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The New Spirit of Information Architecture

August 21, 2014 by UX-RADIO

ANDREA RESMINI

“Un esprit nouveau souffle aujourd’hui”: there exists a new spirit (in information architecture that is). In this episode Andrea Resmini shares with us a new way to think about information architecture (IA) by a different way of framing it that reveals a new angle or a new spirit. He emphasizes that we can frame IA more as a design practice or a design activity and not just a form of librarianship.   

HIGHLIGHTS WITH TIMECODES

  • 8:18 About writing “Pervasive Architecture” with Luca Rosati
  • 9:40 Build a larger strategy
  • 12:32 Keep an eye out for the system
  • 14:15 Public transportation systems in Gothenburg
  • 16:35 Johannesburg National Art Gallery in South Africa
  • 21:53 Definitions of Information Architecture and constellations
  • 27:43 How to navigate the new spirit

LET’S TALK

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with the author? What inspired you from this episode? What did you learn? What resources were most helpful? Please add a comment and share your thoughts with us!

HERE’S THE FULL TRANSCRIPT

Lara: I would love to know where you grew up and a little bit about your education.

Andrea: So, I’m originally Italian. So I grew up in Parma which is a city in the north of Italy, which is famous for a couple of things like Parmesan cheese and Parma ham and bankruptcy. Because Parmalat was one of our companies over there, and it went totally bankrupt a few years ago.

I was trained as an architect. This is where I come from. And I think that pretty much marks my way of seeing things and looking at what we do — the lens is that of architecture and design in general.

But especially the lesson of architecture and the idea that we are dealing with places even though we build them with information. So our materials are not bricks, wood or glass. We use information, data and those sort of things.

And through my education at the university, I studied in Milan with a few big names of the time. Milan was pretty much the theme of architecture you had to go into at the time.

I started being interesting in computers and this is around ’89 or ’90 more or less. And since I was probably the only person who sort of understood computers at the time in the department, I started to be the guy caring for the server that we had and trying to build systems to allow students to send in the materials using the internet.

That led to me to become more and more interested in the technological part at the time. So I started to work as an information architect, even if I didn’t really know.. I started to work like that and then I applied the term to me a couple of years afterwards when I started seeing the Polar Bear book and those things coming from the US.

Then I moved onto getting a PhD in informatics and connected to that IA for digital libraries. The story is complicated because in between, I worked as a practitioner, I had my company. We had a few big clients. And then when everything went down over here with the dot com crash, Italy followed suit in a couple of years.

So everything slowed down, so I decided it was time to get back to academia. And now I’m a professor. I live in Sweden, so the whole family moved to a different country. And I teach at Jönköping International Business School, which is a business school where we are trying to bridge media, informatics and design in new and interesting ways.

Lara: So how did you choose to make that your destination?

Andrea: Chance. Everything happens because the occasion passes by and you just grab it.

It was a family thing because my wife had an opportunity to pursue things she was into and we simply decided to move because we honestly couldn’t take anymore of Italy. We got tired of waiting and the things that didn’t work.

It was probably at the right moment in our lives where we needed to change skies and see new and different things.

We love where we are and I think it’s a nice life.

Lara: So what’s the most rewarding thing about working there now?

Andrea: Apart from the fact that we do have a job which is kind of the point of being there. But for me, I would say that one of the most rewarding things is the teaching and research that we do is connected to an international environment where half of my students are coming from all parts of the world.

So we have students coming from China, Pakistan, Iran, Africa, the US we get some (North America), and different parts of Europe.

It’s challenging but it’s also extremely stimulating. And for me, it’s made even better because I’m not inside a Faculty of Design and I don’t work in a New Media department or something. I’m inside a traditional business school, if traditional can be applied.

So we are trying ways to actually talk to the people who don’t know, and need to know about the stuff that we do.

That’s probably the most interesting part.

Lara: That must be wonderful. I think to work with the different cultures, I know that at one of the other talks where they were talking about diversifying teams, we understand the way that we do the work but not necessarily how other cultures do it.

Andrea: Absolutely. That’s extremely interesting and extremely challenging. Because there are all things coming in and they go from the largest possible sphere that surrounds an individual, to the tiniest details of how they relate to others.

In my courses those students usually go through a path with is theoretical and kind of frames the problem. But we work on projects. So they always have exercises, and they always work in groups because that’s what I want them to do.

Most of the jobs that they’ll find will make them be team players. So they need to understand this.

And so many of them have initial issues with that just because maybe in a group you find a Dutch, a German but also a Pakistani and maybe somebody from Canada. And their cultures collide at the beginning, there is no way to avoid it. Some want to be held by their hand and they want to be told everything. They want to know exactly how many words, how many drawings, and they want to be followed up step by step. And some others just don’t want that.

And even in their relationships, some are more openly participative in some ways into what they do. Some others tend to just lean back and be happy doing the stuff which sits in the back of a project.

And some of the times it’s like a clash because maybe they have different views. And even the fact that they are coming from countries that might have issues between them.

This is a very good school for understanding each other, but at the same time it’s difficult to go past the things that you heard all the time growing up in your country and just seeing the different reality of things.

So it’s complicated, but very stimulating. And absolutely fantastic when you come to results and you see what they are able to produce.. And the diversity of ideas and the stroke of genius of the person who just chooses something that’s normal for them, but totally new for everyone else. So that’s amazing.

Lara: I think it deepens the experience when you are able to broaden the way you perceive things. And to learn from each other’s cultures, not necessarily that one is better or one is right. But that there are other ways of solving the problem.

Andrea: It’s never one is better than the other. It’s almost like we have different things and we have different ways of approaching whatever. Or even to relate to each other.

We just need to come to terms that I’m not right, and you aren’t wrong. It’s like we need to find a common ground where we can stand together. And of course I’m going to compromise something and you are going to compromise something else. That’s the way it works.

It’s extremely rewarding when it happens.

Lara: That’s great.

I know you wrote the book Pervasive Information Architecture. Explain to the audience what you mean by pervasive.

Andrea: Well the book is simply one step forward from the things that we used to do and say around 2005 and 2006.

Most of the books on information architecture that you find now, are sort of considering mobile maybe. But they live inside what I would call a web centric, or internet centric point of view.

The book was just a book aimed at information architects, but generally speaking designers of products, artifacts and services. That’s not true anymore, so you can’t work on a website thinking that your website is going to stand as an isolated object that people are going to use and that’s it.

What’s happening is that information just went pervasive. So that’s why it’s titled that. You have bits and pieces of information reaching you at all times, because we carry mobile phones. But also because we have different ways to distribute information around the CD for example, or generally speaking environments.

And that depends whether we like it or we don’t like it isn’t the problem. It’s just there. So the book was a statement about the fact that the website is OK, of course we do websites and that’s part of the job, maybe for some us, that’s 99% of the thing. Or maybe even 100%.

But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to consider the fact that the users of your website would probably also get to the company, product, service, whatever you do, through other means. And that means that you have to build a larger strategy, a larger information architecture that encompasses the website but includes these other things.

Which means also that you could possibly not do, not work, not design these things. You might not be in charge of the mobile app. Or you might not be in charge of the stores for example.

But you have to take care of the fact that somebody will which is something that is not at the center of the attention for what I call classical information architecture. Because that wasn’t there at the time largely.

So the book is a statement. It’s an idea that information is going everywhere, bled out of the screens and went into appliances, walls, real-time displays, watches, mobile phones, tablets. And we need to design for this, and this is a totally different world because we used to sit at the chair and do computing in front of a screen for 1 hour, 2 hours, 3 hours, then we switched off and went to have a drink or enjoy a walk or whatever we wanted to do.

It’s not like that anymore. You are always connected in some ways. And you always receive, produce and consume information.

And the old way of doing things is still useful, but it’s not enough. So that’s the point that the book wants to make.

Lara: In today’s talk at the IA Summit, you were talking about the complexity of information.

Andrea: It’s a consequence in some way. Once you move off of the idea that the only thing you are caring for is one simple isolated artifact, you start to understand first of all that item was not as simple as it looked in the first place. It’s not so simple.

And at the same time, being part of a larger system, the complexity of the things that you have to manage, increases by orders of magnitude. So you have to have a completely different attention to the problems you deal with.

I was very pleased that many of the people who came and spoke to me after the talk were actually either architects or had a background in architecture or love architecture and have an interest in it. And they were all pointing out the fact that this is exactly what we have been doing as architects. We always considered a building, city, or intervention is a system. So I don’t know everything and I will need a lot of different professionals in order to be able to actually deliver the final product.

But I need to keep an eye out for the system itself. And I need to know that I’m going to have trees and glass and I need painters, and I need carpentry and all these sort of things.

And the fact is, this is true but it’s true only for people who come from that background which is probably part of the change in a way.. Part of what is coming up.. The fact that we are sort of moving out a little bit because as I said, we keep a continuity we think in terms of a longer history that goes back and reaches to Lou [Rosenfeld] and Peter [Morville] but also back to Richard Saul Wurman and many other people.

There is a continuity but there is also a little bit of change. I was speaking about a new spirit in some ways, and the new spirit is the fact that we understand that the complexity of these environments requires more skills and probably also different skills in some ways.

We need to be able to understand these sprawling information architectures as things that we want to make into places where people can live.

One of the things I mentioned during the presentation was that the hours that we are spending online are increasing exponentially and they are already now topping the working hours per week in the EU at least. And that’s a global change, because that’s not time that you spend sitting at a computer, just time that you spend connected to Facebook, Twitter, Path or whatever you are using in order to make it work — and to mail and websites.

And this is a change. This is a big change that we need to design for, otherwise we will be designed by this thing. And this shouldn’t happen.

Lara: So share with the audience an example of a time that you were able to work with a client and they understood what you were explaining to them, where you were able to come out with a great product?

Andrea: So in terms of pervasive information architecture, staying with the idea that we design for these new things.

The two largest things I’ve been involved with recently is the re-design, even though it’s not really a re-design, but working on public transportation systems in Gothenburg which is the 2nd largest city in Sweden. It was not just me of course, there was a large group of people working on many different things. And my contribution to the general view was exactly to bring in a perspective that we were not designing a mobile app for travellers.

We were not designing bus stops in order to make information more accessible to people who were on the street. But that we needed to take care of the larger thing, the global goal was we need to make people travel safely and comfortably across the city even if they don’t know Gothenburg.

So there was a system. And I’m going to say that most of my time was spent trying to get this through the stakeholders in order to make everything happen.

I’m pretty sure we’ve succeeded up to a point. And I sort of verified, personally touched with my hand, where are the gaps in thinking simply because we have built a world around us which is silo’d. So everyone owns a part of the building and sometimes these parts that own the building or the parts of the building compete, were simply not on good terms with each other. So we need to overcome that.

There were a lot of meetings and a lot of trying to come up with the idea, if I’m designing the bus spots as part of an information which is pervasive, I need to come to terms of the bus stop as an artifact. So the sign post and everything belongs to a certain entity. But the pavement belongs to somebody else. And maybe they don’t agree that they should talk to each other.

So you need to solve that first, even before you start considering the problems.

The second one has been a very interesting project dealing with Johannesburg National Art Gallery in South Africa. And again, I was a part of a larger team that involved Jason Hobbs and Terence Fenn from the University of Johannesburg and many others. And it was an interesting problem because it spanned physical and digital.

So we were trying to find ways to improve the way the National Art Gallery in Johannesburg which is a beautiful institution in a beautiful building in downtown Johannesburg which is an area with a lot of issues, to be more visible, to be more accessible and to be more there not only for the international audience that knows about paintings from Rembrandt or other famous painters. But to the locals.

So make it part of the thing. And my approach was a cross-channel approach in trying to see if I could devise any ways that through the use of information and different channels like print, like signage around the gallery itself, like change in the physical barriers of things and introducing new ways to use the spaces, we could do something.

So the process is still on-going. We have delivered part of the initial materials and we hope that we’d be able to produce something interesting in the end.

I would say that the major take away from all of these things, that there is definitely a need for these sort of things.

How to solve problems generally speaking? This is more a case by case thing so far. And we are still building up a general theory or a general strategy for working in the different environments.

Lara: And I think to figure out what their real problem is, you have to ask some really good questions.

Andrea: Yeah, one of the things has to do with complexities as you mentioned before. One you introduce complexity, you introduce the idea that there are systems, things that work together. And one of the things about systems is that you really don’t know what a system is or what is part of a certain system.

For example, when a known sneakers and sports-wear firm decided to find out who their competitors were, they commissioned an agency to go and ask people and see, “Is it that brand? Is it the other brand?”

And they found out that the major competitor was a game console. And that was totally unpredicted at the time.

They found out that people decided, “Should I spend money on shoes or should I spend money on games?” And that’s a system, even if they didn’t know that their major competitor was in a totally different market segment or sector.

The question is, to define a system, a web application, I have a mobile thing, then there is maybe signage and things, it’s the way you ask the questions that frames what’s going to be inside.

So that’s the thing. Unless you ask certain questions, you won’t find certain artifacts inside your system. And there is no right or wrong way, it just really depends on the context and what you are trying to achieve.

So it’s complex in a way.

Lara: So when you are in that scenario and you are asking the questions, who is present at the table?

Andrea: I work in Sweden mostly. And for me it was interesting to see when it comes to Sweden, everyone is at a table. Sweden is a co-designed country by cultural attitude. So the meetings involve everyone and there are tons of meetings always coming up.

In South Africa at the Johannesburg Art Gallery project, there was a choice to sort of narrow down what we wanted to do and find actors. So part of the design process was trying to figure out who the actors in the process were. And the cross-channel approach, allowed us to introduce more actors than you normally have because of course, you need to consider different expertise, and different professionals as well.

We spoke to staff from the gallery. We spoke to the executives from the gallery. We spoke to the people who are the general financing group or the sponsor group of the gallery. We spoke to the City of Johannesburg who is a stakeholder in the thing. We managed to interview students and people who visit the galleries — art dealers.

There was a a long process in trying to figure this thing out.

The interesting part is we should’ve left somebody out because this is our view of our complex problems. So we aren’t saying that this is right. We are just offering a solution that we hope is going to be at least partially successful in trying to address the problem that we saw in the beginning there.

The interesting part is that you could’ve solved it in many other different ways. But this is the beauty of having a complex approach of things, and being sure that you are just providing one solution out of many. This is also where the role of IA is very important in framing the idea that you might have many different orders or ways of doing things and they aren’t necessarily incorrect.

There is a good example I make on my blog, there is a short blog post from a couple of years ago where I speak about constellations. And constellations were an example because somebody on Twitter, which is always a good excuse to go on a limb and write a blog post, mentioned the fact that Richard Saul Wurman had these beautiful definitions of IA back then when he was working on trying to figure out the problem space.

And one of them was.. I love them all, but one of them has something about figuring out the patterns which are inherent in the data. And that inherent part always bugged me because I don’t believe there is such a thing as something which is inside there that you just carve out. But it’s always the look that you have.

Constellations were a very good example because constellations help us navigate, it helps explore and discover and generally speaking, going around.

Of course we have also horoscopers. And you have people believing that the stars drive their things. And you are a lion or a pieces whatever. But they don’t exist. They aren’t real. There aren’t there.

We know that if we just move away from the earth, we aren’t seeing the same constellations. And by the way, somebody at a certain point decided that a few stars were to be grouped into a pattern.

So they aren’t real, but they’ve been incredibly successful at helping us doing stuff.

That’s exactly the way I see, the way you solve issues. You aren’t trying to say this is the reality of things. But just, this is way that we can solve or produce a solution to something. Or introduce new ideas and just move on and do something good with them.

And I think that very much still stands. It’s still the crux of the problem.

Lara: I think you stated it really well in your talk today. You mentioned re-shaping reality.

Andrea: This is what we do all the time. IA is very good at that because it works with information and language. And the idea that we are basically what we perceive, read, see and say. Words have a powerful impact on how we frame the world.

It’s difficult sometimes to speak about these things. I was commenting with a person who was asking after the talk because it really feels like you are trying to make the metrics visible while staying inside. And you need to take the pill, otherwise you aren’t able to actually see that what you are seeing out, is the matrix.

It’s a problem but I think we are slowly getting to the point where we can actually start to see the patterns that are there as useful ways to solve things and not as the solution with an S.

Lara: I think it’s fascinating. There has been so many great talks today. And I think that being able to really reshape the reality, to really do a better job of defining the problem, of understanding the behavior, the psychology of the user. And figuring out a solution and then also adding the beauty to it.

It sounds like such a great process if we could put all of those things together.

Andrea: We are working on that. And I mean this is a long, slow and steady process that we are going through. And I think it has to do with the maturation of the field in some ways. And simply with the idea that as I said at the beginning, this web centric lens that we had which was necessary. There was nothing that we could do.

Christina Wodtke was in a conversion with me and others a few days ago on Twitter and we were mentioning this idea. And she was just saying, back then, who could’ve thought that you could design a website that has no content? And that’s Facebook, that’s Twitter. They are empty containers where people are producing the content.

At the time it was impossible. It was like everything was crafted so that you knew what was going inside the thing.

So this is like a zoomed out view that we have of the problem now. And we can see that much better, so our tools have been sharpened in order to be able to solve better problems.

And we are also getting out of that.. I love to always fight over this thing with Peter Morville and others who are from the old school, they were the forefathers and the people who actually gave us the tools and the vision of this thing.

What they did at the time was perfect and what we needed. But it was like saying the world is a library. And we need libraries but I wouldn’t sleep in a library. I also need a bedroom and I need a place where I can go and have a drink.

That’s for example what Facebook is. Facebook is the perfect shoddy pub close to home where all your friends are going. You don’t particularly like the beer, you don’t particularly like the owner, and sometimes they slip you a beer which is not so good or something, but everybody is there. So it’s good to be there and hang out a little.

That’s the kind of thing that we have to do. We need the library, but you also need everything else. And this is happening because information is everywhere. So we are constantly being immersed in information which is shaping the reality that we live around.

Just the think about the process of getting to Baltimore for me. I basically knew more about the surrounding of the hotel coming over here than I could possibly know 10 or 15 years ago. Google Maps and Places.. Somebody put up a map with all the nice spots.

It changes the perception that I have of the place I’m going to even before I’m there. And when I’m there, the Baltimore I see is a different thing because I’m not totally lost in a different reality. I know where I’m moving.

Lara: How do you think we can help people move forward through this new spirit? How do we navigate?

Andrea: With the learned knowledge that it’s going to be difficult, not easy at the beginning. But with the idea that this is necessary.

I think as I said, it’s very much being served the pills. And once you decide which pill to take and if it’s the right one, you see it and it’s there. The idea that there is a huge difference between being seated at a computer and being immersed in information and computing all the time, while the seating around you computes.

Because that is happening. Everything goes and everything moves around. And everything is being remediated and co-produced.

So I think that during the second talk we did with Eric Reiss in the Flex track we mentioned a few things. And there are many different principles that we try to iron out when we go into lecturing and doing our job.

But I think two things are necessary. We need to be bold and we need to be outrageous. Those are necessary things that we have to do. We don’t have to be afraid of making mistakes, of doing the wrong things or failing. But failing spectacularly because that’s going to happen and it’s going to open up new ways probably.

It always happens when the transitions and I think that there is new interest in this sort of vision or angle.

Lara: How would you articulate the new angle?

Andrea: The new angle, first of all, it’s trying to frame information architecture as a design practice. Or a making practice.

We aren’t sure if we want to use the word design or something else. Because it’s pretty much a loaded term, especially in America. But generally speaking, a design activity, not simply some formal librarianship that you take to the web in some ways.

And I would say that we considered that to be the foundation of a different way of looking at ethics, poetics and critique, which we are definitely lacking now. There is no such thing, and we need that.

We need to be able to speak about information architecture as you do for paintings and fine arts or a sketch or whatever.

Lara: That’s fantastic. I really appreciate your time today. Thank you so much.

Andrea: Thank you.

Lara: So where can people find out more about you? Tell them about your website and your book.

Andrea: My website is going to be difficult to pronounce in English since it’s my last name dot com. So it might be difficult but I’m on Twitter with my last name, @Resmini.

That’s a good place to start. And I would love to hear if people have anything to say.

Lara: Wonderful, thanks again.

Andrea: Thank you.

 

MORE ABOUT ANDREA

Andrea is an information architect with FatDUX, a UX firm with headquarters in Copenhagen, and a researcher at the University of Borås, Sweden.

An ICT professional since 1989 and a practising information architect since 1999,Andrea holds a PhD in Legal Informatics and a MA in Architecture and Industrial Design, and he is currently President of the Information Architecture Institute.

He’s a frequent speaker at European and international conferences, teaches a few courses, pretends to play the piano, reads far too many books, chairs the Italian IA Summit, and co-founded the Journal of Information Architecture and the European center for user experience.

Connect with Andrea here:

pervasive

Pervasive Information Architecture is “an ingenious collection of medium-independent heuristics to guide the complex decisions that lie ahead … a map to the future of cross-channel design.” — Peter Morville

MORE ABOUT LUCA ROSATI

Luca is a free-lance information architect and adjunct professor of IA and HCI at University for Foreigners of Perugia, Italy. One of Italy’s pioneer in IA field, he has been a speaker at several international conferences — including EuroIA, the IA Summit, and HCI International.

Luca is the co-author of the book Organizing Knowledge: From Libraries to Information Architecture for the Web (Tecniche Nuove, 2006) and the author ofInformation Architecture: From Everyday things to the Web (Apogeo, 2007).

Luca is also part of the EuroIA Organizing Committee, sits on the Italian IA Summit Board, and is editor for the Journal of Information Architecture. He strongly supports a holistic approach to IA and the application of IA to everyday environments.

His website is lucarosati.it.

Reframing_Information_Architecture_resmini

Reframing Information Architecture reframes information architecture for complex, service-oriented ecosystems. It provides unique insights into the research-practice conversation on the development of the discipline and includes contributions from many well-known practitioners and thought leaders in the field of UX.

RESOURCES & REFERENCES

Andrea’s Book List – at least the beginnings of it:

 

WORLD INFORMATION ARCHITECTURE DAY – 2013 worldiaday.org

UX POLAND – GHOSTS IN THE MACHINE THE ARCHITECTURE OF INFORMATION SPACES uxpoland