Information Architecture is much more than a sitemap or wireframes. The complexity and contradiction of what people and businesses want to see happen among users and across channels and devices in digital space is breathtaking. The “north star” TUG uses to guide its efforts in working through this mess of complexity can be phrased as a maxim: the products and services we design must reflect something meaningful in the world, and then make it useful.
Our approach to understanding information architecture does just that. We think about IA as the interplay of Ontology, Taxonomy, and Choreography. This model, originally published as a short film by TUG co-founder Dan Klyn in 2009, stands as a framework for ensuring information architecture that is useful, relevant, and authentic.
Ontology refers to the particular MEANING of our product or service—what we mean when we say what we say. Taxonomy is the arrangement into clearly articulated parts, or the STRUCTURE of that meaning. Choreography describes the rules for interaction among the parts, or how to ensure that the FLOW through that structure is clear and untroubled.
The three principles are described as gears, because, much as the turn of a the lowest gear in a machine requires corresponding movement from the higher gears, what’s done around meaning with regard to information architecture ends up governing the interplay of every other part of the system.
Ontology is the establishment of particular meanings. We often forget to take a step back and ask how our use of language implies certain meaning to us, but may be confusing to others. As Richard Saul Wurman says: “understanding what it’s like to not understand.” Even simple words and concepts, like “orange,” can have unhelpfully subjective meanings.
What kind of “orange” is orange? In this case, the Pantone company created a unique, specific identifier for this particular color of orange. Its meaning is unmistakable, and this color is unique from any other color, or, from another meaning of this word, like a piece of fruit.
Once we determine a specific meaning, it dictates what we can and can’t do when arranging the parts and instances—and the next gear turns…
Taxonomy is the arrangement of the parts to accomplish specific goals within, or across, contexts.
This is the principle that is most commonly identified as “Information Architecture”: structuring information in forms of taxonomies, sitemaps, or wireframes. But the forms are only useful once the meaning of the underlying system has been identified. And given the complex and contradictory nuances of meaning between businesses and their customers, the structures for ensuring its integrity across channels need to be both precise and adaptable.
Orange may be defined as Pantone 1505 C but taxonomically, it may belong both under Interior paints and Paint Samples if that is the context where the user needs it.
Choreography is the rules for interaction among the parts. This part of information architecture deals with how meaning and structure fit together, ensuring that the flow of an experience delights the user and doesn’t distract from what the user is trying to do. The essence of choreography is the placement of meaning and structure into a flow with a specific context. Example choreography questions include:
- Does the experience surrounding Pantone 1505 C change if the user is on a tablet?
- How did they choose to use that tablet as opposed to their desktop computer?
- What if they are in Home Depot in the paint aisle?
- When does a user select the Pantone 1505 C during the process of choosing a paint? What do they have to know about painting first?
- Do they choose the finish (e.g. gloss) first or last?
- What about the pairing of other colors?
These issues are at the core of choreography. While often neglected, choreography is critically important to a successful user experience, especially as multiple devices and applications are involved (not to mention the large number of underlying systems that actually provide the content).
In the example on the Home Depot site, the color of orange is only peripherally considered as part of a broader set of tools designed to help people select paint, visualize its use, or even apply it. While this is a kind of choreography, only a deeper look at the user needs and how they relate to structure and meaning can help us know if it matches the flow of a user selecting the perfect orange paint for their home.
Information architecture brings it all together.
The interplay of ontology, taxonomy and choreography can’t simply be designed: it needs to be architected first.
If you want to understand:
- what it means to architect information
- how the structure of information relates to understanding
- how to manage complex information across channels and contexts