Kaitlyns Dresser by Elizabeth/Table4Five, on Flickr

Just Enough Information Architecture

Lillian is 79 years old. As long as I’ve known her, she has been sharp, independent, energetic, and healthy. I got worried about her, though, when I visited her home where she lives alone. Everything was labeled – the silverware drawer, the cupboard for plates, the drawer for bags and plastic wrap, the closet where she keeps the garbage bags, even the doors to her basement and to her garage. It hadn’t been like that the last time I was there. I wondered whether Lillian was starting to lose her sharp mind. She would need kind, unobtrusive help, I thought, to stay independent.

As I watched Lillian though, I saw a different picture. She seemed to be as sharp as ever. Had something happened to make her lose her confidence? As she called into the kitchen for someone to bring her a serving utensil from a particular drawer, I knew that nothing was wrong with her memory. Then I realized that the labels weren’t for Lillian.

The occasion for the gathering was that Lillian was about to have knee replacement surgery. She wanted to host a get-together for a few of her friends before she would be unable to do so for a while. Another friend, Tanya, would be staying with her after the surgery to help out. The labels were for Tanya.

Maybe you’ve seen the photo of Steve Jobs’ office taken by Dianna Walker. In contrast to the clean, elegant lines of Apple products, we see piles of papers, books haphazardly packed into bookshelves, miscellaneous items on the floor, and Jobs, not sitting in a chair but standing next to it with his hand on its back, reaching forward with the mouse, and stooping down to look at the monitor. Seeing the seeming disorganization of the personal office of the man who has been called the world’s greatest information architect made me feel better about the number of desktop icons I have on my computer.

So what’s the reason for the difference between Steve Jobs’ office and Lillian’s home? They needed different levels of information architecture in the physical spaces. Each one had just enough information architecture.

The need for information architecture in both physical and virtual spaces varies with the following factors:

  • the extent to which the space is shared with others
  • the existing level of shared understanding between them
  • the extent to which the space meets the expectations of its occupants
  • the consequences of a bad decision
  • the availability of a host or curator to answer questions

Steve Jobs’ office was intended for him alone. It only had to make sense to him.  Lillian’s otherwise private space was about to be shared. Its organization is subject to her personal idiosyncrasies. And she wouldn’t be available, or at least not inclined, to answer questions about where to find the garbage bags.

Our homes probably aren’t labeled, except on the outside to help others find the right place. Highway interchanges are labeled. Largely, clearly, and repeatedly. Your information architecture should be appropriate to the needs of those who will use the space. Not more, not less, but just enough.

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