Moving up and down the ladder of abstraction

Systems > Standards > Structure > Stuff

In IA, this might look like: Architectural approach > Navigation model > Items in navigation > Pages on a site

Ways to move down the ladder:

  • Use an example
  • Use sensory language
  • Be specific (As John Hodgman likes to say, “Specificity is the soul of narrative.”)
  • Tell a story
  • Cite data
  • Use photos or props
  • Identify implications
  • Propose a specific action
  • Use “How” questions

Ways to move up the ladder:

  • Provide the big picture
  • Say why it’s important
  • Reveal patterns and relationships
  • Draw a diagram
  • Cite trend data
  • Identify insights
  • Draw inferences
  • Summarize into principles and guidelines
  • Relate to shared ideals

Deliberately moving up and down the ladder of abstraction is the most powerful way to understand a [[system]].

As Peter Morville points out, IAs are hired for our tangible outputs, but the great secret of IA is that our most valuable outputs are intangible. They’re hard to explain and understand. We can move things up and down the ladder of abstraction because every IA problem is ultimately a systems problem.


Arango, J. (2020). Peter Morville on Emancipating Information Architecture . Retrieved May 10, 2021, from

Dlugan, A. (2013, September 15). The Ladder of Abstraction and the Public Speaker. Six Minutes.