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Oct 02, 2001: IKEA, Borders, and Information Architecture

Former Argonaut Kat Hagedorn pointed me to a short piece of hers: "Ramblings: The IA of IKEA Stores". Kat notes that the two IKEA stores she's visited consistently support two types of shopping experience: known-item ("I know what I'm looking for") and open-ended ("I'm not sure what I'm looking for"). Different parts of the store are arranged to support these two types of information (or, in this case, furniture) needs.

I've never been to an IKEA, but I'm impressed nonetheless: creating a multi-dimensional information space in the measly three dimensions the universe provides us is a lot harder than doing so in the N-dimensional world of the Web. Besides needing a bigger brain, you also need more floor space than your competitors, which drives up your expenses quite a bit. I assume that IKEA has been able to justify its well-reasoned (though expensive) architecture by pointing to increased profitability. If that's the case, it's a useful analogy for justifying the value of information architecture.

(Quick aside: if there's an information architect who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone at IKEA, please try to validate the assumption that good retail architecture means greater profit, even when figuring in higher costs. Whoever does this gets a free signed polar bear book and my undying admiration.)

And if we're going to ramble, let me ramble a little about working on the initial Borders Books & Music site's architecture back in '95. I maintain that if they would have followed our advice, Borders would have beaten Amazon to the punch. Or if they'd at least not equated the Internet with CB radio, as one of their top honchos was wont to do, their site could have achieved minimal success. And now, of course, go to www.borders.com and what do you find? Amazon.

Argh. How painful. And six years later, it still hurts like an absolute bastard. After all, your first consulting gig is like your first love. Intense, passionate, and ultimately utterly heartbreaking.

Anyway, my colleagues and I had the pleasure of being given a tour of Store #1 by its manager, Joe Gable, who, with Tom and Louis Borders, essentially invented the concept of the book superstore back in the early '70s. Curmudgeonly Joe explained the relative prominence of each of the three tiers of books laid out on the tables. He described how subject areas were carefully positioned in relation to each other. He talked about balancing what customers knew they wanted with books they hadn't considered before. And he pointed out how local buying habits and demographics made each Borders store's merchandising layout unique. I can't tell you the specifics, but I can say that it was almost a pure and yet tangible form of information architecture. Book merchandising is dependent on information retrieval, marketing, and physical architecture, among other things. Fascinating combo.

Where am I going with this? Maybe that the out-of-work information architects out there should consider working in a bookstore as a good two-year plan, with obvious IA educational perks, until the economy rebounds. Maybe that I'd like to work in a bookstore. Maybe that I wish Borders had been smarter. And maybe that we all need to learn more about retail merchandising...

OK, end of ramble.

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