This piece will go into detail of the similarities of strategies that homeowners and Information Architects both acquire.
Homeowner ≈ Information Architect
Workable Web Solutions says that as an Information Architect, we help people find what they are looking for in an effort to take many pieces of information and figure out the relationships between them. This definition promotes a relatable and easily understandable explanation of what many of us do as Information Architects.
As a homeowner, many people do not like to live in a mess so they look for relationships between items and organize them to match their lifestyle. Organizing a mess in your home and looking at a mess of information are similar situations because they promote the same outcome: a taxonomy.
There are number of commonalities between how the typical organized homeowner taxonomizes aspects of their home and how people in the industry taxonomize data. We as Information Architects can use these strategies that organized homeowners implement to better inform their industry practices.
Organized people create their own strategies
Looking at someone's closet, you may notice they have some strategic method of organization. This is normal. Creating taxonomies of objects in a home can often be an unconscious behavior that many people participate in. These taxonomies are very similar to the ones that Information Architects create after data collection.
Cynthia Ewer, Author of Cut the Clutter: A Simple Organization Plan for a Clean and Tidy Home is very well known for teaching her organization strategies to homeowners. Her article “Declutter 101: Strategies to Cut Clutter,” teaches the readers various strategies for organizing their home and cutting away at clutter. Clutter is just a mess of “things” that many of us fall victim to. If you don’t have a junk drawer somewhere in your life, you’re most likely lying.
In Information Architecture, clutter has the very same definition: a mass amount of information. It is IAs job to use strategies to decipher what in the collection of information is important. This practice is incredibly similar to a homeowner trying to clean their junk drawer.
Basing strategies from different aspects of our lives
One of the organization strategies proposed in Declutter 101: Strategies to Cut Clutter by Cynthia Ewer is called “Ellen’s Penicillin Method.”
The author wants you to “imagine a petri dish full of fuzzy brown mold spores. A researcher begins to apply small drops of penicillin to the dish. Each little drop clears a smaller circular area; soon, drop upon drop, the entire dish is cleared of the distasteful intruder.”
You may begin to wondering how this relates to cutting the clutter inside of a home. In the article, the author uses a kitchen table for an example. After the “declutterer” clears off the kitchen table, “no matter how bad the clutter becomes elsewhere, the kitchen table is inoculated with Penicillin.” This strategy can be reflected in Information Architects work by taking all their information that needs to be sorted and placing it in a clear space such as a whiteboard or a white, blank wall. The goal of “Ellen’s Penicillin Method” is to ensure that each one of the items in front of you actually has a place to be held. This way we can analyze what is important vs. what is not.
Many of the strategies that IAs use to seperate what information is important and what is not is built off of other aspects of life. For example, from the book How to Make Sense of Any Mess by Abby Covert, there is a strategy called the “Swim Lane Diagram.” No, this isn’t an actual swim lane, but the diagram is reflected from the intent of a swim lane and how it separates (and connects) bits of information.
What happens when you use IA strategies in everyday life?
Beginner Information Architects are making a mistake when attempting to make sense of large sums of data without “expanding their toolbox of diagrammatic and mapping techniques” according to the book How to Make Sense of Any Mess. This situation is almost exactly represented in someone taking a large amount of materials and trying to organize it strategically with having practices in place.
Lau illustrates a task that almost every homeowner does at a certain point in their life and uses Information Architecture strategies to do so in her article Card Sorting a Kitchen Taxonomy. By using card sorting, Lau was able to get into the minds (and kitchens) of various users. Just like everyone else, IAs go through several iterations of trying out taxonomies.
In Lau’s article, Keep the Kitchen Cabinets from Overflowing Lau states that in order to strategically taxonomize a collection of data you must determine the following:
Purpose. What value does this taxonomy bring?
People. Who makes the decisions and who manages the taxonomy?
Process. How often and how does the taxonomy get updated?
Lau used these levels of taxonomy when she was organizing her in-laws spice cabinet. Lau describes in her article, “When we moved the first time, this was exactly what happened. I was told to organize the kitchen and I did. Over time, the kitchen reverted to things being stored based on convenience and portability. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t efficient (cue three containers of baking soda).”
The goal of a great taxonomy is to never stop trying if it fails. A good taxonomy makes a smooth transition for the user to adapt to and promotes organization at a different level than ever before.
The goal of the taxonomy was to promote the following:
Those were the two factors breaking her previous iteration. Lau conducted her card sort with the goal of promoting user feedback. Lau says, “I also focused on selecting cards that represented a consistent level of detail. Salt wasn’t just salt. It was table salt or sea salt. Rice was jasmine rice or brown rice. Vinegar was rice vinegar or white vinegar.” With this level of detail, Lau was able to promote a detail-oriented mindset from her users, and find out their exact structure when organizing their kitchens.
With all of the research done, Lau’s card sorting resulted in “...64 cards x 288 categories x 36 participants x 7 questions = 4,644,864 data points.” Lau can find patterns from this plethora of data and figure out strategies on how shes going to organize her user's kitchen the best way.
Using a card sort to organize a kitchen taxonomy or using a strategy from someone not in the industry to organize data are both great examples learning outside of the industry. Learning organization strategies from an typical homeowner can better inform our practices as IAs because we can take those strategies that may seem unrelated and adapt them so that they are relevant and useful for UX professionals. Additionally, we may be able to take pieces from the organizational strategies to supplement UX methods like card sorting and affinity diagramming.
Learning from people outside of the industry allows us the opportunity to enhance our own methods. Someone outside of the IA mindset may exemplify IA perspectives at a whole different level. Exchanging strategies with people outside of the industry promotes a mutually beneficial relationship where we both will walk out having learned something.
Lau, Grace. “Keep the Kitchen Cabinets from Overflowing.” Boxes and Arrows, Boxes and Arrows, 26 Sept. 2017, boxesandarrows.com/keep-the-kitchen-cabinets-from-overflowing/.
“Chapter 3 Face Reality.” How to Make Sense of Any Mess, by Abby Covert and Nicole Fenton, Abby Covert, 2014, pp. 65–71.
“Information Architecture: Making Sense of Too Much Information.” Workable Web Solutions, Workable Web Solutions, www.workableweb.com/_pages/serv_info_arch.htm.
Ewer, Cynthia. “Organized Home.” Declutter 101: Strategies To Cut Clutter | Organized Home, organizedhome.com/cut-clutter/declutter-101-strategies-cut-clutter.
Lau, Grace. “Card Sorting a Kitchen Taxonomy.” Boxes and Arrows, Boxes and Arrows, 17 Aug. 2017, boxesandarrows.com/card-sorting-a-kitchen-taxonomy/.