Information architecture’s role in UX design

Jorge Arango discusses the state of IA and the importance of designers' understanding of context and perspective.

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Jorge Arango is an information architect who has been practicing in the user experience field for more than 20 years. Before moving to San Francisco about a year ago, his work was conducted in Panama. Last year, he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and now works as a partner at Futuredraft, a digital product design consultancy. Arango brings a unique perspective, given his background in architecture prior to becoming an information architect. He is currently finishing up the 4th Edition of Information Architecture — lovingly referred to as “The Polar Bear book” — with Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville.

IA’s broadening appeal

Information architecture (IA) has always been an important part of user experience design, though not always acknowledged as such. With the emergence of social, IoT, and mobile, we have watched IA taking on a more dominant role in product development. Arango talked a bit about the evolution:

I’m surprised by how many people actually know about it because I think, frankly, a lot of what we do is fairly esoteric. I’m not just talking about information architects. I’m talking about those of us in technology in general, and in the design professions. On having moved to California, I have this open question in my mind: how much do people know about this stuff here? Is it something that is talked about? I’ve been pleasantly surprised by interactions with clients and prospects … There seems to be a realization. In many cases, they probably don’t know to call it ‘information architecture’ per se, but there seems to be a realization that stuff needs to be easy to find and easy to understand.

Design skills: Perspective and context

I asked Arango to comment on the skills that make a great designer. Specifically, there have been a few trends I’ve witnessed: a return to the fundamentals, user research, and information architecture, in particular, as well as a push for more designers to have both programming and business literacy. Arango noted that it’s important to know your possibilities as well as your limits, but also to be able to think about your work in its broader context:

My perspective on this is very informed by the experience of having studied architecture. … When you’re making a building, buildings are very complex, and they have a lot of materials that go into making them, and they all have different characteristics — some of them are better at tension, some are better at compression, some are more porous than others. The way that they’re fabricated or the way that they’re put together at the site affects what you can and cannot do with them.

I think it’s the same in our field. … One of the challenges in designing digital artifacts is that it seems to be a completely open space in which you can do anything, but there are constraints and particular opportunities inherent in the different materials that you’re working with, whether it’s a particular type of database or front-end technology. … I think that at the most basic level, having that understanding of what you can and cannot do with the materials is very important.

At another level, and thinking a bit more abstractly, I think the most important skill is being able to be good at what you do, but also being able to jump up and down levels of abstraction. To think about what you’re doing, but not think just about the little piece that you’re working on, but think about the context that it fits into. Whether it’s the business context that it’s in or the role within the organization that you’re being asked to play, but also even broader context than that: where does this fit into the market place or as whole in society. Being able to zoom up and down levels of abstraction, I think, is very important. Again, it’s informed by your understanding of not just the materials, but also the direction that the technologies are taking in general.

Inspiration from unexpected places

I asked Arango to talk about what people and products he finds interesting or inspiring. Given his multifaceted background, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by part of his response:

Someone in particular who is very interesting to me is the musician, artist, and record producer Brian Eno. … I find that his ideas are almost as interesting as his work. He talks a lot about having his work be about creating a context and creating frames around which he sees things. Also, much of his work is driven by the desire to create a system to produce the work as opposed to produce the work itself. In many cases, the interesting thing about what he does is the system that he sets up to create whatever it is you’re listening to or observing.

You can listen to the entire interview on the SoundCloud player above or on our SoundCloud stream.

Cropped image by Paul Mannix on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

This interview is part of our ongoing investigations into Experience Design and Business and Experience Design and the Internet of Things.

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