Originally published on LinkedIn on January 26, 2016.
Information architecture may seem at first to have little in common with science fiction. After all, what does the organization, design, and structuring of information have to do with the imagination and exploration of what could have been and what might be? It turns out they have one thing in common. The same thing that explains why I’m so interested in both information architecture and science fiction.
The Terrans, by Jean Johnson, is an exciting novel about the first encounters between inhabitants of Earth and our solar system, and the denizens of an alien human civilization that emigrated from Earth millennia ago. This “first contact” trope, commonly used in science fiction, focuses on the interactions and tensions between the two civilizations. Different ceremonial protocols, communication styles, technologies, allergies, and ways of understanding the universe create misunderstandings and conflicts that need to be overcome and resolved before the two civilizations can work together to, in this case, defeat a common enemy.
This is all very well, you might be thinking, but what does it have to do with information architecture and web design?
In this conflict and tension described in a science fiction novel, I see the conflicts and tensions inherent in the connections between information and people. Content creators and content consumers engage, knowingly or unknowingly, in this “first contact.” Content creators have their own backgrounds, cultural norms, and perceptions of the world. They organize information using their worldviews as models. Content consumers, in exactly the same way, arrive at the information from their own perspective, informed by their own worldviews. If both individuals are from the same culture, the differences in the way they perceive, organize, and share information may be small. If, however, they have different backgrounds – let’s say one is a very technical or mathematical person, and the other is an intuitive, literary person – they may have very different ideas about what “makes sense.”
In creating an information resource such as a website, the best policy for the content creator or information architect is to understand who the other partner is in the conversation, and how that partner perceives and organizes information. In The Terrans, the main characters of one civilization make every effort to understand how the other civilization operates and to accommodate and be patient with any differences. When individuals from the other civilization do not make the same effort, diplomatic relations break down. When content creators do not understand their users, the connection between information and audience withers.
So, whether you’re a science fiction fan or not, it may help you to think of creating and organizing content on a website in terms of a “first contact” novel, with your users playing the role of the foreign civilization. Ask yourself, or better yet, ask them: What experiences and perceptions do they bring to the website? Where and how do they expect to find information? As soon as you can understand where the consumer is coming from, you will find it much easier to help them understand the information you share with them, which will encourage them to visit again.
Build the bridge between you and your user, and you will have established the foundations for a strong connection between your audience and your information. I can say from experience that creating this connection is one of the most satisfying things about designing information resources.
By the way, if you’re looking for a fantastic and complex science fiction novel about the interactions between two very different species, I highly recommend Foreigner by C.J. Cherryh.