Information Architecture Summit Closing Plenary

Peter Morville
Information Architecture


In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that…the medium is the message…that the personal and social consequences of any medium…result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.

Marshall McLuhan (1964)

So, this is the 15th annual IA Summit and while it’s clearly not a contest, I’ve been to them all. Now, what is it that keeps me coming back? Well, there’s an expression — the real conference happens in the hallway — that I’ve always found to be unfair. The formal program at the summit is amazing. Over the years, we’ve been entertained, educated, and inspired by some of the bravest, most brilliant speakers around. Of course, as an old-timer, I enjoy hugs in the hallway and catching up with old friends. But that space in between is also a great time to make new friends, and that’s important, because it’s the first-timers that keep this thing alive.

Last year, I went backpacking in Isle Royale National Park on a beautiful, rugged island in the northwest corner of Lake Superior. I’d never carried my home on my back before, and the first day was rough. My shoulders ached, I slipped on a rock and fell, and when I reached Greenstone Ridge, I was met by thunder, lightning, and rain. It poured all afternoon, and by the time I got to McCargoe Cove, I was cold, wet, muddy, and lonely.

I pitched my tent and went down to the lake to filter water, make dinner, and dry out my socks and sneakers. I sat on an old wooden dock with a bag of freeze dried mush and a shot of tequila. That’s when the sun came out, and so did the people. There were two guys my age who wore boots, and their socks were just as wet, filthy, stinky as mine. There was a young couple from Norway who jumped off the dock in their underwear and laughed as they tiptoed past the leaches. Then there were the old folks. They had a boat with a cabin, dry clothes, a picnic table, bottles of wine, fresh grilled lake trout, potato salad; and they invited us to join in. We shared supper and stories until sunset, and it was wonderful, a memory I’ll never forget. It was a vivid, heartwarming, humbling encounter with the kindness of strangers. And that’s what brings me back to the summit.

The folks who organize this event, volunteers and staff alike, work really hard to be welcoming. There’s the mentorship program for new speakers, orientation, the first-timer dinners. And us old folks try to be accessible. We mingle over drinks and posters. We play games and sing karaoke. We invite everyone to run with the polar bears. We even get up early on a Sunday morning to do Adho Mukha Svanasana, the downward facing dog.

Still, there’s something about the summit that’s unsettling, and it’s not just that it’s hard to be new or that many of us are kinda off the map on the introvert scale. No, it’s deeper than that. People come to the summit and have a good time, but they leave with this uneasy feeling that they somehow missed something important. They don’t talk about it much. It’s actually a little embarrassing, so they bury it deep. And I feel bad for these folks. I want to reach out. I want to tell them a secret. You’re not alone. Really. Nobody understands information architecture. We don’t even know what it is. And that’s okay. That’s why we’re here.

It’s time for a change, so please watch your breath for a moment, while I do just that. [removes clothes] Don’t worry. I’ll stay behind the podium, so you’re not blinded by the whiteness of my legs. Now, my wife is worried I just jumped the shark. I’ll leave that judgment to you. But I took off my pants to make a point; actually, not one but a few. First, there will always be people who don’t like it when you change. It really ticks them off. Second, clothes are cultural artifacts, visible symbols of our invisible values and assumptions. Third, clothing is a medium of communication, and right now my shorts are saying “Hey y’all, let’s be friends and relax.”

I’m writing and self-publishing a book named Intertwingled and while there will be animals on the front, this ain’t no polar bear book. I think of it as a trail guide for information architects which means it’s for all of you. For a while, I struggled to define its aboutness. Then I realized: it’s the opposite of Seinfeld. Instead of a show about nothing, it’s a book about everything. Specifically, Intertwingled shows how everything is connected from code to culture, and that’s what I want to talk about now.

Let’s start with classification and its consequences. We organize for users all the time. We know that one taxonomy isn’t nearly enough, so we offer faceted search and navigation. Users can shop for sandals by size, style, heel height, occasion, material, color, brand, price, pattern, popularity, and the list goes on. And we realize the limits of the signifiers that are the interface. We know that words are only fingers pointing to the moon. So we invite users to tag objects with words that mean something to them.

We’re not bad at organizing for users, but we’re not good at organizing ourselves. We use tags and facets for objects but monolithic taxonomies for people. John’s a developer, Jane’s a designer, Sara works in Marketing, Dave is in Support. Once we split into silos, it’s hard to work together. That’s why our biggest barriers aren’t design and technology but governance and culture. We can’t create good products and services without well-defined goals, roles, relationships, processes, and metrics; but all too often we’re seduced by what’s simple and superficial. Plan and build get split, and we fail to learn. Us and them are divided, and we fall apart. Classification shapes collaboration in nearly imperceptible ways.

There’s a passage in the book Sorting Things Out that states:

Each category valorizes some point of view and silences another. This is not inherently a bad thing — indeed it is inescapable. But it is an ethical choice, and as such it is dangerous — not bad but dangerous.

All maps are traps. To see and share this truth is dangerous, but not bad. The first step is seeing where our categories come from. Our bodily experience is embodied in language and quietly shapes how we think. This is clear in our use of binary oppositions: in-out, up-down, male-female, self-other. Dichotomies help us make sense. We only understand hot in relation to cold. But, the first term tends to be primary. These pairings are often hierarchical, not symmetrical. So, it’s better to be in than out, up than down, true not false, good not evil, us not them.

This is where we get into trouble. Dualism works because it’s simple, but that’s also precisely why it fails. There’s an old saying: “there are two kinds of people in the world, those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world, and those who don’t.” We can do better by being more creative and courageous in describing and organizing ourselves.

Our default is the bounded set of the childhood sandbox. There’s a clear boundary. Things are in or out. We use it cause it’s easy, but that doesn’t make it right. To be better, we must be aware of fuzziness. Fuzzy sets have a center and a periphery but no clear boundary. Wittgenstein used the category of “games” to help us see fuzzy. Some games involve skill, others luck, some you can win, others you cannot. The category is united by overlapping similarities and family resemblances. It’s hard to define a game, but we know one when we see it. Most sets are bounded on the surface but fuzzy beneath. We think we can define them easily, until we can’t. In this failure lies freedom, because when we admit they’re not sets in stone but embodied in cognition, we’re able to classify more creatively.

Paul Hiebert, the world’s leading missiological anthropologist, did just that when he invented the concept of centered sets in 1978. His work as a missionary in India led him to ask the question “Can an illiterate peasant become a Christian after hearing the Gospel only once?” Traditionally, the church was organized as a bounded set with clear definitions of membership and carefully circumscribed beliefs and values. Hiebert proposed a more inclusive, dynamic way to form categories by defining a center, and by paying more attention to direction than location. In his model, a Christian is anyone who moves towards Christ. Some are closer to the center in knowledge and maturity, but all are equal members of the set. It’s an ontology that values openness, change, and diversity. It amps up permeability and softens the boundary separating us and them.

In 2012, Dan Klyn borrowed this theory to re-frame the relationship between user experience and information architecture. In his account, using centered sets is like herding cats. In each center is a pail of milk. It’s a useful map, but it’s also a trap, since a cat can’t be in two places at once.

There’s a wonderful scene in Life of Pi in which young Pi and his mother and atheist father are walking down the street and bump into Pi’s pandit, priest, and imam all together. After an angry debate, Pi is told “he can’t be a Hindu, a Christian, and a Muslim. It’s impossible. He must choose.” In response, Pi blurts out “Gandhi said, ‘All religions are true.’ I just want to love God.” Sometimes, we must choose which story we prefer, but not always. All too often, we use radio buttons, when checkboxes or sliders might reveal more of the truth. We do it to users and we do it to ourselves.

But we can and will do better. It starts with awareness. There’s more than one way to classify a cat. Once that door is open, we can nudge ourselves and our colleagues towards celebrating both differences and similarities.

One shift that can help us all is to change our minds about planning. Like search, planning is a literacy that’s not taught in school, and yet it’s a key to success in life and work. We plan events, trips, families, sites, systems, companies, and cities. We do it all the time but make the same mistakes. First, we procrastinate. We fear complexity, so we start too late. Then, in a hurry, we split ideas and execution into phases or roles. We draw lines in our minds that segregate. The binary oppositions of think-do and plan-build are myths. Like yin and yang, these seemingly separate forces are interrelated and entangled. You can’t do one (well) without the other.

When I planned my expedition to Isle Royale, I did research and made lists. But I also tried things out. In our backyard, I burned myself on the pocket stove, then learned how to foil the wind. In the living room, I modeled an “emergency poncho” for my wife. She laughed until she cried. It was thinner than a dry-cleaning bag and would have been ripped to shreds by the foliage. And, in the bathtub, I tested my highly rated 0.2 micron water filtration system designed to be effective against bacteria, protozoa, and parasites; because as far as learning by failure goes, it’s all fun and games until someone gets a larval cyst in their brain.

We should take these lessons online to plan-build sites and systems, because the binary opposition of agile-waterfall is just as much a myth. The agile manifesto backs “responding to change over following a plan” but makes a point of saying that both have value. Yet agile is used often as a platform for proclaiming the wireframe is dead. Meaning shifts from intent to interpretation, and plans go out the window. We all know death by documentation sucks, but to pivot and sprint into an agile death spiral isn’t much fun either.

As the complexity of our ecosystems grows, we will need plans and prototypes more than ever before. To wrangle strategy, structure, and schedule in our heads is absurd. We must put ideas into the world, so we can see them. Maps, sketches, words, and wireframes are essential, but we must also use the medium of construction for architecture and design.

Recently, I worked on a responsive web design project for a database publisher. Our team built wireframes and design comps to conduct quick, cheap experiments, and then an HTML prototype to enable new loops of build-measure-learn. Each of these cognition amplifiers is unique. Together, they teach us that one way is the wrong way. As architects, designers, and developers, we each bring discrete value to think-do and plan-build. All too often, classification obstructs collaboration. It splits us and them, and our products show the seams, and our users bear the scars. The things we make are reflections of how we see and sort ourselves.

Since we’re on the subject of scars, let me tell you a story. Five years ago, I went bald. I mean, it had been going on for a while, but one day I finished the job. My wife was out, so I showed our daughters first. “Claire, I have a surprise for you,” I called, and our ten year old walked into the room. She then screamed, ran to the corner, curled into a fetal ball, and cried and cried and cried. I hugged her and told her it was okay, and then I cheered her up by suggesting we surprise her eight year old sister. But when we found Claudia, she surprised us instead, by staring me right in the face and asking “so what’s the big surprise?”

When we change, some people totally freak out, while others don’t notice or care, and it’s only after you act, that you understand who will do what.

The organizational theorist Karl Weick invites us to consider the effect of action on cognition by asking “how can I know what I think till I see what I say?” He argues that retrospective sensemaking is more common than we know. We act first, then rationalize our aim, but prediction is part of it too. In organizations, the basic unit of sensemaking is the double interact. An interact exists when an act by Person A evokes a response by Person B. A double loop is created by A’s reaction to B’s response. This is how meaning is made.

The first act is shaped by models we’ve built in our minds to make sense of the past. In Weick’s words, our thoughts are “real-ized” as self-fulfilling prophecies. People make real those ideas they have in their heads. In this sense, the phrase “believing is seeing” is more than a play on words. But, after that initial action, sensemaking is complicated by commitment. He writes:

When people take actions that are visible (the act clearly occurred), irrevocable (the act cannot be undone), and volitional (the act is the responsibility of the person who did it), they often feel pressure to justify those actions, especially if their self-esteem is shaky…thus, commitment, like metaphor, can be an enemy of wisdom. Both of them minimize doubt and doubting.

I recently read a book called Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) that also explores the consequences of commitment. The main problem isn’t that we aim to deceive others; it’s that we fool ourselves. The engine of self-justification is cognitive dissonance, the state of tension that occurs when we hold ideas or beliefs that are psychologically inconsistent. When a “good person” does a “bad thing” self-deception invariably kicks in. And, if we’re on the opposite sides of a tough decision, time can tear us apart.

Imagine two students with similar attitudes and abilities who struggle with the temptation to cheat on a test. One yields and the other resists. How do they feel about cheating a week later? The first tells herself it’s no big deal, whereas the second decides it’s horribly immoral. In time, the two slide further apart, until the cheater and do-gooder can’t stand each other. The authors explain:

When the person at the top of the pyramid is uncertain, when there are benefits and costs of both choices, then he or she will feel a particular urgency to justify the choice made. But by the time the person is at the bottom of the pyramid, ambivalence will have morphed into certainty, and he or she will be miles away from anyone who took a different route.

So, think before you act, because your act will shape what you think.

The part of the pyramid I like is the middle. My underpants may explain why. I was born in England, then immigrated to the U.S. in fourth grade. I had red hair, pale skin, a funny accent, no friends. And, I was on the evil side of the American Revolutionary War. But my most embarrassing distinction was exposed in the locker room. In England, we wore colored underpants, but in the U.S. all briefs were white. The boys laughed at my bright blue briefs, and a few threatened to expose me to the girls. This of course was terrifying. I lived in fear of being pants’d in the playground. Then one day it happened. One of them snuck up and did the deed. And, the funny thing is nobody noticed. The worry was far worse than the act.

It’s dangerous to be a minority. That’s a lesson I learned while still young. But it’s a role that fits me well. I’m not a joiner of groups. I’m a connector. I’m an in between person. I’m an independent information architect. I love learning from the experiences and perspectives of all kinds of people in all sorts of roles and companies and cultures. And I enjoy being a bridge.

The next chapter in my book is about culture. I haven’t written it yet, so I don’t really know what I think. But I’m convinced that understanding and remapping culture is the key to our future, so let’s get cracking.

Edgar Schein is an expert on organizational culture, and his model is the best that I’ve found. We can use these three levels to ask questions about any institution or event. First, what might a first-timer see, hear, and feel? Artifacts include architecture, layout, technology, clothes, work style, social interactions, and activities. Second, what are the official mission, vision, and values? How about goals, strategy, ethics, and brand? And, are there inconsistencies between espoused values and visible behavior? Dissonance is a useful clue. Third, what are the tacit beliefs that are taken for granted and non-negotiable? This level is all about history. What were the beliefs and behaviors of the founders that led to success? Are those assumptions still valid, or holding us back? When we fail to create a vision for the future, it’s because we’re blinded by our own success.

It’s not easy to change a culture. It’s a difficult, dangerous task. The first step is to look for the levers. Architecture is a good place to start. Small changes in governance and environment can make a big impact. Or, we might begin with metrics, using feedback as an engine of learning. Plus, behavior is a powerful medium of intervention. Tiny habits really add up. Last but not least is leadership. Often, change must come from the top.

That reminds me of the Ann Arbor District Library. The director, Josie Parker, assumed leadership in the wake of a scandal. The former finance director had been found guilty of fraud. To regain the trust of the community, Josie set out to build “a culture of generosity.” In time, her efforts became visible on all levels, from the forgiveness of fines to construction of new branch libraries which are among the most beautiful buildings in town. One day, during the holiday season, Josie was volunteering at a bookstore, wrapping gifts to raise money for charity. People had been generous that day, and the donation jar was filled with dollars and change. Suddenly, a man grabbed the jar and ran for the door. Josie chased and tackled him, fracturing her leg in the process. The thief escaped empty-handed, and the story made national news with a headline of “the librarian who saved Christmas.”

Okay. It’s time to get real. It’s time to talk about unicorns. This is a bit dangerous, so hold your horses while I have a drink [raises beer]. This is called Devotion Ale. It’s made by The Lost Abbey. There are reports that the Karl Strauss Brewing Company here in San Diego makes an orange-flavored pale ale called Unicorn Tears. I tried to get some, but it’s absolutely impossible to find. Anyway, this story starts in Amsterdam in February. Our friend, Jared Spool, was at the interaction design conference, and he was tweeting (with some of you) about the relationship between this event and that. He said:

It’s not clear to me there should be separate events. At least, not separated by roles.

Because there’s a divisiveness that isn’t positive to the community, in my opinion.

Not sure separate tribes (even w/overlap) is good long term.

So, I’m in Ann Arbor on a Saturday night, and it’s bedtime, but of course I can’t resist one last dip in the stream. So I open my laptop and these tweets shoot right into the old amygdala. I mean, seriously, we can’t even have our own conference? Within seconds my adrenal glands are writing a response. I can’t recall exactly what they were going to say, something about polar bears being disemboweled by unicorns. Fortunately, my prefrontal cortex regained control, and I began to work towards empathy.

I reminded myself that Jared has publicly committed to building a school for user experience designers, so he’s in a unifying frame of mind. This is where it gets tricky. On the one hand, I’m excited about the Unicorn Institute. The world needs these generalists. This school will be a success. On the other hand, specialists are indispensable too. The world needs interaction designers, content strategists, and information architects. There may not be a lot of us, but we make an impact. We help marketing, engineering, and user experience teams solve unusually tricky problems, and we share our expertise and enthusiasm by writing books and organizing events. Is there some tribal tension? Perhaps. But that’s a small price to pay for intellectual freedom, disciplinary passion, and diversity.

Earlier this year, a guy named Jeremy wrote a blog post entitled “I am an information architect.” It was well-written, uplifting, and reminiscent of a coming out letter from the 1980s. It’s dangerous to be in the minority. It takes courage to be open about who you are. All of us are in the minority sometimes, so let’s try to be kinder when we’re not. Generalists and specialists need each other. This is not a zero sum game. So let’s raise a toast to Jared and his unicorns. We look forward to collaborating with you.

I am an information architect. You can etch that on my tombstone now. It’s not a title but a mindset. IA therefore I am. Of course, we’re still in the process of discovering what that means. In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s open season on polar bears, and that’s okay, but really folks, you don’t need a gun. As I said, this game’s not zero sum. The structuring and organizing of websites is more complex and vital than ever before, but our practice is already so much more. Perhaps instead of “re-framing” we should be “un-framing” information architecture. Our schools of thought aren’t mutually exclusive. There’s no need to be limited to one.

I’m thrilled by the new definitions that have emerged in recent years. Andrea Resmini and Luca Rosati led the way with their cross-channel manifesto about the information architecture of ecosystems. Since then, Jorge Arango has redefined IA as the discipline that’s concerned with “the structural integrity of meaning across contexts.” And, he put a new twist on the old metaphor by explaining that where architects use forms and spaces to design environments for inhabitation, information architects use nodes and links to create environments for understanding.

Of course, Dan Klyn and Andrew Hinton argue that IA is not a metaphor. They invite us to peer through the lens of embodied cognition to see that language is environment and information is architecture. This vision for the unification of physical and digital practice is nicely captured by Andy Fitzgerald’s insight that “architecture is rhetoric for spaces.”

And then there’s Abby Covert. How much can one person do? She’s co-chair of the IA Summit and president of the IA Institute. She invented World IA Day. She’s a consultant, a speaker, a teacher, and now she’s writing a book. Abby dreams of an information architecture for everybody. It’s a vision that totally makes sense.

While all these directions are promising, I know some folks wish we’d pick one. As Caryn Marooney, VP of Communications at Facebook, recently said “Take your messaging and edit it down. Get it to its essence. What is the one line you want people to remember? If your messaging isn’t unbelievably simple, you’re missing the point.” That may be good advice for a company, but I doubt it will work for us. I’m sure some of you disagree. And that’s my point. Our community celebrates diversity. We love clarity, but IA is the opposite of simple. We pay attention to surface behavior but seek insight and leverage in the deep layers of structure. IA is a subset of UX, but UX is also a subset of IA. We’re not really specialists at all. IA contradicts itself. And that’s okay. Because IA is large. IA contains multitudes. IA is changing how we think.

What is the medium of this speech? My thinking-writing tools include email, sticky notes, Word, and BoardThing. My meaning-making tools include my voice, my clothes, these slides, this beer. I’ve published my words on, and they’re already being atomized on Twitter. These words have already changed the architecture of your mind, and they’re building towards a shift in culture. The damage is done. It’s too late. Your brain doesn’t have an undo. But that’s okay. Your mind-body-environment is always in flux, and now you can answer my question.

Each morning, I meditate. I sit with my legs crossed and my eyes closed, and I watch my breath. I aim for insight, awareness, connectedness. I seek an understanding deeper than words. I haven’t attained nirvana yet. I’ll let you know when I do. For now, it’s enough to relax, to enjoy a moment of mindfulness each morning, before engaging in the uneasiness of life.

As I grow older, I find my uneasiness grows too. I’m not talking about a bad back or stiff joints. I’m uneasy about advertising, corruption, externalities, climate change, iatrogenics, factory farms, distracted drivers, polarization, imperialism, singularitarianism, confabulation, dichotomania, and drones. I don’t know how to solve these problems, and neither do you.

But you know what we can do? We can struggle to create a positive vision for the future as individuals, organizations, and societies. We’re in the midst of an in between stage of liminality. We’re on the threshold of sustainability or collapse. To thrive, we will need to change culture. It won’t be fast, but a little change can add up. It won’t be easy, but there’s no other way. And I know this community will contribute, because it’s all about connecting the dots…

In closing, I thank you for your understanding. I love this conference for all the smart people, for the kindness of strangers, for the culture of generosity, but mostly I love the IA Summit because I can be myself and wear shorts.