Information Architecture (IA) can be confusing and difficult to understand for end-users, but understand it they must. One way to make things less "technical" and more relevant to their daily work experience is to provide an analogy to something everyone knows well, the kitchen.

IA can be a very academic domain. Its practitioners come from backgrounds like Library Science, Enterprise Architecture, Business Intelligence, Database Administration, and so on, and use words like ontology, thesaurus, controlled vocabulary, semantics, metadata, and facets—language that makes perfect sense to these practitioners but is extremely difficult for the average business person to grasp.

Given the highly specialist nature of the IA community, I think the biggest challenge in running an effective IA engagement that delivers real value is keeping the IA work tangible and relevant to the business goals the team is trying to solve.

But this is not an insurmountable challenge (or at least it shouldn’t be), because IA concepts are actually quite straightforward once you understand them. And the act of organizing things and information is a fundamental human activity, practiced in every culture and by every person in those cultures all day, every day -- it’s one of the core ways that we as humans make sense of our world.

So why does a group of stakeholders glaze over instantly when someone starts talking about IA (if you can even get them to the meeting in the first place)? It’s because IA hasn’t been made relevant to their everyday experience, so they remain non-specialist outsiders looking in, and what’s going on inside seems to have no connection to anything they have any experience with.

One of the best ways I’ve found to make IA real for end-users, particularly the concepts of usability and taxonomy, is to put aside all the specialist, technical terminology and illustrations we typically use and focus instead on one of the most basic, ubiquitous human experiences: working in the kitchen.

Taxonomy and Usability

After all, the kitchen in the typical Western household is the perfect expression of the intersection between taxonomy and usability. First, there’s the silverware. In most households, you have a silverware drawer that holds knives, forks and spoons; but you usually also have a miscellaneous drawer that holds things like ladles, lemon zest graters, ice cream scoops, tongs, rubber spatulas and the like.

But as any of you who live with other people know, what precisely goes in each of these drawers isn’t quite that simple. Some folks would include the ice cream scoop and the pizza cutter in the silverware drawer; others might include the measuring spoons or chopsticks instead. Depending on whether my wife or I empty the dishwasher, what the makeup of these two drawers in our house will be very, very different!

And as I try to reminder her, this is not primarily a domestic dispute, but an IA one. We each have different problems to solve in the kitchen, and so what utensils need to be ready to hand in the silverware drawer rather than jumbled up in the miscellaneous drawer is different for each of us: I make coffee and scoop ice cream, she opens cans and likes to drink from a straw.

This negotiation is exactly what goes on in a business context when stakeholders on a web content management (WCM) project struggle to optimize a website. What visitors want to accomplish on the site will impact what how the site and content need to be structured: is the site selling something, providing information or collecting information (or some combination of the these)? Are the anticipated users going to be frequent or occasional visitors (or will there be a mix of both)? Are visitors familiar or unfamiliar with the concepts on the site (or perhaps both)?

For example, a videogame manufacturer I worked with recently on a site redesign had to accommodate a wide array of visitors: expert and casual gamers, folks who already owned a console and those shopping for one, first-person shooter enthusiasts and more traditional arcade fans, job seekers hoping to work at the company, as well as press and industry insiders looking for press releases and other corporate news. Each of these users needed to do something different on the site, and so the site and content needed to accommodate all of it to be successful.

Learning Opportunities

Despite the complexity of this manufacturer’s end-users, the fundamental IA issues are the same as those faced by my wife and I when we empty the dishwasher: what do I use most often (and therefore must be most easily found) and what do I use less often (and therefore can be less easily found)?

Maximizing Use and Maximizing Space

The silverware drawer analogy gets stakeholders comfortable with how to better organize things for easier retrieval by first understanding what the things will be used for. But the silverware drawer isn’t the only IA-rich space in the typical kitchen; there’s also the cabinets, which are a great illustration of the difference between maximizing space versus maximizing usability.

If you consider the typical Western kitchen, it’s poorly designed to maximize space: empty containers (pots and pans, glasses) sitting side by side in one set of cabinets with full containers (pasta, cereal, chips, flour, sugar) sitting side by side in another set. If we were truly concerned with maximizing space in our kitchens, we would take all our empty containers and fill them with the stuff from our full containers and double our cabinet space: cereal and flour in our pots and pans, pasta in our glasses, etc.

But this would be a nightmare from a usability perspective: trying to prepare and serve food would be impossible, so the storage gains are irrelevant…the kitchen has been rendered unusable.

Instead, what we all do every day in our kitchens is to make IA tradeoffs between usability and storage by first considering the job we need to do (prepare food, cook, serve, preserve food) and then trying to find the most efficient storage possible (stacking bowls, separating lids from pots, putting frequently used items at mid level, less frequently used items above or below, etc.).

These are the same kinds of considerations we ask our stakeholders to make on a WCM project: How much content on a page is too much? If we add complexity to the site in striving for completeness, do we make it less likely that visitors will ever find the stuff they really need? Can we limit the information provided to only what supports the core activities visitors want to do on the site, or are there other factors (legal, regulatory or compliance requirements) to include more? And so on.

The Final Word

There are other useful kitchen IA analogies (medicine kept in the kitchen versus the bathroom medicine cabinet or the bedside stand, the organization of the fridge and pantry) but I think these two give a good idea of what I mean by making IA relevant to stakeholders -- and now that you’ve worked through them, you should be able to find others you can draw on. Hopefully, whether you’re a practitioner or stakeholder, they’ve made it easier for you to see the relevance of IA to the work you do every day.

(Editor's Note: Also from Joe Shepley: Enterprise Collaboration: Get Your ROI Right)