World IA Day 2016 in Bristol

This weekend I attended World IA Day in Bristol. The event is organised simultaneously in 61 locations across 31 countries. The local one was put together by Nomensa, an awesome Bristol web agency whom I had the pleasure of freelancing with for 3 months last year.

The day offered a variety of talks: some more philosophical, others more practical. The overarching theme of the day was ‘information everywhere, architects everywhere’. Talks focused on what architecture is (and whether ‘architecting’, as Kanye West used it, is indeed a verb). It was about what it means that in the digital age, information can really go everywhere.

Simon Norris - From taxonomy to data and beyond

Simon’s talk gave us an interesting overview of the history of information architecture (IA). According to Simon, four paradigms characterise the development of IA: Classic IA, User-generated IA, Pervasive IA and Inversion. He related each one to a change of context.

First spoken about in the sixties at companies like IBM, the discipline of IA started with the popularisation of the phrase by Richard Saul Wurman, and the publication of the book ‘Information Architecture’ by Morville and Rosenfield, also known as the Polar Bear Book.

Simon considers IA as a ‘sister’ discipline of UX (separately, like chemistry and physics are separate disciplines). One does not supersede the other, they work together. IA is about the blending of the immaterial and the material, Simon said. In this view information itself is completely shapeless, and giving it shape is what IA is about.

Simon discussed these four waves of IA:

  1. Classic IA - Context: the web was quickly becoming the most popular technology ever. Classic IA was about what to equip designers with to make sense of all the information that needs to go on a website. Simon said that for him, Classic IA was about defining taxonomies to aid the design of websites that support human decision making.

  2. User generated IA - Context: the web had become a global phenomenon in many ways, it was bigger than what anyone expected. Another shift happened: User generated IA. It was almost the opposite of Classic IA: it was user orientated not designer orientated. Users were enabled to make their own taxonomies and with that, shape their own experiences. Example: (now Delicious), the bookmarking website, lets users save URLs and manage them within taxonomies like tags and categories.

  3. Pervasive IA - Context: people started to use computers everywhere. It was no longer a discrete activity, computing had become ubiquitous, and interaction started happening ‘cross channel’. IA was no longer about labeling and hierarchies, it became about sense making and place making. Resmini and Rosati wrote ‘Pervasive Information Architecture’. IA now had to consider changing and emerging experience across channels.

  4. Inversion - Context: digital is now influencing the physical world. The fourth wave is about ‘inversion’. There is now so much data, ‘big data’, that we could do analysis on, that we are urged to look at information in a completely new way, Simon said.

Simon recommended reading “A brief history of information architecture” by Resmini/Rosati (PDF).

Shaula Zanchi - The world is greater than the sum of its parts

Shaula works in ‘physical’ architecture and talked about how internal information is managed at her company. For each project there is a lot of information that they need to keep track of. One example of information is keeping track of samples used in the architectural process: which they had, where they were, where they came from, et cetera.

They began making sense of their information and the relationships within it through a spreadsheet. Then they started using a database with some PHP, as a kind of Excel plus. They then started adding layout kind of things to what they had, so that it could look and feel more like what they now call Sample Library. It all became part of the bigger intranet project.

A very interesting case study!

Team BBC

The next talk up was by what Simon called “Team BBC”: four smart people involved with the BBC’s information architecture.

Dan Ramsden talked about blending the day’s theme, ‘information everywhere’, with another: ‘uncertainty’. At BBC, he said, they literally have millions of pages online. This is a lot of content and information. The ratio of content producers to designers is roughly 83:1. Projects vary from simple projects with a clear direction and scope to more complex ones, with many uncertainties. Information architecture helps them hugely with these challenges. The most important IA adds to the BBC, Dan concluded, is that by defining a structure, we create meaning.

Luisa Sousa then talked about joining and becoming a User Experience Architect at the BBC. When she first started, she explained, Luisa felt like being in a box where she couldn’t move or see much. On her first project, a new website for GEL, she learned to stop worrying about the word ‘architect’ in her job title, and to start being involved as a problem solver, master of questions, designer and jelly bean eater. From her talk, I understood good information architects are able to put on many hats.

Barry Briggs talked about practical aspects of being a user experience architect. He emphasised how complex IA work can be, as there are many gaps between bits of information. He showed how flow charts can help. Not only do they help verifying IA work with stakeholders, they also help with dividing stakeholdership across different parts of the chart. Letting team members and stake holders be involved with specific parts of the flow chart, also aids working in parallel, Barry explained.

Lastly, Cyrièle Piancastelli talked about advocating for UX at BBC. The best user experience, she explained, enables innovation, is an investment and is essential. The best way for user experience (and perhaps information architecture). At the BBC, as Dan also mentioned, there is lots of good content. When you are already sure about your content, the thing that you can make a difference with is how your present it, said Cyrièle. With good IA, we can make a difference.

Karey Helms - Making the invisible physical

Karey talked about how to make sense of complex data driven systems to design enterprise solutions. She discussed what makes enterprise UX so challenging and what physical prototyping is, and showed us some cool example projects.

One of the major challenges Karey’s company had, is that many of their users are ‘situationally disabled’. Whether they are potentially under stress (healthcare patients) or wearing gloves (when working in a warehouse): they can be in complex situations, and interfaces need to be designed appropriately. I think this goes for users outside enterprise as well: we should always design for circumstances that we are aware or unaware of.

Physical prototyping or model making, Karey explained, is used by her company to identify what ‘core components’ of a project are, to situate things in context and to explore interaction modalities.

Karey showed some great and personal examples:

  • the ‘party mode’ on her website that corresponds with a Philips Hue light on her desk. Information, she concluded from this project, is emergent, part of an ecosystem and not a fixed modality.
  • the ‘burrito’ bot: it analyses use of emoji in personal communication between her and her husband, and then reports who the weeks’ best spouse was at the end of each week. From this she found that information has a large role in the design of systems, but also that it has broader implications and varying levels of fidelity.

Ben Scott-Robinson - Making money out of IA

Ben works for Ordnance Survey, Britain’s ‘national mapping agency’. Making maps, he explained, is in its core all about information architecture. His talk was about how OS makes money from IA. The main thing they produce, he said, clarity of information. Detailed information, in their case, used by the likes of governments and telecom providers.

Despite the IA-like activities being at the core of the company, OS’ website was not ‘generating leads’ or selling products very well. This almost lead to the closure of the website, but this did not happen. They decided to work on a new website and have a strong focus on user testing during the process.

Ben explained OS decided to make ‘happiness of users’ a key metric for their definition of success. Their company’s performance would be judged by how happy their users were. There was an big role for NPS (net promotor score), a number that expresses the chance a customer would recommend your company to others. NPS, they decided, equals happiness. When they first started, the NPS was very low, negative even. Then they started using UX processes like paper prototyping and card sorting. They built a new website, showed it to stakeholders. Some departments were unhappy as their bit wasn’t in the main navigation, but this is where the user testing sessions came in handy: there were many a user testing video they were able to show to back up their decision.

Dan Klyn - Everything needs to be actually architected

The last talk of the day was a great Kanye West-inspired keynote by Dan Klyn. A greatly inspiring talk, about whether architecting is a verb (compared with the word ‘designed’, he said, it is about something more fundamental than design). Dan emphasised that architecture is not design. He also talked about the difference between good design and better design, which he said is immeasurable.

Dan Klyn Dan Klyn

The reason we don’t call architects something like ‘building designers’, Dan said, is that they operate on a different level, being the level of human agreement. An interesting challenge in IA Dan mentioned is that of the ‘structural integrity of meaning across contexts’: the ‘mess’ that iTunes currently is, is an example of a product where this needs improvement.


I had a great time at World IA Day 2016 and learned a bunch about information, architecture and information architecture! Practical tips about different approaches and working together, but also theoretical ideas about the meaning of information architecture concepts. Also, I should definitely go and read the Polar Bear book.

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