Nov 19 2009

Information architecture for ubiquitous ecologies

“Information Architecture for Ubiquitous Ecologies was presented at the 8th International Conference on the Management of Digital Ecosystems (ACM MEDES'08) in Lyon, November 2009. It marks the debut of the manifesto of contemporary information architecture that will be part of Pervasive Information Architecture. This is an edited draft: the original paper published in the proceedings of the conference is available at the ACM Digital Library.


In this paper, we describe how crossmediality and bridge experiences are playing a major role in redefining the goals and scope of information architecture as a strategic practice and discipline for the successful design of user experiences, and propose a seven-point manifesto for a holistic approach to the design of digital – physical human-information interactions as ubiquitous ecologies.


Cyberspace is not a place you go to but rather a layer tightly integrated into the world around us. Institute For The Future, 2008

Information is going everywhere, bleeding out of we thought was cyberspace and back into the real world: Internet access has moved into cellphones and hand-held devices; social networks are now mobile and constantly connect physically separated users producing unexpected scenarios [1]; shopping remixes web sites, brick and mortar stores, and user-generated content in novelty ways [20]; devices acquire uniqueness, stories, and a capability to generate meaning [7].

Increasingly, many tasks we perform every day not only constantly require us to move between different media, but actually have us move from the digital to the physical environment and back. This is having a profound impact in the way the traditional disciplines of information retrieval and human-computer interaction are approached today [24]. These were significant in a world were all interaction was in absolute propositions and conveyed through a stand-alone computer screen [22], but the rapid and relatively silent spreading of connection-capable micro-computers in an increasing number of devices has tilted the table [11]. Computation is everywhere, and so are search and interaction [7].

Beginning in the late 1990s, a number of new, or reformulated, practices and disciplines have emerged which focus more on human-information interaction [16], user experience, and social communication [23]. These digital design disciplines, while still qualifying as extremely practice-led [8], are undergoing a maturation process [12] and coalescing around actual bodies of knowledge and grounding conceptual frameworks [15]. Information architecture is one of them.

Information architecture

Information architecture (IA) is a boundary, multidisciplinary field which borrows from architecture, library and information science, industrial design, and the social and cognitive sciences to design information spaces. Information architecture has been defined in different ways through the years [19], but a certain general consent has been reached around three core propositions:

  1. Information architecture is the the structural design of shared information environments.
  2. Information architecture is the art and science of organizing and labeling web sites, intranets, online communities and software to support usability and findability.
  3. Information architecture is an emerging community of practice focused on bringing principles of design and architecture to the digital landscape [9].

While at least one of these definitions seems to tightly tie IA to the confines of the web landscape, a fairly large number of IA practitioners and scholars [5, 24] maintained and maintain that IA as both a practice and discipline has more to it then the simple art of labeling and organizing of on-line content. The term information architecture itself has its roots in the seminal work of architect R. S. Wurman, who coined the term information architect in the '70s and wrote an eponymous book in the mid '90s [29]. Wurman was preliminarily concerned with what today is possibly identified as information design or information visualization, but his contribution was undoubtedly a major source of inspiration in the initial framing of the field [28].

More recently, Morville has broadened the horizons of the field encompassing environmental design. For Morville, information architecture resides at the intersection of way-finding, social software, information retrieval, decision trees, self-organization, evolutionary psychology, librarianship, and authority [18]. Morville maintains that where the Internet meets ubiquitous computing, the histories of navigation, communication, commerce, and information seeking converge to produce needs of findability, those very needs information architecture seeks to answer. This shift is reflected in definitions 1 and 3 in the list above, suggesting that this change or broadening of perspective has been well received by the larger IA community and is now part of the canon [21].

From convergence to crossmedia

Though the terms "convergence" and "crossmedia" (or transmedia) are often used as interchangeable synonyms, there is a fundamental difference between the two concepts. As Giovagnoli details in his seminal book on these new emerging narrative paradigms, there is a huge difference between distributing the same content by means of different editorial channels or platforms, however interrelated or convergent these might be, and distributing content through a number of media in different, complementary or antagonistic ways to produce one single, cohesive narration. The former description illustrates a convergent narrative model, the latter a cross-media experience [6].

The American tv serial Lost for example, cited by Giovagnoli, had part of its audience actively involved in a continuous reshaping of the way the plot unfolded: viewers became screenwriters through their involvement in a dedicated on-line forum, effectively enforcing their social, non-predictable changes to the narrative. These changes were then discussed, eventually approved, edited and transformed into actual fiction and footage by the filmmakers.

Normal audience members, so to speak, those who had no interest or no penchant to be playwrights, only got to see the final results and had possibly no idea of the genesis of the episode. It is clear that cross-mediality [10] is opening up new landscapes in the way products, especially information-rich products, are produced and consumed: multichannel, convergent architectures and simplicity are replaced by cross-media and complexity [7].

Where the former renders an entire good or service simultaneously available on more than one device, media, or channel, the latter distributes parts of a single good or service among different devices, media, or environments, and require the user to move across two or more complementary, non-alternative, domains.

The game of the goose

If for example in a multichannel, convergent experience users might be able to access their bank account through the a local office, through the phone, or by means of a dedicated web site and receive exactly the same service [4], in a cross-media model users might receive a text message on their mobile phone which points to a document made available in their Internet banking account in response to some action they did physically at the bank, say investing in stocks. The service spans all of these single touch points. Audience members got to see all of Lost only by letting themselves being involved with the social experiment carried on in the forum.

Fig. 1 - A 19th century game of the goose board (Wikimedia)

Cross-media architectures can be compared to a game of the goose where the track spans multiple heterogeneous environments and the board is laid out across different dimensions. As in every racing table game, users have to move through spaces, bridges, and gaps to get to the goal and win the game. All of the environments hold at least one piece of information which is necessary for the users to participate in the game. How easily and satisfactorily they get from start to finish constitutes their user experience.

A change in the design perspective is required to handle this seamless process: we need a new view on the architecture of information and human-information interaction that goes beyond current contexts and disciplines.

As every item, be it product, piece of information, or service is quickly becoming an ecosystem or part of an ecosystem, as such it has to be approached, designed, and consumed [25]. Rethinking the design of information artifacts holistically is a necessity: “(t)he new Internet reconciles not only the gap between what is real and what is virtual, but that between what is technological and what is biological as well” [17].

Ubiquitous ecologies

Thesis 40: The discourse of seamlessness effaces or elides meaningful distinctions between systems (Greenfield, p. 137)

We define ubiquitous ecologies as emergent systems where old and new media and physical and digital environments are designed, delivered, and experienced as a seamless whole. They share a characteristic of pervasiveness with ubiquitous computing [27] and the systemic nature of media ecologies [14], and the emergent nature Greenfield associates with “everyware”: ”(b)efore they are knit together, the systems […] may appear to be relatively conventional, with well-understood interfaces and affordances. When interconnected, they will assuredly interact in emergent and unpredictable ways” [7]. It must be noted that Constantinides and Barrett similarly connotate “information infrastructure as an ecology of ubiquitous sociotechnical relations" [3]. The design of such ecologies is a challenge for information architecture.

Fig. 2 - A modern game of the goose across space, time, and media

A challenge for information architecture

A recent study conducted on on-line advertising in Italy [13] shows a strong correlation between television broadcasting, the general press, and use of the Internet. The study illustrates how a surprising 65% of visitors to an on-line search engine were looking for further information in relation to a product or service they saw in a television commercial or in a newspaper advertisement. “What shows up in one medium is looked up on another. This is the reason why communication is starting to become cross-medial” [26].

Of course, every medium developed a specific language and specific rules through the years [2], and difficulties in envisioning a global approach across domains were to be expected.

But as the shift towards cross-mediality gains momentum, this deficiency begins to affect the whole process. When multiple interactions are designed as single, unstructured and unrelated experiences but are in fact one, structural gaps and behavioral inconsistencies are common, and even the continuous movement from one medium to the other increases the cognitive load for the user, and definitively hampers the final user experience [22].

Since information architecture relies on principles largely independent from any specific medium or practice, it provides a flexible but solid conceptual model for the design of cross-context interaction models which span different media and environments, and hence is capable to provide a constant cognitive framework throughout the whole interaction process.

To do this, information architecture has to undergo two different evolutionary changes:


Information architectures become ecosystems

When different media and different contexts are tightly intertwined, no artifact can stand as a single isolated entity. Every single artifact becomes an element in a larger ecosystem. All these artifacts have multiple links or relationships with each other and have to be designed as part of one single seamless user experience process.

Users become intermediaries

Users are now contributing participants in these ecosystems and actively produce new content or remediate existing content by ways of mash-ups, commentary, or critique. The traditional distinction between authors and readers, or producers and consumers, becomes thin to the point of being useless and void of meaning. All build new relationships and meanings by means of mash-ups, aggregators, and social networking tools, and all agents contribute content through the crowdsourcing leveraged by the Web via wikis, blogs, and other participatory tools, and mobile devices.

Static becomes dynamic

On one hand, these architectures aggregate and mash-up content which physically may reside elsewhere and which might heave been released for completely different purposes. On the other hand, the active role played by intermediaries makes them perpetually unfinished, perpetually changing, and perpetually open to further refinement and manipulation.

Dynamic becomes hybrid

These new architectures embrace different domains (physical, digital, and hybrid), different types of entities (data, physical items, and people), and different media. As much as the boundaries separating producers and consumers grow thin, so do those between different media and genres. All experiences are cross-media bridge-experiences across a breadth of different environments.

Horizontal prevails over vertical

In these new architectures correlation between elements becomes the predominant characteristic, at the expenses of traditional top-down hierarchies. In open and ever-changing architectures hierarchical models are difficult to maintain and support, as intermediaries push towards spontaneity, ephemeral or temporary structures of meaning, and constant change.

Product design becomes experience design

When every single artifact, be it content, product, or service, is a part of a larger ecosystem, focus shifts from how to design single items to how to design experiences spanning processes. Everyday shopping does not concern itself with the retail shop only, but configures an experience process which might start on traditional media with a television commercial or newspaper advertisement, might continue on the Web with a research for comments or for locating the nearest convenience store, might proceed to the shop to finalize a purchase, and finally returns to the Web for assistance, updates, customization, and networking with other people or devices.

Experiences become cross-media experiences

Experiences bridge multiple connected media and environments into ubiquitous ecologies. One single unitarian process where all parts contribute to the final, seamless user experience.


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