by Lisa Maria Martin (2019)
Find it on A Book Apart
[The presentation of information] can’t be arbitrary, because every decision we make - or fail to make - changes the way the information is perceived.
~ Lisa Maria Martin
Everyday Information Architecture follows Richard Saul Wurman’s assertion that information is infinite, but the ways of structuring information is not. According to Wurman, information can be ordered by Location, Alphabetically, Time (chronologically), Categorically, or Hierarchically (aka LATCH). Lisa Maria Martin thoroughly explores these methods and adds two more based on the work of Katherine Bertolucci.
I’ll use my own blog, Beyond the Frame, as a way to concretely explore the book’s methodology. My blog offers an analysis of our information age: from the social impact of technology to the meaning of computational aesthetics found in art and nature. The potential breadth can be overwhelming; principled organization is required.
Each post on my blog contains location metadata. Ordering all posts by location reveals the following:
- Turin, Italy: 25 posts
- Berlin, Germany: 7 posts
- Udine, Italy: 1 post
- Bardonecchia, Italy: 1 post
- Peoria, IL, United States: 1 post
This information says something about the author but I suspect it’s not the most pertinent way of ordering writing about the information age.
Lisa Maria Martin opines that alphabetizing is for research, not discovery. The dictionary, a book’s index, and the encyclopedia supports her claim.
Beyond the Frame does contain extensive citations in the margins. Most academic papers would also include these sources ordered alphabetically in a bibliography. I’m not sure how useful that would be for myself or my readers, so I don’t maintain such a resource.
On the other hand, I do present chronological information in two different ways. All the posts in Beyond the Frame are presented in reverse chronological order. This ordering is typical in most blogs.
Beyond the Frame also offers a timeline of events relevant that are significant when talking about the transmission of information through time. All events are introduced within articles that provide a deeper dive on the subject.
This timeline is not one of the more popular pages on Beyond the Frame but it provides me a sense of time and space as a researcher.
Martin notes that categorization is fundamentally different than ordering by location, letter, or time; categorization is the act of grouping. After items are grouped, they still need to be ordered.
Beyond the Frame uses two tools for creating categories:
- A strict set of tags: #doing, the #sts, #personal updates, #informatics, the #suchness of knowledge, and #tools for thinking.
- A post-specific set of keywords. These keywords will proliferate endlessly as I add new posts.
I chose this tag and keyword system as a way to organize my thoughts. It could be criticized by the author of Everyday Information Architecture for not considering the needs of the readers or the strategic goals of Beyond the Frame as a general information resource. Lisa Maria Martin thinks about information architecture much like a designer thinks of user experience. She asks about who is on the site and what they’re trying to accomplish. She even suggests vague and unanswerable questions, such as asking what users care about. Everyday Information Architecture doesn’t actually explore the latter question seriously. But this is the sort of hand waving occasionally found in this book.
Hierarchies are a more abstract tool for ordering than location, letter, or time. For example, I can create a hierarchy by listing the top five most-read posts on Beyond the Frame, from the most popular to the least popular:
- The Mothers of the Mother of All Demos #sts, #informatics
- MLK and “Domestic Terrorism” #sts, #suchness
- Be Here Now #personal, #suchness, #review
- Fix My Code #sts, #suchness, #review
- Truth Storms the Capitol: #sts
This is an ordered sequence. The associated collection of tags (category labels) can also be sequenced by popularity:
- #informatics, #personal
Nested categories can turn these flat hierarchies into multi-dimensional affairs. For example, posts tags as #suchness offer a bevy of keywords: classical, ambient, music, notation, encoding, time, fidelity, information fidelity, computational art, information theory, myths, buddhism, relationships, documentary, oneness, atari, zen, psychedelics, etc…“compuserve diana gabaldon”, “david padwa”, and “francis mechner” are some of the most popular search engine keywords that lead people to Beyond the Frame. These names don’t appear in any of my keywords. This probably indicates an issue with the way I generate keywords.
When designing an effective architecture, Martin asks the reader to answer two questions: who is visiting the site and what that person whats and needs. The author is a bit ambiguous here. Elsewhere in the book she doubts the effectiveness of user persons. I wholly agree with this position. But the two questions she raises sound a lot like user personas.
Rather than sketch a portrait of some imaginary readers of my blog, I’ll offer up some analytics. Beyond the Frame saw roughly 22,000 unique visitors in 2021, down from 32,000 unique visitors in 2020. Those people mostly came from Hacker News, Reddit, Twitter, an IndieWeb profile page, and Metafilter.
These are mostly news aggregation sites, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that “The Mothers of the Mother of All Demos” and “MLK and ‘Domestic Terrorism’” were the top performers - both articles referred to current events. They provided additional context and analysis that couldn’t be found in major publications.
“Fix My Code” and “Be Here Now” came from more abstract prompts. Julian Shapiro manages to articulate the way abstract motivations connect with audiences: “Does writing this article get a weight off your chest?”, “Do you obsess over the topic and want others to geek out on it too?”, etc….
“Fix My Code” and “Be Here Now” are likely read by people who want passionately argued, well-researched articles on narrowly focused subjects. Hierarchy helps these people discover other articles with similar motivations, as Martin points out.
#humanities is probably too broad to be effective. Changing the tag to #sts (or #ScienceAndTechnologyStudies) would offer a meaningful narrowing. #humanities may be more inclusive, but #sts offers more clarity and specificity.Tags have been updated since this review was written. #science is now #informatics and #humanities is now #sts.
Martin specifies four qualities for labeling: clarity, specificity, inclusively, and consistency.
This is the sort of clear thinking that Everyday Information Architecture helps enable.
Canonical Listings, Mnemonics and Randomness
Katherine Bertolucci opined that canonical listings, mnemonics and randomness offer additional organizational methods overlooked by Wurman.
Examples of canonical listings include a book’s table of contents and the order of books in the Bible.
“LATCH” itself is ordered as a mnemonic. Adding Canonical Listings, Mnemonics and Randomness to this list could yield LAMTRCCH, which destroys the mnemonic. MR. C. LATCH works much better. Note the letters are sequenced by mnemonic, not their significance or alphabetical position.
Martin argues that randomness is a choice, and thus an organizational principle. The author warns the reader to watch out for sequences that seem random but could be meaningful chains. For example, a grocery list that starts with milk which reminds the author to add cereal.
Ordering information is an attempt to make information findable. The first step is to understand priorities. Martin suggests a process of enumeration to reveal priorities. Count the number of appearances of a keyword or the number of pages dedicated to a site’s various offerings.
Information architects also have to understand that people often arrive from a place of not-knowing.
If a person knows exactly what they’re trying to find but they don’t know where to find it, a search engine likely works best.
People also find information by narrowing the context. For example, finding a lunch based on location or conducting research based on subject.
Re-finding is also a type of not-knowing. They know exactly what they want, but do not know how to look for it.
I have neglected some of the most practical tips in Everyday Information Architecture. Lisa Maria Martin spends a lot of time discussing her many spreadsheets used to organize all the information she collects on behalf of her clients. These spreadsheets are used to improve the architecture of her client’s websites.
I actually found these hands-on examples the least useful wisdom in the book. That’s why I don’t cover them here. A different reader for a different purpose might find them interesting. But they don’t carry the intellectual weight of a true methodology.
The book’s best moments relies on the work of others. I might use this book in an introductory class to teach applied concepts, but digging into the concepts behind information architecture is better done elsewhere.