Information architecture is not dead, it’s just sleeping

Tomorrow marks the first day of the pre-conferences for the 2007 IA Summit. I arrive Friday afternoon, before the main program begins Saturday morning.

I have been to every IA Summit (the first was in 2000), and I’m going to this one with more trepidation than any I have been to before. While I don’t accord with the sensationalist notion that “information architecture is dead,” I do fear that it is in a deep sleep. And I’m concerned that the leadership within the field of information architecture are doing little to nothing to really advance the field.

For me, an acute sign of this, and the particular cause of my trepidation for this summit, was the cancellation of “Learning Interaction Design from Las Vegas” pre-conference session. This was to be given by three leaders in the field of user experience — Steve Portigal, Bill deRouchey, and my colleague at Adaptive Path, Dan Saffer. It was a brilliant concept — using the location of Las Vegas as material for a day-long workshop on user research and interaction design.

Sadly, it fell victim to market forces. Up against 18 other pre-conferences, it didn’t get a critical mass of attendees. I take some blame for this — I was seriously considering signing up for the class, but didn’t get around to it before it was cancelled.

But I also feel that the leadership of the IA Summit deserves some blame for this. I find it appalling that visionary sessions are being cancelled because of market forces (I know there were enough people signed up to make it an interesting workshop — just not enough to warrant the costs). Shouldn’t the main conference for a professional organization take the occasional loss in order to advance the field? Why on earth is it playing it safe? It’s not like this should be a money-making venture.

My fear, going into the summit, is that the field of IA, while not dead, is moribund. That it’s becoming insular and isolated, and unwilling to take conceptual leaps, to take the methodological risks that are necessary for it to not stagnate. IA is having a remarkable time freeing itself from its early successes in a web 1.0 world, when the ability to organize and classify static information was new and valuable. In my closing plenary last year, I encouraged the IA community to both embrace the challenges of a web 2.0 world, and to advocate for the practice of IA within physical spaces. However, whenever I read about IA, all I see is more of the same.

I really hope I’m wrong in this. I’m going into the Summit with a critical, but, I hope, open mind. This is a crucial year for information architecture (and I use “crucial” precisely — IA is at a crux), and we’ll see if the community is willing to open up and embrace new challenges, or circle the wagons and simply do those things it has always done.

23 thoughts on “Information architecture is not dead, it’s just sleeping

  1. “I know there were enough people signed up to make it an interesting workshop …Shouldn’t the main conference for a professional organization take the occasional loss in order to advance the field?”

    Well, in that case, could AP take the loss and offer it as a cheap or free workshop for people who are interested? I bet you could track down a small conference room somewhere with 24 hours notice.

  2. it’s my opinion that Information Architecture is in no danger… information isn’t going anywhere and we’re always going to need ways to identify and move through it.

    information architects, however, are in danger of extinction if they aren’t going to engage in the way that information is changing, and the way that design and development methods and content production is changing.

    IA’s, as a generalisation, don’t seem so passionate about the exciting opportunities of the future and, as you say, more interested in circling the wagons, which is not so great.

    Bummer about Dan et al’s seminar – I decided not to see this one at SXSW because I assumed I’d be able to see it in Vegas, which kind of made more sense… there goes that plan. Unless, as Andrew suggests, we find an alternate venue for it. I heard it was a really great session.

    What’s the story with the flexi-stream that was being talked about… any chance we could get it slotted in there?

  3. I’m hugely biased here and I’ll raise the bitter flag right up front, so you can view the rest of my comment through that lens.

    Bill, Dan, and I talked about going “guerrilla” when it seemed cancellation was imminent. We were very discouraged and frustrated by the conversations about impending cancellation and it was hard to find the spirit among the three of us to do that.

    The fact is that our conversations with the summit people never were about problem solving. They were on a binary path – we have enough people, it’s go, we don’t have enough people, it’s no-go. There was some discussion as to when they’d make that decision, but there was no discussion about how to save the workshop. i.e., advertising it to people who had already signed up, or reschedule it to the day before the summit (not the day before the day before the summit), or to renegotiate our costs.

    We were all very excited about doing this. I was thrilled to be collaborating with Dan and Bill (and the fact is that one of the best things about it all was getting to work with them on the idea, the plan and so on). I walked away from it all with a slight financial loss (since we signed a contract allowing them to cancel at any time, and some travel costs are not refundable), and an iron-clad guarantee that I will never do anything at all with that organization again.

    Does the administration represent the field of IA, or do they represent administrative types everywhere. Let’s not judge product design by the IDSA, and maybe IA is also separate from its organizational keepers. I don’t know.

    To Andrew’s point, this wasn’t an AP event. I don’t know what if anything Peter and Dan talked about regarding this, and maybe it did come up, but as I said, we (or I did, and I think the other guys did) felt defeated, and I think this would have been hard to do at the time of cancellation. I will say that none of discussed finding a sponsor and that might have been a good idea.

    I think if anyone from the summit had been trying to work with us to save it, we might have felt more encouraged and come up with something like this.

    And although I speak about Dan and Bill here, it’s just my highly filtered version of it and they may have a different take on it.

  4. I have posted the slides from my SXSW session here:

    http://www.odannyboy.com/blog/new_archives/2007/03/learning_intera_1.html

    This was just the introduction to what was going to be a great day. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, “Oh, I was going to sign up for that workshop…” but then either didn’t or else by the time they were going to, it had already been canceled.

    Some of it has to do with $$$. Employers might not have been willing to pay for something so experimental and not immediately relevant to day-to-day tasks (like say, a workshop on wireframes or forms or taxonomies or some such).

  5. Oh, and since our workshop was canceled, neither Bill, Steve, or I is actually in Las Vegas this weekend, so we couldn’t run it as a guerrilla session now even if we wanted to.

  6. Like Steve said, be forewarned, bitterness ahead.

    The idea seemed like such a natural. Somebody HAD to do it. So we did. The conference is in Vegas for crying out loud, the experience design capital of the world. How could you not have a workshop around that?

    On the last day of last year’s Summit, I learned that this year it would be in Vegas. Excited by the possibilities, I floated the idea of this crazy workshop out the IA list. Dan and Steve both offered help. So we pitched it. They accepted it. Excellent. All is well.

    But then not enough people were signing up to “break even”. I can definitely understand how hard it would be to justify attending to an employer. “So, you want to me to pay you to walk around casinos in Vegas. Get back to work.”

    The frustrating part was when we weren’t really given a chance to restructure it to make it work. A full month ahead of time, they just cancelled it. Game over. Damn. At that point, we were just too defeated to really develop creative solutions, but it didn’t feel clear that they would’ve been heard anyway.

    Back to Peter’s point, I believe this whole episode is related to the difference/overlap between IA and IxD. The only reason I pitch ideas like this to the IA Summit are that they don’t fit anywhere else. CHI? Nope, I’d have to write a paper about it. DUX? I’ve heard very mixed reviews of it. That’s why I was excited to hear about a possible IxD Summit. This would be a natural there. It would be obvious.

    The bottom line is, I’m sad I’m not there in Vegas. I love the crowd, the hallway conversations, the wild ideas, and again, the people.

    But the best thing for me in this whole process was working through ideas with Dan and Steve. They’re good folks with smart ideas.

    So say hi to Vegas! Put 5 on 23 for me.

    End bitter.

  7. hmmm?
    bill said, “Back to Peter’s point, I believe this whole episode is related to the difference/overlap between IA and IxD.”

    Maybe we all need an IxD conference? Oh! right, as previously mentioned on the IxDA list there will be an IxDA conference for Interaction Design winter ’08. Keep your eyes and ears open!

  8. The problem with IA is that it is NOT about information. I’m sorry Leisa, but information existed before IA, and it will exist after, but web 1.0 focused on information and it got us far, but what we need to be doing now is about process, flow, context, collaboration, participation, activities, etc. yes, a lot of that is AROUND information, but the core to what we need to be designing are the interactions and behaviors of these systems and context of all this is human, environmental, political, social and psychological.

    Understanding how to organize is becoming less relevant because we aren’t doing the organizing anymore. What is important, and what we can impart as IAs is our understanding of the properties of information and use that knowledge in combination with other UX disciplines. We can’t remain isolated from the rest of the disciplines.

    At my first IA Summit 2 summits ago, i stood at the mic and said … GET OUT! learn from others. I heard people re-inventing way too many wheels: game design, interaction design, HCI, Industrial design, visual design, etc.

    IA is stagnant because it isn’t growing, which I think is Peter’s point.

    I do think though that as a member of the IAI board and former president that Peter is not bearing enough of the brunt of the responsibility for this. I know you created the IDEA conference, but quite honestly is that the best ya got? Is that even an IA Conference? It was GEL on the west coast with a theme of information, but it moved too fast and couldn’t be used as a means of moving people forward from where they are. it wasn’t relevant to their real every day problems that their clients are asking them to deal with.

    The IA Summit is that venue, but only if we allow other disciplines to grow inside it.

    – dave

    – dave

  9. David, you’re a narrow-minded halfwit, and I wish you wouldn’t pollute my site with your garbage. Among the things I did to further the field (in my limited time as IA President):
    – collaborated with MAYA on a one-day seminar on their work with the Pittsburgh Library System
    – rewrote the mission and vision of the organization to more broadly address the kinds of information problems IAs should address
    – organized the IDEA conference, which was not “Gel on the West Coast,” but, rather, a series of presentations, the overwhelming majority of which were given by people *actually doing far-reaching IA work*. This was not a set of inspirational lectures, but a series of craftspeople who are advancing the field, and whose examples demonstrated that it is possible to think outside our narrow box and do great work. It’s pathetic that your view of what’s possible is so limited that such presentations are considered irrelevant.
    – gave the closing plenary at IA Summit 2006, addressing these topics
    – wrote and spoke variously on the subject

    Please refrain from emitting your mindless toxic spew on this site.

  10. Far out. This really, really makes me mad. And I know I shouldn’t post when I’m mad because…well, you know what happens.

    But for goodness sake, if a workshop can’t attract enough people to attend, maybe that is a problem with the workshop or the presenters’ expectations, not the conference administration. Maybe the presenters should have done some more promotion, chased people who they knew hadn’t signed up or otherwise made the workshop work. Why should the conference organiser make special effort and special deals for one workshop? We promoted all workshops equally and have had the best workshop attendance ever (so the number of workshops offered is also not the issue)!

    And I personally wanted to attend this workshop, and signed up in time.

  11. The conference organizer should make special effort for workshops that are “out there,” that are visionary, that are atypical. That is exactly what they should do, or the only workshops people will go to are the safe ones that they always go to.

    Again, I don’t buy this market-forces approach to workshops at a professional association conference. We have a responsibility to advance the field, not follow it.

  12. Though, that one workshop really isn’t the point. It’s simply a bellwether of a larger trend, that of IA’s insularity and lack of vision. I’m hoping the Summit proves me wrong.

  13. The IA Summit isn’t an interface to the whole of the IA field, and *that* is a problem, sometimes.

    The IA Summit is a good mapping of IA into a business-oriented conference, but it is best at giving us an interface to the popularly known areas of a field. IMHO, it’s not so good an interface to the aspects of the IA field on the fringe, e.g., to new territories of ideas and practice.

    The IA Summit is something we may need to continue to fulfill a mostly mainstream role–to represent the mainstream brand for the IA practice. The marketplace for IA, and the culture of IA probably needs a really mainstream interface that’s all business-like and official (and, frankly, a bit routine).

    But then, I think we need another venue for whatever seems to be the “fringe” at any time, where there’s a whole different experience offered–it can have its own brand and provide a different kind of appeal and perspective towards IA.

    I’ve suggested in the past that the IA Summit be paired with an IA Fringe Festival–it’s a cultural interface model that has had some success in other contexts. . .

  14. Peter, I wonder if you’re more angry with the conference attendees who didn’t sign up for the workshop than you are with the conference organizers.

    What made each of us attendees look at it and then sign up for something else instead? If you’re assuming it’s because I couldn’t get my employer (a staid non-profit) to pay for it, you’re wrong. It’s because, while I thought it would be fun, I didn’t think I’d hear much I don’t already intuitively know from my experiences in the casinos and hotels of Vegas.

    Just providing a data point here. Maybe I was wrong. But I’m not the only one who “didn’t get around to it.”

  15. I respect what each of the presenters have bring to the table but I can see when a company is paying the bill you have to justify the cost.

    Also, to be honest, I was really interested in the seminar but then I saw Dan’s slides from SXSW I was kinda glad I didn’t sign up for the course. Obviously, I was missing his interpretation of slides but the content seemed basic…reinforce positive behaviors? C’mon.

    I don’t understand why you claim this seminar is visionary and will advance IA. I (and I’m sure other IAs) have used enthographic study techniques to develop cross channel experiences and have used metaphors from other industries in our design practices.

    I think it is weird that just because you were not involved in multi-channel projects or you didn’t consider it when you were involved with your client base that it’s an important subject at this moment. I worked on similar projects 6-7 years ago. It’s not a new problem, you’re just late to the game. The good news is that we always need another player!

  16. Ditto. Perhaps it wasn’t visionary, just obvious. Much like the original “adaptive path” presentation (yes, people take the shortest route to their goal … big whoop. Good for pointing out IA as a discrete practice to non-designers, but not all that helpful for the designers themselves!).

  17. I’m not sure how I ended up here. Was browsing and looking through archives and stopped to read this post and the comments.

    From an outsiders perspective—one who is familiar with IA but never performed it with the depth of many of the practitioners that you are probably spend time with, it seems that something isn’t right within the field. There’s a lot of infighting, and debate that doesn’t seem to go anywhere in particular. Sometimes I feel like observing IA professionals is like watching the Vatican. There are the up-and-coming priests who try to do the right thing and the politically motivated priests who seek to keep what’s holy—holy.

    I don’t mean to be critical. We all have our issues. Designers, marketers, whatever—all communities do. But I’m intrigued by the IA community in particular. So much brainpower, passion and organization. But every time I get a little closer to it, I feel like I’m more confused than when I started.

    Not sure why that is.

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