Navigating the ladder of abstraction – How to get everyone talking about IA


Saturday, 28 Sep. 14:15–15:00


Navigating the ladder of abstraction – How to get everyone talking about IA

/ Emily Heath / Rob Scott

EmilyHeath RobScott


We are two UX Architects within the BBC’s User Experience and Design team. In 2017, we found ourselves embedded in product teams delivering IA for large ranging, long term strategies expressed in metaphorical language. There was scant time to work in the details as there were many work streams to architect for. We also needed to lay the groundwork for features that hadn’t yet been conceived. Furthermore, our product teams were already making unintentional architectures which risked undermining the long term direction agreed at the highest level.

As a result, we set out to create IA principles so colleagues across UX, product and engineering could follow the long term strategy(while also making intentional IA). We also had to find a way of communicating these principles to different audiences. Some colleagues were looking for concrete examples, while others responded better to a level of abstraction.

We’d seen examples of IA principles(like Transport for London) that did a great job of bringing coherence at more concrete elements – surface interaction elements and skeletal templates. But we hadn’t seen examples which tied together strategic direction to tangible expression – bringing together the various levels of abstraction.

First, we’ll describe how we developed both sets of Principles, including how trading war stories helped us take each other’s lessons between products. We’ll also talk about how we explored multiple ways of expressing principles that would underpin our approach to product strategy and execution. We’ll explain Hayakawa’s Ladder of Abstraction, how it relates to UX and how you can use it to help communicate IA.

We’ll share some tips on when metaphors can help and when it is better to describe more literally what the impact of decisions will be on the user and system as a whole. And finally, we’ll tell you if it actually made a difference.


Emily Heath

Emily Heath spent the last 2 years improving navigation and content discovery across BBC Children’s ecosystem, helping kids discover more content they’ll love: from games, learning apps and quizzes, to TV shows and fan content. She’s now moved into a central UXA team working on pan-BBC projects like global navigation and URL design. Emily has been a UX architect at the BBC since 2014 and prior to this, she ran a digital agency called Exploded View. There, Emily designed and built information-rich websites for a wide range of arts organisations and SMEs. Emily has a daily yoga practice to keep her grounded and does acroyoga whenever she feels like taking off.


Rob Scott

Rob Scott is a User Experience Architect for BBC Design + Engineering, currently working on UX&D’s Spatial Immersive Design team exploring how 2D digital designers transition to thinking and working spatially. Before this, he worked within BBC Education on products like BBC Food and BBC Bitesize, and spent time working on the‘Global Experience Language’. Prior to the BBC, he spent 7 years with a niche provider of meaningful travel experiences, constructing the IA for CRMs, flight booking and event management systems. He also co-organizes the VR Manchester Meetup and will talk about the difference between ‘presence’ and ‘immersion’ for hours if you let him.