How social collaborative models can be used to design the information architecture of an e-commerce website.

by Randy Tsang


Source: Matthew Field

As some of you may know, I am currently conducting part-time PhD research at London College of Communication, University of Arts London. Below is a short extract from my original proposal.

This study aims to investigate the extent and the circumstances in which mass collaboration can be leveraged to design the information architecture of an e-commerce website. The conclusion of this research aims to illuminate our understanding of the potential of large networks to collaborate on design and to further enhance our ability to define a new framework for using new technologies and user interfaces to collaboratively solve creative web design problems.

Developments in technology have seen communication move from a one-to-many broadcast medium to a many-to-many communication paradigm (McQuail 2005). Wikis and social networking websites have brought people together in online communities and facilitated digital content creation that was once purely the domain of professionals (Friedman 2006).

Evidence of the effectiveness of digital communications and crowdsourcing to redefine business models have emerged in various industries (Howe 2009) most notably in:

  • Encyclopedia publishing with Wikipedia
  • Stock photography with iStockPhoto
  • Chemical R&D with InnoCentive

Further developments of sophisticated technologies, intuitive user interfaces, and a subsequent empowerment of the digital natives who are on the verge of entering the workforce (Pew Internet American Life Project 2005) provides great potential for collaborative labour, for instance in the design of information architecture for e-commerce websites.

Parallel strands of research into self-organising systems will also be investigated due to the potential synergy with large-scale online collaboration.  Specifically, the Sociocybernetics  (Buckley 1967) strand of General Systems Theory (Bertlanffy 1967) will be researched in relation to defining a new ecology of social interactions in the context of creative collaboration.

The rise of the “prosumer” has been predicted for nearly 30 years (Toffler 1981) when it was postulated that consumers would begin to exercise an increasing influence over the products that they consumed. However, it is “a generation of digital natives entering the workforce…and the rise of online communities composed of like-minded enthusiasts” (Howe 2008) that has combined to empower consumers to create products for themselves and allow crowdsourcing to transform industries.

This has been made possible by the exponential growth in computing (Kurzweil 2005) which has led to increasingly powerful technologies becoming affordable for average consumers. With the Internet acting as a free educational resource and distribution channel (Anderson 2006) there lies potential in utilizing a network of underemployed talent and creativity in design, taking advantage of the potential benefits of crowdsourcing such as lower costs, more innovative ideas and more diverse solutions (Howe 2009).

The value of e-commerce retailing has benefitted from the increased capability of computing power, with studies by Zhu (2004) finding a “strong positive interaction effect between IT infrastructure and e-commerce capability.” This suggests that “their complementarity positively contributes to firm performance in terms of sales per employee, inventory turnover, and cost reduction.”

The theoretical context will draw from the following perspectives:

User Interface

This field will focus on how developments in human-computer interaction can impact on how people use e-commerce websites, and will draw on studies such that by Egger (2001).

Information Architecture

Morville (2006) defines information architecture as “the structural design of shared information environments.“ As incremental improvements in usability have proven to significantly impact on profitability (Tedeschi 1999), the importance of information architecture has increased.

E-Commerce Website

A website which facilitates the transaction of products or services on the site itself (Laudon 2001). The information architecture is of vital importance as a website’s profitability can be positively influenced by improvements in information architecture (Moville 2006).


Howe (2009) defines crowdsourcing as the “outsourcing of a job that is traditionally performed by employees to an undefined, generally large group of people in an open call.”

To establish whether social collaborative models can be used to design an e-commerce website, this study will initially focus on defining the conventions of professional web development. By establishing the parameters under which the success of an e-commerce website can be judged, the success of crowdsourcing information architecture designs can be assessed.