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Information Architecture, from information about architecture

I’ve just started work with a team of people who are going to be redoing our library website’s information architecture. Maybe some design, but mostly the structure. So of course I do that thing that I do so often and try to figure out how to think about the problem at hand before actually diving into the problem at hand. And this time I seem to be doing that by reading about architecture.

I’m not the first one to do this, by any means. There’s a great talk by Dr. Molly Wright Steenson from this month’s MinneWebCon that lays out lineage of current artificial intelligence work, including the inheritance from architecture. And her talk reminded me that this is exactly what I needed to think about again in order to think about our website structure.

So I went down into the stacks and checked out Christopher Alexander’s two most famous works, A Pattern Language and The Timeless Way of Building. These are two very very large works of architectural philosophy, so there’s no way that I’ll be able to read and apply them thoroughly to my current project, but something is better than nothing, right?

And then, on page 55 of The Timeless Way of Building, the primary claim from Chapter Four jumped out at me:

We must begin by understanding that every place is given its character by certain patterns of events that keep on happening there.

This is “the user is not broken” stated a different way. Spaces are set up, and people will behave in relatively consistent ways in those spaces depending on the affordances of the environment. If they do things we think are wrong, and especially if they do them consistently, then we have clearly set up a space that invites those events. The user was not broken; our design was broken. But Alexander’s formlation works better as an aspiration to achieve rather than a resignation to past failures. If we can know these patterns that environments evoke, we can design environments that evoke patters we want. If we set up a space (physical or digital) that invites the kinds of events that our community wants and needs (actions, reactions, experiences), and invites these events consistently, then that is a space that has Alexander’s “quality that cannot be named” that animates every successful design. (He goes into detail about definitions of that quality in chapter 2, but I won’t do the same here. You can go puzzle over that chapter if you want to, but my big short-hand for it all is “it works beautifully.”)

He then usefully qualifies his thesis:

This does not mean that space creates events, or that it causes them.

For example, in a modern town, the concrete spatial pattern of a sidewalk does not ’cause’ the kinds of human behavior that happen there.

What happens in much more complex. The people on the sidewalk, being culture-bound, know that the space which they are part of is a sidewalk, and, as part of their culture, they have the pattern of a sidewalk in their minds. (72, emphasis original)

And, in the same way, the patterns of events which govern life… cannot be separated from the space where they occur. (73, emphasis original)

So what are similar structural digital elements that we could switch out for “sidewalk” here? Search box? Menu? Bullet point? We have to keep in mind that in our culture, these things call on a whole network of cultural-bound events. We cannot say “well, we know that search boxes you’re familiar with when doing research are boxes that search through the full text or at least a paragraph of text, but this particular search box searches through a list of library research tools instead.” (Incidentally, this is part of what makes the MLA International Bibliography so hard to use and teach.) People will fall into patterns and perform topic searches in that search box, and they will do so over and over again. And they will wonder why our search box is broken. These patterns are patterns that we can often predict, and good intentions won’t matter if you ignore these predictions.

That said, we can help shape the patterns that happen again and again. For example, we don’t have to blindly follow our novice patrons to their best-known patterns just because many of our patrons are novices. We have to know what they expect and their habitual patterns, and also the expectations and patterns of the experts on our campus, and we have to create systems that invite useful events for all. This may mean educational events that help the novices learn the patterns that are typical of the new culture they have entered. This may involve educational events that help experts navigate evolving systems and patterns and academic cultures. But these educational events can’t happen unless we build bridges for the inhabitants of our spaces (digital and physical) from the patterns they have known to the patterns they are developing.

Alexander, Christopher. 1977. A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. New York: Oxford University Press.

———. 1979. The Timeless Way of Building. New York: Oxford University Press.

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