How Science Fiction Can Help Design Websites

102px-MBoehmeMeetingOriginally 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.


Image: “Die Begegnung” – “The Meeting” by Michael Bohme, Wikimedia Commons


Recent Accomplishment in Digital Resources Management

Check out my new page, “Digital Resources Management,” for a project report that I wrote about a recent cataloging and e-journal records maintenance project. The link opens a PDF document.

As Native American Heritage Month comes to a close…

November is Native American Heritage Month in the States, which I just learned today. Having stumbled across a few thoughtful posts about cultural appropriation and respect, as well as some disturbing comments, I wanted to share this thought-provoking post by Brenna on Worn Through.

On the origins of American Indian sartorial stereotypes

(If you’re interested in the question of military attire as offensive sartorial appropriation or inoffensive fashion choice, see this post.)

Playing a Living Book in a Living Library

On Tuesday of this week, I participated in the Hart House’s Living Library series.

About Living Libraries

These are events that provide “borrowers” with the opportunity to check out living “books” for a short period of time. Participants, i.e. borrowers, read short descriptions of the stories that other participants, i.e. books, have decided to share. Then they sign up to check out, i.e. chat with, the books whose stories they want to hear. Once a book is checked out by a borrower, the two participants engage in a dialogue about the borrower’s interest and the book’s story.

Stories (also topics of conversation) can include:

  • experiences
  • stories
  • challenges
  • successes
  • beliefs
  • thoughts
  • projects


I really enjoyed learning new things about other participants, books and borrowers, and engaging in conversations with an incredibly interesting and diverse group of people. I rarely have the opportunity to talk to people who come from such diverse backgrounds, with such different experiences from my own.

The overall atmosphere was one of relaxed conversation. I was scheduled for specific check-out times, when borrowers had signed up to chat with me, but in the end I had just as many unscheduled conversations standing by the refreshments table, coffee mug in hand. Each conversation was considerably different than the others, which adds an element of surprise to the day.

For introverts, there were also short breaks in between conversations (and a lunch break) that allowed for moments of internal reflection (and/or simply not talking), which helped restore some of my energy.

The Living Library was a wonderful experience, and I highly recommend participating in one of these events, either as a book or as a borrower.

It’s kind of like reading an interactive book, only better.

I will definitely be looking out for more of these in the future. The Hart House website has information about future Living Library events.

On Informational Interviews

I’m not one of those who is comfortable contacting strangers, or even second- or third-degree contacts, and asking for a bit of their time. In some ways, in certain situations, I find talking to people almost more daunting than making my way up a rock face in a harness (the last, second, and final time I went rock climbing was a disaster. I have a small fear of heights). Each one I conduct gets a little easier, however.

One of the prevailing pieces of wisdom often shared with information students and young information professionals, by our more experienced colleagues, is the value of informational interviews. What I want to share is my own experience – and how I propose to conduct my own informational interviews in the future.

Firstly, I always try in more formal conversational settings to mind my manners (no, they’re not out of style yet!) – sit up straight, don’t interrupt, don’t talk with my mouth full. The basics.

Secondly, I usually start with a short list of questions. It helps to do a bit of research to find out what the interviewee does, and about the company he/she works for, but often these generic questions (and others like them) will do for a start:

  1. What are your main responsibilities as …?
  2. What is a typical day for you?
  3. What are your favorite aspects of the job?
  4. What inspired you to work in this field/setting/environment/position?
  5. How did you get to be where you are now? What was your career trajectory?
  6. What trends and developments do you follow in the library world?
  7. What do you think is the future of academic/school/public/special libraries (or rare books, books, libraries in general, information professions, etc.)
  8. Do you have any advice for a new information professional/librarian?

Finally, I have found that sticking strictly to these questions, or any list I come up with, is often not necessary, since my curiosity about the interviewee will direct the conversation.

A few other things I want to remember before the next one:

  1. The golden rule: never ask for a job.
  2. Following the conversational lead of the interviewee is not a bad idea.
  3. Reveal what I’m comfortable revealing about myself, but the focus is truly on the interviewee’s experience and knowledge.