Creating metaphors to explain a data model is vital to explain the model to people without the knowledge or experience to understand it quickly. Much like family trees evoke a sense of relationships between people by using the structure and design of a tree, strong metaphors for information architecture can help anyone understand the relationships in any data model. Good metaphors, such as web “pages,” stick with people, even if they are not completely accurate. New ways of expressing relationships in data demand new metaphors in order to express the necessity of data models to executives deciding whether or not to fund a project or even programmers that need to build around the model. Complex metaphors such as oceans, with ecosystems of fish and other organisms reacting to their environment, are far more accurate and fluid for explaining modern information architecture.


information architecture
information models
information representations

IA Column


Designing a Metaphor for Your Model

by Laura Creekmore

I was sitting in my home office recently, talking with my seven-year-old about our family. She asked me a few details about how we’re related to various relatives, so within 10 minutes I’d drawn out a standard genealogy tree structure on my whiteboard, showing five generations and multiple family branches – divorces, remarriages, adoptions and all. She looked amazed and said, “How do you REMEMBER all that in your head?”

And there it was again, information architecture. Part of the reason I remember all the family information that seems overwhelming to her is that I’ve got 38 years of family reunions and holiday dinners on her, of course. But I also know how to represent those relationships in a structure that enhances my memory of the connections.

She’d heard of the idea of a family tree before, and she’d even drawn one in school. But until she saw my large, many-branched sketch, she hadn’t gotten the idea fully. Once she did, she wanted to draw leaves all over it, because that’s her understanding of a tree.

The metaphors and models we use in information architecture have to make this kind of visceral connection with our audiences. Do they see a tree just because we call it a tree? Or do they need to see the leaves that are “unnecessary” to our information representation – yet essential to their understanding?

Many of us have unconsciously clung to the idea of web “pages” to describe content even when we design models that truly use chunks of content, because that metaphor established by printed works hundreds of years ago has so firmly imprinted itself onto our brains. And frankly, while “chunks” are accurate in terms of describing a block of content that can appear in a number of places on a website or an app, they aren’t a great metaphor to help us envision the role of specific information in a model. A page is a specific place in a book. A chunk could be anywhere or nowhere.

A useful metaphor for information architecture has to establish the relationship, not just the item. When we say web “page,” we imply that the information has a place in a hierarchy or a structure. When we say “chunk,” we have removed the idea of a containing structure entirely.

Of course, that’s part of what makes chunks so powerful. They are structure-independent.

At the same time, that’s what makes them so hard to discuss and explain. Content chunks are like the dozens of relatives my daughter has met without the context of a family tree – interesting in their own right, but the relationships aren’t apparent, and without them, neither is some of their meaning.

When you use content chunks instead of pages to think of, create and manage your content – and I could go on all day about why you often should – you will still need a metaphor or model to explain how your content will work.

In some cases, this may take the familiar information architecture form of a traditional navigation structure or a taxonomy of related terms. In many other cases, though, we are now designing information models that express content relationships in ways that were never possible before the modern digital experience. These new content relationships don’t fit neatly into those old page or tree metaphors, often because those are static metaphors. Chunks enable mobility and flexibility that aren’t possible for a book (with pages in a set order) or a tree (rooted to the ground with stationary branches).

Our new models are like oceans, where fish are constantly moving and responding to their environments. They are like a disco ball, reflecting light in multiple directions and bringing your attention to things you didn’t see before. They are like the windows and billboards in the 2002 film Minority Report, customizing themselves in response to changes in the environment and the audience.

In this new information architecture, the structure may never be obvious or visible in a way that’s easy to see or draw, because it is not static – it does not hold still or take a single form long enough for us to visually describe it. The facets of context and content describe the possible types of relationships, but the true structure only appears to individual users at the time they use the site or the app.

In my own experience, that can make digital experiences harder to manage as well as design. That’s why some lucky customer service personnel today have the ability to imitate a specific user’s account with permission – because otherwise, there’s no way to see exactly what the user sees.

Counterintuitively, I have also seen that a user can simply be inside a well-designed experience and it will make sense, even if they don’t have the language or the metaphor to describe it. (Note that the adjective well-designed is critical there.) But for many projects under development, this structural flexibility and innovation make experiences difficult for internal teams to discuss.

When we want to convince business executives why they should fund an experience or help programmers understand what to build, the metaphor matters. We have to design not just the experience, not just the structure, not just the metaphor – we have to give them the leaves that make it real to them, so they see the value.

Spend the time you need working on your metaphors. Those leaves reveal your story.