Semantic environments and information architecture


One of the (many) ways in which we define information architecture is as “the structural design of information environments”. I’ve always found this phrase “information environments” alluring, given that I spend most of my conscious time in online “spaces” that seem to exist somewhere between various screens and my two ears. (I wince sympathetically when I hear people say that they “live out of their inbox”; this is one of many figures of speech that belie the fact that we experience many of our interactive digital tools spatially.)

But what is an “information environment”, really? Is it something we can design? How do you go about it?

These questions have been simmering in my mind since I first read the phrase, years ago. Recently I came across an old book that has given me new insights: Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk: How We Defeat Ourselves by the Way We Talk and What to Do About It, by Neil Postman. First published in 1976, Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk is a self-help primer on general semantics aimed at the public. It makes many important and illuminating points about human communications, but one idea that especially resonated with me is what Mr. Postman calls the semantic environment, a concept that sounds very similar to what I understand by “information environment”, and which I think could help us produce more effective information architectures.

The semantic environment

Before I attempt to mangle Mr. Postman’s elegant description, I must point out that when we talk about “information environments”, we’re talking about places where people go to understand things and each other. In other words, we’re talking about spaces in which people communicate, which they do using language.

It’s obvious to say that people communicate with language, but it’s also easy to fall into the trap of thinking that communication is only about language. Mr. Postman argues that communication is not about stuff or bits or messages (what he calls the “Ping-Pong ball” theory of communications: I say something to you, you say something back, I retort, etc.), rather, it’s a situation that people participate in “like the way a plant participates in what we call its growth”.

These “situations”, which he calls semantic environments, are where and how we communicate with each other. They include

  1. people (and their social roles and relationships),
  2. their purposes,
  3. the rules of discourse by which those purposes are normally achieved, and
  4. the particular talk (words) being used in the situation.

Note that only the final point addresses what we normally think of as “language”; the other three are about context.

We inhabit many different semantic environments as we go about our lives. For example, religion is one such semantic environment: we use a particular set of words, in particular ways, when we are in church. Semantic environments are also composed of many subenvironments. For example, the Confessional is a semantic environment within the broader environment of religion: there are special rules and words that apply to that situation that would be inappropriate in the more public sphere of religion as a whole. Science is another semantic environment, and one with completely different rules, purposes, and vocabularies than religion.

Effective communication requires that you be able to identify the environment (or subenvironment) that you’re currently participating in, and use the correct communication structures (rules and words) for that particular environment. Many misunderstandings (and lawsuits) result from people not using the right words in the right sequence in the right environment. Think, for example, of the phrase “you look hot”: its interpretation will depend almost entirely on contextual factors, and the wrong interpretation could lead to a punch in the face (or worse). In short, the effectiveness of words depends on the relationship between them and the totality of the situation the people using them are in.

Polluting the environment

All of this sounds obvious, but in practice many situations are highly ambiguous. Lacking clear ambient or interpersonal signals, we may find ourselves unwitting participants in a semantic environment that we are unprepared for. Given the messiness that characterizes human relationships, this happens more often than we’d expect, so clear differentiation between semantic environments is key to successful communication. As Mr. Postman says, “when language becomes undifferentiated, human situations disintegrate: Science becomes indistinguishable from religion, which becomes indistinguishable from commerce, which becomes indistinguishable from law, and so on.” The name he gives to this process is pollution, and he means it in the same sense that we do when talking about the physical environment:

To pollute a river means to introduce into it elements that cannot be absorbed, elements that do not fit, elements that have no function in the life system of the river. And that is how you pollute a semantic environment. You introduce a language whose tone or point of view or vocabulary has no function in the meaning system of that environment.

He acknowledges that there is no such thing as a “pure” semantic environment: all environments contain some degree of “garbage”, or “unassimilable matter”. However, as in the physical world, some semantic environments can become so compromised by extraneous elements that they become toxic (e.g., unable to achieve the communication purposes that they exist for). George Orwell spent much of his career examining how political powers intentionally pollute semantic environments to make communication difficult or impossible; his essay Politics and the English Language is required reading if you’re into this stuff. And if you want to experience a highly polluted semantic environment for yourself (and are in the U.S.), tune your TV to Fox News or MSNBC at any given time. (But please, do so only briefly and out of anthropological interest, lest you suffer irreversible brain rot.)

What about information architecture?

You may be wondering, “what does any of this have to do with information architecture?” Well, I think one of the most important functions that IA provides is to identify and clarify the various semantic environments and subenvironments that affect a product. This goes well beyond the creation of semantic structures, which is what many people consider the purview of IA to be, to include such things as the roles and relationships between the people interacting in (and with) the product, the intended and actual purposes of their interactions, and the rules that govern those interactions (both on- and offline).

One of the challenges that we face when designing for these digital experiences is that they lack many of the subtle nonverbal cues that help people identify the semantic environment they’re participating in. Part of what IA should do is afford these cues, so that users can not only find their way around, but also understand what type of environment they’re supposed to be participating in. Because all of this is still relatively new (especially when compared to physical communication, which we’ve adapted to over many thousands of years), sometimes clients will ask us to include “unassimilable matter” into semantic environments, causing no end of trouble. Information architects need to be able to understand — and defend — the integrity of semantic environments in order to make them as “clean” (understandable) as possible.

Take for example a project to redesign the website of a telecommunications company. The final website can be seen as a semantic environment. However, it will not be a very effective one unless we acknowledge and accommodate the fact that it will actually be composed of a variety of subenvironments that serve different purposes for different people, and that some of these subenvironments may actually be in conflict for each other: a potential client looking to upgrade her mobile phone plan will have different needs and expectations than one that who is angrily looking for support because her phone isn’t working. For these experiences to be successful, each user should able to go about her business as effectively as possible, with as little “pollution” as possible; in other words, each subenvironment should be as “clean” as possible. Advertising may be considered toxic to the “support” subenvironment, but easily could creep in unless it’s clearly called out as such. These rules obviously need to accommodate the variety of channels and contexts that are required by today’s digital products, and need to be managed in order to achieve environmental integrity and “cleanliness” while evolving to respond to changing contextual forces. I hold the view that identifying, defining, and managing these ground rules — and the broader semantic environments they serve — is part of IA’s remit.

How do you go about doing this? Well, that’s an ongoing project for me, and one that I hope to write more about in the future. For now, here’s a list of questions culled from Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk that can help you define semantic environments (and keep you from polluting them):

  • What is the general area of discourse I am designing for? Does it employ the language of law? commerce? religion? etc.
  • Who are the people performing within the semantic environment?
  • How well do they know the environment’s rules?
  • How well do they know the environment’s language?
  • Is there potential for ambiguity over what sort of environment this is? What can create such confusion?
  • What are the intended purposes of this environment?
  • What are the purposes that are actually being achieved by the way this environment is currently organized?
  • Is there a difference between what is intended and what is being achieved?
  • Are there contradictions in purpose between the environment and its subenvironments?
  • Are there conflicts between the intended or actual purposes of the environment and the needs of the individuals in the situation?
  • What are the environment’s key terms, including its basic metaphors?
  • Who controls these metaphors?
  • Who or what is in charge of maintaining the definitions?

Photo: rezlab

About Jorge Arango

I'm an information architect. I've designed and produced digital products for a wide variety of organizations for almost two decades, and am an active member of the global IA/UX community. Read more.

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