Identifying patterns of discrimination in Information Architecture

This Sant Jordi I was given a children’s book as a present (yes, I’m 37 years old, but that’s a discussion for another time). The book was “Etiquetes”, “Labels” in Catalan, by Joan Turu, an illustrated album about Neus and how everybody is always labelling their existence.

"Etiquetes", Joan Turu. Bindi Boks.
A child with an angry expression with many paper labels attached to his body with string.

On the back cover we can read a question:

“Do [labels] limit us, make us accommodate, separate us, and make it difficult for us to change?”

I never get tired of stating that labels, and organizing systems in general, are not only descriptive, they are also inherently normative and shape the way we act.

There are many people labelling, categorizing, and classifying out there, but some of them are professional labelers, categorizers, and classifiers. We call them information architects. And information architects, like everyone else, always introduce biases and exclusionary views into the organizing systems they design.

It’s dangerous when we take this for granted without questioning it, but it’s not always easy to be aware of these biases. For example we may find resources classified in a certain way without being explicitly labelled (e.g., resources grouped or structured by gender, but not explicitly labelled in a gendered way). These elusive situations may be hard to spot, but users of these organizing systems derive meaning from these implicit classifications, perpetuating assumptions about how we should interact with the world.

Let me make this clear: I realize that all this is not precisely new, but we need to increase professional awareness about these situations in our field. We can do better: we need to learn to uncover discriminatory structures, we must facilitate discussion on these issues, and we need to teach better our students about them.

Maybe we can collect, model and name structural patterns of discrimination in information architecture; creating a vocabulary for these patterns to facilitate communication. Does this makes sense?

This Wednesday I will be presenting «Identifying patterns of discrimination in Information Architecture» at the poster night at The information architecture conference 2021. A personal work in progress with the ultimate goal of supporting Neus to have more freedom to decide their own labels, if any.

Publicado por

Dani Armengol

Consultor independiente de arquitectura de información