What does your bookshelf say about you?
There’s more to consider than just the titles themselves: the arrangement of the books, their wear and tear, the placement (or absence) of bookmarks sprouting from their pages — all of these attributes send messages.
Ask yourself what my bookshelf says about me.
What impression do you have of me so far? Here are a handful of possibilities, some of which might be accurate and others less so:
- He’s a UX worker. Books about content strategy, user research, and coding suggest a career in user experience design.
- He’s a geek. With all that manga, he has to be, right?
- He’s fluent in Japanese. Who would buy a book called はじめてのスペイン語 unless he knew what that meant?
- He’s not fluent in Japanese; he’s learning it. Who would keep A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar on hand unless he needed it?
- He’s an Objectivist. Not one, but two Ayn Rand books? Come on.
- He’s a Mormon. That would explain the Book of Mormon.
- He’s an atheist. That would explain the Why I Became an Atheist.
- He’s messy. Some books are stacked horizontally while others are lined up vertically. He clearly throws books on his shelf haphazardly with no regard for neatness.
- He has so many books that he ran out of space. He arranges things that way so he can fit everything on the shelves.
As I said, not all of the above ideas are true. But that last one is. Here are a couple of other book stacks from around my apartment:
These new photos allow for new possibilities. Maybe…
- He’s studying User Experience and Japanese, but Japanese is more important to him. That explains why the Japanese books are arranged nicely on the shelves but the UX stuff is cast off to the side.
- He hates Thomas Pynchon. The guy owns two Pynchon novels, but not one of them gets to stay on a shelf. It’s a subtle way to disrespect the author.
- He doesn’t own all of his books. Rhetorical Grammar and that Natsume Soseki book have stickers on their spines that suggest they’re rented. Maybe some of the other titles stacked outside his shelves are borrowed as well?
All of the impressions you get by viewing my bookshelf are valid, regardless of whether or not they reflect reality. You are allowed to assume I am an Objectivist because of the evidence my shelf presents (two Ayn Rand books), even though I’m not. It makes sense that you would conclude I’m fluent in Japanese because there’s something called 渋谷系 on my shelf, when in truth that book’s beyond my reading level.
Abby “the IA” Covert reminds us in her book How to Make Sense of Any Mess that information is “subjective, not objective. It’s whatever a user interprets from the arrangement or sequence of things they encounter.” I can’t control what impression you form about me when you look at my bookshelf. But I can guide you in a certain direction.
What if I wanted to make sure that a viewer arrived at a specific assumption about me based on my bookshelf? For example, what if I wanted to send the impression that I am an English major? In that case, I might photograph a shelf of almost exclusively novels.
What if I wanted to convey the idea that I’m scrupulously tidy? I might sort my books by height in descending order.
Notice that I’m using the same books to send a different message. The only thing different is the arrangement. This brings us to an important concept in information architecture, articulated by the field’s pioneer, Richard Saul Wurman:
“The creative organization of information creates new information.”
Abby Covert illustrates this point with a drawing of an empty spot on a grocery store shelf. Arranging two jars so that there’s a gap between them means something. “One person might interpret the spot to mean that a product is sold-out, and the other might interpret it as being popular.”
But what if you want to ensure that someone interprets the empty spot as meaning the product is sold out? One solution: you could place a “sold out” sticker over the $7.99 price tag.
You have control over your content — defined as books, jars, pictures, website copy, or nearly anything else that can convey a message — but you don’t have control over your information. Information is interpreted. Information is subjective and personal. Information belongs to your user.
Being aware of what information your content conveys is half the challenge. The other half is to ensure that that information conveys the message you intend. To do this, you’ll need to carefully craft the conditions necessary to send the right information every time. In other words, you’ll need to be an information architect.
Same content, different interpretations
Here’s a website called NextShark. What messages do you receive from this screenshot? Both the arrangement of the content and the content itself is fair game.
Maybe you’re thinking…
- This website is about celebrating ingenuity. Most of the articles are about people who found success in creative ways, whether that success was making $50,000 on Instagram or pulling off a hilarious prank.
- This website is geared toward millennials. The articles seem to be exclusively about young adults. The infinitely scrolling homepage even takes advantage of millennials’ notoriously insatiable need for enticing headlines and distracting images.
NextShark’s official tagline is “Business and Success for Millennials.” So… those assumptions aren’t too far off the mark from what the site designers wanted us to think. All in all, not a bad information architecture.
Or is it? Because one visitor to the site might have come away with this assumption:
- The people who made this website don’t care about me.
Whoa, hold on! Where did that come from? Well, as it turns out, infinite scrolling is known to be bad for accessibility. Users who rely on navigating websites with only their keyboards are unable to reach the content at the bottom at the page.
Are the web designers at NextShark aware that they are sending the message that they don’t care about users with accessibility needs? It doesn’t matter — consciously or not, that’s the message their site sends.
Let’s return to my bookshelf for a moment.
While one viewer might see nothing conspicuous about this collection of titles, another might come away with this assumption:
- This guy thinks some cultures are better than others.
Where does this idea come from? Well, some viewers might have noticed the controversial 2014 book The Triple Package on my shelf and assumed that I agree with all of its premises. Do I? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t even matter that the above is a common misinterpretation of the book’s message — it’s my job as an information architect to be completely aware of all the messages I might possibly be sending to all possible audiences.
Now, in the case of my personal bookshelf in my private apartment, the only audience is myself (and maybe the occasional visitor). Thus, I don’t have much need to worry about the messages my bookshelf might be conveying. All I care about is that I can find a book when I need it. For an audience of one (me), this is a “good” information architecture.
But if I’m designing for the public, it’s my responsibility to consider every possible impression I might be conveying to viewers. I might decide to hide books that could be viewed as problematic, regardless of whether or not those books actually are (remember, all interpretations are valid). For an audience of strangers to whom I want to leave a positive impression, this might be a “bad” information architecture.
Notice that I haven’t moved a single book on my shelf. Yet my two audiences are potentially receiving very different messages.
A master information architect would come up with an arrangement that strikes a balance between all possible audiences, pleasing all and offending none. Does that sound difficult? Maybe even impossible? Now you’re standing to understand why information architecture is a full time job.
“But I thought information architecture was just about labels and navigation.”
That’s certainly part of it. In the mid 1990s, “problems of labeling, categorization, and ordering of large collections of loosely joined documents seemed to be the only possible concern” of the discipline.
But that’s changing. As the Research and Education Group in Information Architecture writes,
“Information Architecture in the mid-2010’s is steadily growing into a channel- or medium-aspecific multi-disciplinary framing: conversations about labeling, website user interfaces, and hierarchies have elevated to conversations about sense-making, place-making, service design, architecture, and embodied cognition.”
It’s not enough to know where your content is; you also must know what its placement means. What message is sent…
- when “Purchase” is in your navigation bar but “Help & Contact” is buried in your footer at 6-pt font?
- when it takes two clicks to “Sign Up” but a two hour phone call to “Cancel Subscription”?
- when your site supports the latest gadgets and browsers but breaks down for users who can only afford to access it through an outdated smartphone?
Are you sending the messages you want to be sending?
If not, what are you going to do about it?
When you’ve figured out the answers to those two questions, you’ll be an information architect.