Websites are not living rooms and other lessons for information architecture

Sarah R. Barrett
Mar 24 · 6 min read

Wherever you are, please take a moment and think if you can remember where your grandparents kept their telephone. Close your eyes if you need to. Where was your high school locker? Where is your can opener in your house right now?

Now, where is your most recent copy of your resume on your laptop?

For most of us, the first set of challenges will be much easier than the other, even though you have interacted with that copy of your resume more recently than you used your grandparents’ telephone. It’s probably also easier to tell someone else where to find the can opener than it would be to give them directions to a document on your computer, even if one of them is labeled and searchable and one of them isn’t.

Intuitively, people can feel their brains being good at understanding things like rooms and tables, and they can feel them being bad at understanding software, apps, and websites. Designers sometimes take this to mean that the visual language of digital experiences is unclear and choose to style things to look like the real world.

Two icons depicting a note or document. The left icon is visually skeuomorphic, trying to look like a physical notepad. The right icon uses “flat” design and does not attempt to mimic the look of paper or binding.

Skeuomorphism, or using decorative design cues in a derivative object that were functional in its predecessor, continues to go in an out of fashion. While fashion shifts, skeuomorphism can be useful at the icon or individual button level, but makes an overall experience much harder to use when the metaphor is taken too far. Making a toggle look like a toggle can help users understand they can click it, but a music app that looks like a radio is baffling to nearly everyone.

Architectural skeuomorphism is particularly seductive, because we know how easy it is to navigate the real world and we feel like we should be able to replicate that in the digital world. This approach was common in the 90s, perhaps most infamously with Microsoft Bob, which attempted to make navigating applications easier by using the metaphor of a house:

A screenshot of Microsoft Bob, which organized basic task applications into a family room-like space. You click on a pen cup for email and a book lying on a table for your address book. The chairs, fireplace, and other elements of the room make it look more like a room but serve no discernable purpose. The two side walls of the room both have doors labeled “Door to Public Study.”
A screenshot of Microsoft Bob, which organized basic task applications into a family room-like space. You click on a pen cup for email and a book lying on a table for your address book. The chairs, fireplace, and other elements of the room make it look more like a room but serve no discernable purpose. The two side walls of the room both have doors labeled “Door to Public Study.”
The family room in Microsoft Bob

As laughable as this seems now, if you do information architecture for any length of time, a stakeholder will eventually ask you for Microsoft Bob. “Why can’t I have my files in a filing cabinet and my contacts in a Rolodex on my desk? That would be a great IA!” This happens more often than you would think, because it feels simple. Simple feels good. But in this case, it doesn’t work.

Apart from the many reasons why something like Microsoft Bob didn’t do well, it actually focuses on visual skeuomorphism while disregarding everything about how physical experiences work. Look at that picture again. How often are you in a family room that has two different doors to the study? On parallel walls no less? You can put doorknobs on things all you want, but everybody knows how rooms work.

While there is a lot that IA can learn from actual architecture or city planning, websites aren’t buildings or cities, and they don’t have to work like them. Instead, they should be designed according to the same principles that people’s brains expect from physical experiences.

For example, people don’t need documents to look like physical pieces of paper, but it’s confusing when Google Docs gives different information about and actions for the same document in different contexts:

A comparison of two popovers for the same object in Google Docs and Google Drive. In one experience, the user can do many more things (make a copy, download, etc.) with the object than in the other.
(Image and example from the excellent https://alistapart.com/article/ux-for-lizard-brains)

It fundamentally doesn’t make sense that you can get a link for this document when you view it through Google Drive (right), but not when you view it through Google Docs (left). That’s like being able to fold a paper in half when you’re in the living room but not when you’re in the kitchen, and the human brain doesn’t understand it.

Similarly, designers don’t need to make digital experiences look like rooms, or buildings, or to draw fanciful maps of them. However, we need to make sure they make sense when people bring their built-in tools for understanding to them.

One of the main tools for understanding is the process of mapping. Andrew Hinton defines mapping as taking “action toward understanding” in his book Understanding Context (chapter 16). This action might look like scanning a page, hovering over things to see if labels appear, clicking around to see what’s there, or just navigating through a site. As people do all these things, they’re looking for that action to create greater understanding than they had before. Mapping skills are highly developed in most people from a young age. A very small child will notice when furniture has moved in their house or remember where to find the crayons from day to day. At the beginning of this article, we even went further back, showing how well most of us can remember locations relative to anything else. Personally, I don’t remember my middle school Spanish teacher’s name, but I remember where she stood in the classroom relative to the windows.

This genius for places has been an accepted feature of human memory for a very long time. The method of loci, or the “memory palace” if you’re a Sherlock fan, dates back to the fifth century BCE and is shared across many cultures.

[The] proud tradition began, at least according to legend, in the fifth century B.C. with the poet Simonides of Ceos standing in the rubble of the great banquet hall collapse in Thessaly. As the poet closed his eyes and reconstructed the crumbled building in his imagination, he had an extraordinary realization: He remembered where each of the guests at the ill-fated dinner had been sitting. Even though he had made no conscious effort to memorize the layout of the room, it had nevertheless left a durable impression on his memory. From that simple observation, Simonides reputedly invented a technique that would form the basis of what came to be known as the art of memory… Just about anything that could be imagined, he reckoned, could be imprinted upon one’s memory, and kept in good order, simply by engaging one’s spatial memory in the act of remembering. (Moonwalking with Einstein, pp. 93–94)

Australian Aboriginal memory palaces use the land itself to embody and recall truly dazzling amounts of knowledge and sustain it over huge spans of time. In the US, there are memory championships where competitors memorize the sequence of a pack of playing cards in 21.5 seconds. All of this is based on the simple fact that people tend to remember where things are. Because none of us were issued new brains along with a WiFi password, this is equally true of digital experiences as it is of physical experiences, if information architects choose to play by the rules.

To make our digital experiences mappable according to people’s existing skills, we have to do four things, each of which will get its own article in this series:

  1. Understand your scale. Our brains understand and remember tabletop-scale experiences differently than they understand and remember landscape-scale experiences. Digital experiences come in both scales, and you need to know whether you’re using one, the other, or both. If you can’t tell, that’s a problem!
  2. Leverage the principles of naïve geography. A person doesn’t have to have taken a physics class to instantly calculate where a thrown ball will go, based on force and angle. Similarly, people don’t have to be geographers to make complex and accurate assumptions about space. If your experience is a landscape, you can assume your users will make sense of space using a few principles.
  3. Check your wayfinding. Not all real-world experiences are easily mappable, as anyone who has gotten lost in an office building can attest. Once you understand your scale and the mapping skills your users are using, you can make sure it’s intelligible by assessing your wayfinding in the same way people who design supermarkets and museum exhibits do.
  4. Use standard elements intentionally. None of this is a call to overhaul your design systems! As we go through this process, you should be recognizing lots of roles that standard elements like persistent navigation or breadcrumbs can play. We’ll finish with a method to check your experiences to make sure those elements are covering everything they need to without redundancy.

Many thanks to Rachel Price, for co-developing the workshop that these articles are based on. Remembering that Microsoft Bob existed is one of her many essential contributions.

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