Digital Machiavelli #1: Information Architecture in the Attention Economy

Ignore it at your peril.

Welcome to my digital strategy course of indefinite length, delivered straight to your inbox every week.

What You’ll Learn Today: What information architecture is, and why you should care about it if you spend any length of time creating any type of written content.


A common assumption I’ve observed in those who write thousands of words without so much as a single subheading, separator or image is that people are split into two discrete groups:

  • The short attention span peasants who won't read this profound wall of text

  • And the genius-tier academic types who will

But that simply isn't reality.

We all live in an insanely information-dense environment. And barring some in-group oriented edge cases, we generally publish things because we want people to read them, and the more people, the better.

Given that goal, it’s critically important to not only grab attention with catchy titles, but to retain that attention throughout as much of the content as possible.

Who’s Reading & Why?

It’s tempting to jump straight into the tactics of formatting your content for maximum focus retention, but as I point out at the bottom of my About page, my goal here is show you how to think about these things, so strategy comes first.

Many different people will read what you wrote, or rather, many will try.

  • Some will be reading while distracted by events in their vicinity

  • Others will get sidetracked by their own thoughts

  • Others still will be reading in a state of chronic understimulation (aka ADHD) and be prone to tuning out without sufficient visual stimulus

But if your goal is to help all of these different types of readers stick with your writing to the end, it doesn’t make much sense to split them into separate personas, since you won’t be writing different versions of the same content for different people.

What does make sense is identifying commonalities among people and exploiting them — a strategy similar to Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines, which push app developers to use UX conventions that users are already familiar with from the most popular apps in their ecosystem.

Enter Information Architecture

The purpose of information architecture is to tangibly improve readability by formatting content without altering the subject matter.

This means you can take a finished draft and meaningfully improve it by applying a series of broadly helpful structural elements, such as…

Headings

Headings play a critical role in helping readers navigate the content of an article, web page, or document.

Not only do headings visually break up lengths of text, but they also create anchors loaded with top-level information, allowing the reader to effectively scan the text for exactly the parts they want to read.

Lists

In 2021 the list article or “listicle” is a trope that’s been memed to death, but the fundamental effectiveness of reinforcing attention through lists is indisputable.

  • We like it when things come in sets of three or five, helping us compartmentalize said things mentally.

  • We benefit from extra negative space around something that’s meant to stand out, since it sharpens our focus.

  • And we’re instinctively drawn to visual anchor points, such as bullets and numbers, since they ease navigation.

In a way, lists are like a safety net that helps you keep your reader from falling off that tightrope of focus and investment they walk while reading what you wrote.

Images

This one seems easy. Just plop a few images down throughout your article, and call it a day, right?

Except images are a potent context building tool, so while they certainly act as visual stimulus to retain attention, that isn’t their only purpose.

A well placed image has a subtle connection to the text that precedes and/or follows it, creating a sense of flow that ensures it doesn’t come across as jarring.

The Bottom Line

I started the above series of examples with “such as" because a full list of information architecture elements is beyond the scope of this issue, since I’m trying to break all this up into digestible bites for you.

But going forward I intend to dedicate an entire issue to each element separately, so if that sounds like your cup of tea...

But to wrap things up, I figured I’d tackle the most fundamental question.

Does information architecture really matter?

The short answer: yes, it does, and you should castigate anyone who says otherwise.

The long answer is that not everything can be quantified and packaged in neat charts to present to management.

While digital marketing has made a science out of measuring the reach and impact of content published on the web, there’s more to a successful piece of content than how it measures up on an analytics dashboard.

The structure and formatting considerations that go into any written work, be it a blog article, a promotional brochure, or a mass market paperback, help you get what you’ve written from the page to your reader’s associative memory.

That is the fundamental goal of non-fiction writing, and you’ll greatly improve your chances of achieving that goal by wielding information architecture as the potent weapon that it is.