apply recent experience to expand the principles, I realized that “principle” wasn’t right. A principle is a guide toward an objective. It helps you determine which path to take as you journey toward your goal. What I relied on weren’t principles so much as perspectives.

The idea of a lens came from Jesse Schell’s the art of game design. I was also inspired by Stephen Anderson’s deck of psychological principles, Mental Notes.

For IA I’ve so far identified 43 different lenses. If you know me at all, you know a deck of cards is in the works. In the meantime, you’ll find a list of those lenses below. Tell me what you think in the comments, and if you’d find these lenses useful, let me know.


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