Designs for Life: Information Architecture in Tokyo

Back to Contents of Issue: October 2002

Craig Mod lobbies for the simple things in life.

by Craig Mod

ASK WHAT IT IS and those 'in the know' will tell you that information architecture is the combination of art and science in an intuitive way to facilitate access to information. Since the term is usually used regarding the Web, the aim of a good information architect is to make the user experience as simple and straightforward as possible while simultaneously meeting the goals of the business. An information architect brings together several seemingly unrelated fields -- ethnography, cognitive psychology and usability -- when creating a smooth online experience.

"How do I imply to users through the structure and design of my site that the time they've spent there has been time well spent? That I value their time and offer them something of worth in exchange?" asks Adam Greenfield, senior information architect at Razorfish Tokyo. These are the questions 'moral' information architects grapple with. "To me, information architecture is all about respect," says Adam taking a sip from his beer in a cafe in Ebisu. "Respect and compassion for the people who use the things we design."

While discussing with Adam the role of information architects regarding the dot-com bubble burst a few years back I take a quick trip to the smallest room. When I get back I say, "Now that is one poorly thought out toilet." To which Adam responds, "I know.' And then begins to list the things wrong with it: The door opens in such a way that you have to literally step over the toilet to enter and the flush button is on the floor in a position that lends itself to being easily tripped over. Clearly this is not the first time Adam has been to this cafe.

Adam further expounds on the various negative points he finds in Japanese design of user experiences. For instance, Japanese corporate bureaucracy can get in the way of a well-thought-out Web site. "For internal political reasons they'll say we have to have the president's picture on the front page ... we have to have a list of every press release," says Adam with a look in his eye indicating he's speaking from experience. This means that even if a lot of forethought is put into a site, and a lot of user testing is conducted, the well-formed experience created by an information architect can be subverted in one fell swoop. As we mentioned in the July 17 issue of our J@pan Inc Newsletter (, the Japanese Toyota Web site is clearly plagued by such bureaucratic befuddlement, while the American counterpart is clean, untainted and user centric.

However, information architecture doesn't begin and end on the Web. Just as the cafe toilet design frazzled both Adam and my design sensibilities, the notion of an interface can be extended well into the physical world. The handle on a door, the steering wheel in your Volvo, the cap on a water bottle and the keyboard on your computer all act as means to achieve a goal. There are varying degrees of consciousness with which we approach these interfaces. Some slip transparently past cognition, while others require a great deal of lucidity in interaction. In a world that is arguably increasing in complication, information architects are the people attempting the simplification of our complicated digital lives into subconscious, natural interactions. As Adam puts it, imbuing items and interfaces with proper forethought and user testing conveys a certain amount of "respect and compassion for people who use the things we design." Since we had covered the negative aspects of Japanese user interfacing, I asked Adam to give me an example of positive interfacing in action -- a well-conceived piece of information architecture in everyday Tokyo life. Almost as if this question were part of an exam, without missing a beat Adam quickly mentioned the Ginza subway exit signs. At each exit there is a giant street level photograph of the view located above the station at that particular exit. Since it's properly oriented, you know exactly what lies above without having to climb a flight of stairs. This design is so good, says Adam, that for most people, using it "never even rises to the level of conscious thought." Reflecting on the aforementioned bureaucracy, he states, "it warms my heart that some committee let that pass."

Another well thought out physical object is Tokyo-based Muji's wall-mounted CD player. This CD player is one such example of taking a fairly complicated mechanical apparatus, stripping it of any superfluous buttons, dials and switches and outputting pure intuitivism. Naoto Fukasawa of IDEO conceived of the unit during a 1999 design think-tank exploration project aptly called, 'Without Thought.' The only means of interfacing is a simple pull string (which also acts as the power cord) that hangs below the elegant, white, square player that is textured only with subtle speaker perforations. You pull the cord, the CD spins; pull it again and it stops. Even my grandmother is un-intimidated by that. @

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