Explain IA Poster

Back in April, I created a submission for the Explain IA contest sponsored by the Information Architecture Institute (IAI) and hosted in Flickr. I’m very happy that a lot of folks liked it. With my Flickr entry, I tied for first place in the image/diagram part of the contest, and since then the image has been re-posted in a few places.

IA connects people to content

Click to view a larger version of the image

A few people have mentioned that they want to use the image in presentations to clients or within their company. To let people do that more easily, I’m supplying a PDF version of the poster here which retains the original vector-based artwork. You can use it to mix-match-and-modify the poster into your own presentations, or just use as-is.

As long as you’re not selling the image itself—or a derivative of it— and provide credit to me somewhere when you use it, feel free to otherwise use it as you please. Download a PDF version of the poster


In another great interview by Jeff Parks, Dorian Taylor mentioned Stewart Brand’s book How Buildings Learn. Dorian brought up the concept of fast and slow shearing layers, explained in Brand’s book. The layers convey how a building is comprised of different layers—from Site to Structure to Skin to Stuff—that change at different rates and operate on different timescales. Taylor mentioned how this concept also relates to different aspects of developing a user experience. (Arguably, the layers may also map roughly to Jesse James Garrett’s ‘Elements of the User Experience’.)

I read Brand’s book a few years ago, and feel there is another concept describes in it that also relates to user experience work: that of Low Road vs. High Road design.

I previously brought this up in a discussion around an A List Apart article a couple years ago. The discussion was related more specifically to web design, but I think it’s also useful to think of it in other contexts.

To start off, it’s something different from the moral connotation of ‘taking the high/low road’. In Brand’s book it speaks to the adaptability of a building. ‘Low Road’ doesn’t mean ‘low quality’ or ‘low standards’, but concerns approaches that allow for changes to be made easily as a building or system adapts to different uses and contexts.

I mentioned in the A List Apart discussion that we may want to aim more for Low Road methods in design. Rather than building up a hard-to-modify ‘grand edifice’ of custom technologies, regulations, and heavy overhead, we can instead build in flexibility and adaptability into a design by using standards-based approaches, modularization, along with a mix of irreverent creativity.

Taking a High Road approach isn’t bad in itself, though. Although High Road design leads to constraints that get in the way of change, it can lead to deeper meaning and appreciation with an experience. But this means a lot of time and commitment is required, often more than owners are willing to invest, to keep a product or experience relevant.

There is a place for both High Road and Low Road in the big picture of experience design, but we should keep aware of which road we are taking and when. To me, if one’s working with High Road approaches, they should be focusing on building permanence and reverence into the culture and vision behind an experience (yet avoid establishing organizational dogma… a sometimes tricky balance). When working more on the side of the experience close to the tangible end product, the easier-to-change Low Road is generally the way to go.

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For a few years, in and out of university, I was involved in a few literacy initiatives. From those experiences with literacy work, I gained some insights that have carried into my User Experience work:

Hidden Corrective Lenses

For many people with reading difficulties, the issue is not with comprehension but with perception. It may not be that words just appear blurry. Letter may look sharp, but be perceived as floating on the page. Spaces may appear where they aren’t supposed to or disappear between words entirely.

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For some people running into problems like that,  it was found that if they used a simple coloured transparency over the text they were reading, the problems they had disappeared. Many had struggled for a long time with reading difficulties, and this simple solution offered them a breakthrough.

I see this relating to user experience work in reminding me it’s impossible to really know other people’s perceptions. There may be cognitive or visual deficiencies involved, or perhaps just small differences in culture, knowledge, or experience that interfere with them seeing the way the you know it is. But there may be simple solutions that help make things clearer for them —or for you— but have to look to find it. And you do that by working with them to find that answer.

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Who’s Goal Is It? (Hint: Not Yours)

In helping people learn to read or do math, some folks start off with a vision of the client relaxing in an armchair flipping through War and Peace or taking to the chalkboard in a Good Will Hunting moment. Problem is: that’s not what the client wants. All he wants is to understand his phone bill or read the letter from his granddaughter.

On the user experience side as well as in literacy, we may start out with lofty goals that we know will help people out, even with the best of intentions. But if the goals aren’t related to what the end-user wants, it’s all for naught. Worse yet, forcing you own goals may even frustrate him to the point of giving up on his own goals.

Early Intervention

Many people who’ve experienced literacy problems learn to give up early and, without proper support, fall even further behind as they continue through school and into adulthood. Therefore, many literacy campaigns attempt to intervene very early, discovering problems early on and ensuring support is there before a child has learned to give up.

To me, this speaks to a couple things in user experience. The first is to interact with end-users early on in development of new systems to avoid problems down the road. The second is to ensure proper support exists throughout a person’s experience with a product, helping her be successful in what she is trying to do.


Even though some people don’t find help with literacy early, they can still be very successful, overcoming obstacles with determination and resourcefulness. For example, one story I remember is one of a Toronto man who couldn’t read the signage, but navgiated his way around the subway system by memorizing the station tiles.

In the UX world, this reminds me that people are not stupid, and not to listen to others that label them that way: whether it’s with knowing how a computer works, the “correct rules” to follow, or using an application. Despite running into difficulties they will often find some way to overcome them to get done what they need to do. This may take them off the obvious routes you’ve laid out for them, or even entirely out of the system you’ve planned. So learn what those routes are, and why they took them in the first place.

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