The “polar bear book” is considered by many to be the information architecture bible. Officially titled “Information Architecture for the World Wide Web,” but nicknamed for its cover image, the book covers everything from navigation to metadata, aesthetics to technical issues. Now, 16 years after his famous book came out, author Peter Morville is making waves with a fresh look at IA in his new book: Intertwingled.
We’re very excited to have an opportunity to interview Peter about his new book, as well as his perspective on the field of information architecture in general. What’s more, Peter is generously giving away three signed copies of Intertwingled to three lucky readers – check out the details at the end of the interview!
- You wrote IA for the World Wide Web in 1998. How has the field changed in the past 16 years?
- Since the first edition, search, social, mobile, cross-channel, and responsive design have changed the way we practice information architecture. I illustrated this evolution in Understanding IA. While the polar bear book does feature timeless principles of organization, the landscape for navigation is radically different now.
One timeless principle, for example, is that it almost always makes sense to offer people multiple ways to find the same information. The “right way” depends on the user and their task. If they know exactly what they need, an exact (objective) organization scheme (e.g., format, location) may work. But when people aren’t sure what they want, an ambiguous (subjective) organization scheme (e.g., subject, genre) supports learning and discovery. And, of course, many users prefer search, which can introduce even more ways to find through the use of facets and filters.
However, the tools and technologies change constantly. These changes have led us towards a medium-independent definition of what we do. Our work isn’t limited to the Web; it’s about sense-making, place-making, and the architecture of understanding.
- You’re right – what we do isn’t limited to the Web. What other areas do we touch?
- In nearly all digital and physical environments that have been shaped by humans, words are the interface. Remove the wayfinding words from airports, books, cities, hospitals, libraries, national parks, shopping malls, or software, and we’re lost. The value of words and symbols that help people to understand where they are and how to find their way is ubiquitous. Structure is often more important, but its pliability is uneven across contexts. We may add paths and bridges, but there are limits to structural redesign of the Grand Canyon.
Similarly, while software isn’t carved in stone, its structure is surprisingly resistant to change. That’s why we find ourselves buying books and watching movies on a clunky software application called iTunes. This brings us to the tricky challenge of cross-channel design. We’re not only responsible for place-making within physical and digital ecosystems, but we must also support wayfinding and sense-making across platforms, devices, and channels. It’s hard work but absolutely fascinating. There’s never been a better time to be an architect of understanding.
- In your new book, Intertwingled, I’ve heard you manage to link everything from classification to Buddhism to volleyball! How are they all connected?
- Classification is the cornerstone of cognition and culture. Our categories – self/other, us/them, good/evil – shape our beliefs and behaviors more than we know. Buddha was an information architect. He rejected the rigid hierarchy of the caste system and invented his own taxonomies (e.g., three marks of existence, four noble truths).
Of course, the deepest, most difficult ontology Buddha taught is anattā, non-self. The notion there’s no self is counterintuitive and disturbing to many of us in competitive, individualistic Western cultures. And that’s where volleyball comes in. In the book, I tell a story about our daughter’s volleyball club that illustrates the unhealthy trajectory of our culture.
- Many people new to the field of UX misunderstand IA as a subset of UX. How do you see IA and UX working together, and where do they diverge?
- Our predilection for tribalism is dangerous. It’s all too easy to segregate us and them. But, if we embrace flexible ways of organizing, we’re better able to identify similarities as well as differences. For example, IA is a subset of UX, but UX is also a subset of IA. While it may be easier to settle for a single taxonomy, life is more interesting and generative when you realize there’s no one right way.
- What’s the biggest takeaway you hope readers will get from Intertwingled?
- E. M. Forster once asked “how can I know what I think till I see what I say?” This simple question reveals the complex truth that belief is often shaped by behavior. I hope my readers will be inspired to dig deeper, because everything is deeply intertwingled.
The mind/body dualism of René Descartes has shaped our culture since the seventeenth century. Forster’s quote pokes a hole in the reductionist mindset. And as I explain in Intertwingled, it’s a very big hole.
In recent decades, the countervailing framework of embodied cognition has built momentum with respect to empirical research. This thesis holds that the nature of the mind is largely determined by the form of the body. Unlike computationalism, which views the brain as a central processing unit with inputs (sensory) and outputs (control), this theory of mind recognizes that how and what we think is shaped by the body’s systems of perception, action, and emotion. Our bodies constrain the nature and content of our thoughts, and cognitive processing is distributed beyond our brains. In short, cognition isn’t just in the head.
Furthermore, according to the related theory of extended mind, thinking isn’t limited to skin and skull. Cognition is shaped by and extends into the surrounding environment. When we use a pencil to sketch ideas, the pencil becomes an extension of our bodymind, and the marks we make change the course of thought. We literally think on paper. In the words of cognitive scientist Andy Clark, human cognition includes “inextricable tangles of feedback, feed-forward, and feed-around loops: loops that promiscuously criss-cross the boundaries of brain, body, and world.”
Our tools, like our bodies, become “transparent equipment.” We see through them to the task at hand. Brain imaging studies have shown that as we build fluency, we incorporate tools – pencils, hammers, bicycles, words, numbers, computers – into our bodymind schema. Then, in accordance with the principle of least effort, we strategically distribute work through the whole system of mind, body, environment. We use calculators for math. We offload memory to contacts and calendars. We rely on Google for retrieval, so there’s less need for recall. And when we play Scrabble or Tetris, before we see a solution, we move the tiles with our fingers, because it’s faster than modeling those shifts in our minds.
This also explains why I wrote the book, because how can I know what I think until I read what I write?
- Thank you so much for talking with us, Peter. Before we say goodbye, do you have any last thoughts you’d like to share with our readers?
- If you’re still deciding whether or not to buy Intertwingled, I encourage you to read a free sample chapter. I hope you enjoy it!
We’re so grateful to Peter for speaking with us! For more information on Peter and Intertwingled, visit his website or pick up a copy of the book. Or, for a chance to win a free, signed copy, leave a comment below with your Twitter username as well as a connection IA has helped you to make. We’ll reach out to the winners on Twitter later this week.