The parable of the railroad: a useful metaphor for Information Architects

Sarah R. Barrett
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3 min readMar 30, 2023

I find the practice of information architecture is mostly about convincing people that something needs to be done, rather than making diagrams or coding anything. Categories and structures are deep within us. An attempt to create a new architectural approach is an attempt to create a new shared fiction that is more powerful than the old one. One of the most useful tools in my toolbox is a good metaphor. Today, instead of an exhaustively-researched piece, I’m sharing one of my metaphors.

Photo by Pat Whelen on Unsplash

In the 1850s, Australia needed a railway system. One colony decided to use 4' 8 1/2" track, the other decided to use 5' 3" track. They haggled back and forth, people got angry, I’m sure, but it never got ironed out. Instead, as new colonies were founded, they became states, and the country continued to industrialize, the railways developed to meet each state’s needs, rather than that of the emerging nation. It got worse. By the 1870s, passengers or freight going from the east to the west coast of Australia had to be unloaded from one train and put back on another five times. These choices, once made, are hard to undo. Australia didn’t have a standardized rail network until 1982.

Railway networks are extremely powerful. They enable people and goods to travel long distances cheaply. They also allowed the emergence of national markets, rather than an economy where prices differed significantly from town to town. The modern nation state as we understand it would not exist without railways. It was the most transformative technology of the 19th century.

Connectivity, however, requires standardization. It doesn’t work as well when everything has to get off one train and get back on another at every internal border. Rail connectivity required standardization on a previously unthinkable scale. Not just in the coordination of infrastructure, but it actually required us to standardize time across cities. People and information had never moved fast enough to require 7:30 in one place to be simultaneous to 7:30 in another. Suddenly, everybody had to agree on a lot more about the world, so they could reap the benefits of this system.

Microsoft Learn, the site I primarily work on, is like many enterprise digital presences. We use dozens of different gauges for our railway. At each boundary, we ask our customers to interrupt what they’re doing, disembark, and get on a new train, because we’ve decided individual identity is more important than standardization. “The whole site works this way,” we say, “Except for these parts, they’re different.”

We have goals for our platform: More engagement, a better customer experience, more efficient maintenance. These goals are hindered at every turn by our unwillingness to standardize. As information architects, or even entire product teams, we are the Australian minister of transport being told to reduce the number of days to get cargo across the country, but we still have to unload it and reload it five times. Reduce the maintenance costs of our railways, but still maintain a set of vehicles for each non-standardized network.

Australia had computers before they had standardized rail because it is a hard problem to solve. It is a technologically simple problem: Use one gauge of rail. It is an incredibly difficult people problem, just like most IA challenges. As a product team, this is a choice we make over and over. Each time we bring a new area of the site online, we can choose to make it better or we can choose to make it worse.