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Basement Information Architecture – a practical analogy

Over the weekend my wife's parents were staying with us as they had three different birthday celebrations to attend in the Wellington area. This is actually pretty good – I get along really well with my in laws so we always look forward to having them visit. 

As it happens, my father in law spent a lot of the weekend doing what he often does – helping around the house with various DIY projects, taking charge and getting things done (the other reason we like having them around!). 

Every now and then he'd send me down to the basement to retrieve a particular tool he needed. For an Information Architect (and a Virgo) I'm always slightly embarrassed when the subject of our basement comes up because it's an organisational mess; partially due to the fact that I started reorganising it six months ago and never finished. However, I was amazed when it turned out that everything my father in law needed was either on the one shelf I had organised (various silicon sealers and glues etc), or on the cabinet that is literally just inside the basement door. 

I realised that although the basement was a mess, it had managed to organically self-organise in much the same way as we expect when we let users take control of content organisation through tagging, folksonomies and social recommendations. 

You see, the cabinet by the door may have looked like an arbitrary dumping ground – like a tag cloud can – but had come to be used in exactly the same way. Whenever a tool gets used, no matter where it's come from in the basement, it gets put back on the cabinet (admittedly out of pure laziness, but we'll let that slide). Quite often, when the tool is needed again, it can be found on the same cabinet. And, the more a tool gets used, the closer to the top of the pile it would be found. I didn't need to search, I didn't need to browse the IA nightmare that was the rest of the basement; I just skimmed the 'popular content' pile and found what I was looking for. 

It's important to note here, too, that this was popular content that had been identified based on actual popularity – frequency of use and re-use – not an arbitrarily defined list compiled by the content author or business owner. For example, the cabinet itself is full of earthquake supply water – logically important and therefore stored close to the basement door on purpose; but so far the water has been completely un-needed and un-used (thankfully), even during the recent earthquakes. 

The other shelf with the tubes of glue and sealers was not only another 'popular content' area, but one where the items had been grouped based on similar appearance and functionality. It was like that secondary, task-specific navigation you might have in one corner of the page. 

So what's the lesson from this? That a good IA is a waste of time when you have a tag cloud of popular content? Not at all. I don't actually like tag clouds much online as they can act like self-fulfilling prophecies due to the text-weighting that is usually used. And a good IA keeps things tidy and does help you to find the things you use less frequently, or tells you where to look if you're not even sure you have what you're looking for. It sets up a good expectation of where to find things. 

The popular content area though – the cabinet by the door – lets you identify the items that are most important to your users on a day-to-day basis. And whatever visual form it takes, it doesn't matter which other category those items would normally sit under; even if they're five layers deep, we can surface them in an area that makes them easier to find. And of course, online, items can sit on more than one shelf. But the most important thing is that this popular content cabinet – whatever it's called and whatever form it takes – is driven by the real needs of the user. It is set up to be able to adjust and become flexible over time, and be adaptable to changing needs. It's the whole premise behind social content, social search, and social recommendations. It's the recently, frequently used tools on the top; not the water bottles stashed away underneath.* As human beings we love to sort, label and organise things. But sometimes, in addition to good organisation and classification, you just want a pile of 'useful stuff' that's easy to reach.


*I am in no way trying to downplay the importance of disaster preparedness! Those water bottles are still inside the cabinet by the door, as well as in several other accessible yet tidied-away spots around the house. And I hope I'll never need to use them!

Posted by: Brad Gallen, Digital Strategist, Web and Digital Strategy Team. | 29 October 2013

Tags: information architecture

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