User experience has stunted information architecture

I came up through UX practice as an information architect and interaction designer. I was an avid reader of Peter and Lou’s “Web Architect” column, spoke at the first IA Summit, and was an early proponent of facets and tags in the broader UX community.

The UX community was essential for casting light on the importance of information architecture. It made clear how the organization, structure, relationships, and semantics around and in our information are key to delivering a successful user experience. There was a period, around 1999-2005 or so, where information architecture was a vibrant, dynamic, evolving field.

But there are only so many talks to give on facets, tags, and the like. And, over time, it feels like IA has been swallowed by UX (and seen in strange competition with interaction design).

IA had become less and less of my practice as Adaptive Path shifted towards strategic design consulting. And so I didn’t think about it too much.

Then I went in house. In particular, I joined Groupon. A month or so into the job, I became part of discussions to change evolve our site navigation. This excited me — I would get to flex some of those old analytical muscles that had atrophied over time.

As I dug into it, though, I felt a little like I was peeling an onion. Every layer presented new layers beneath. And I quickly left the realm of site navigation, and found myself engaging in conversations that went deep to the core of Groupon’s operations. Because, it turned out, our taxonomy influences everything we do — the deals we strive to get, the operations of our sales force, the presentation of our offers across devices and channels, heck, it even determines where some people sit.

And I realized this was bigger than I could tackle at the time, because I had (and still have) a design department to run.

And it also made me realize that IA had been stunted by its relationship with user experience. Because information architecture, when approached with the depth and rigor that is warranted, is a deeply seated operational and organizational function. The UX component of information architecture, how information is represented to end users, is important, but truly a tip of the iceberg. (And not just Peter Morville’s iceberg.) But in order to IA to have the impact it could (and should), IA needs to free itself from being seen under the umbrella of UX, and instead pursued as a distinct, and difficult, practice that’s not just about taxonomies and semantics, but the organizational, operational, and technological change to realize that.

21 thoughts on “User experience has stunted information architecture

  1. Very well put. I have also felt that a majority of ‘information architect’ take pride in calling themselves as ‘UX engineers’ which is not the case. IA deserves its own space!

  2. Congratulations, Peter! You just invented content strategy!

  3. Peter: Very interesting take, and as someone who does both, I see exactly what you are getting at. But I have also found that clients are expecting UX people to take on more and more complex IA tasks, not just the surface-level ones.

    Do you have other specific examples of the types of activities you would classify as pure IA but not UX? You reference operational and technology change, but I I think achieving those types of things requires ingredients beyond IA alone, however you define it.

  4. Just as with IA, UX has a similar iceberg where a lot of the work is not seen by the users but is the foundation and underlying principles of why the tip of the iceberg looks and performs the way it does. In my mind there is a large overlap between what is below the surface when it comes to both IA and UX – which is probably the reason why UX has “eaten” the IA field in recent years.

    I’m not saying that UX rightfully should be the umbrella that shields IA, but in my experience there is great benefit for IAs and UX designer alike to work together on what is “below the surface”:

  5. I agree with everything you’ve said here, except for two points:

    A) That IA is somehow stunted.
    B) That UX is somehow responsible for this.

    Digging deeper into any aspect of UX, whether it be IA, IxD, User research, or even copy, quickly points out issues within the organization. User experience is driven by people for people and the decisions people make affect the outcomes they get. In other words, your web site architecture is perfectly optimized for the organization you’ve created.

    You just happened to discover this when on an IA-centric task. Had you gone about this as a content strategy assignment, or what we’re now calling service design, you would’ve discovered the same things.

    I don’t believe IA is stunted. I believe the community talks about what the community is interested in. And, over the years, there’s been a lot of talk in the community about how taxonomy, site architecture, and other aspects of IA interact with the organizational structures.

    But, let’s assume IA is somehow stunted (how would we measure that, btw?). To assume that UX (which is just a concept, like IA is) has somehow held IA back is just silly. If there aren’t the right conversations in the community, it’s not because some sort of umbrella community has decided to keep them from having them.

    I think the conversation about opening up the IA discussions even broader to talk about how the touch points of IA are affected by and can affect the broader organization is really important.

    I also think that somehow making UX (whatever the embodiment of that is) the bad guy for those conversations not happening is a divisive maneuver that we should nip in the bud right away. It distracts everyone from the real conversation.

  6. Ronnie Battista

    I agree with Jared’s point here, and would only add that this divisiveness in our community extends well beyond UX/IA. As was discussed at some length at the UXSTRAT conference (and in recent online conversations in LinkedIn groups and elsewhere), there are some that feel that this ‘new’ Customer Experience (CX) community has swooped in and taken all the hard work UX’ers have done and are now somehow encroaching on our turf. Add Service Design, IxD and even fiefdoms within the UX organizational community (UXPA having country, state, region and local/city models) and it just adds the the complexity. Having had countless conversations about this I have appreciated many points of view I in some respect I ‘get it’, but I still find it frustrating and self-defeating.

    To be clear, I fully support and agree on the need for deep specialization in certain skill sets in our industry, and forums for these practitioners to network and share ideas should and have been formed to enable collaboration. I just wish that there was a way that we get elevate these discussions to find common ground in what should be a focus on how to best serve our companies and clients over the conversations about who owns what, who stole from who, land grabs, etc. I’d be overly optimistic to assume we’ll ever all jointly unite around ‘something’ (e.g. an umbrella name, a group, a manifesto) that leverages our collective strengths but recognizes our differences, but one can still hope.

  7. I agree with Karen McGrane, this is what content strategists do. However, it’s not so much about the role; most of us in the field have been doing IA or content strategy in some way or the other. During my 11 years of UX career, I have taken different titles, such as: Human Factors Specialist, Product Designer, UX Architect, Information Architect and XD Architect. Moreover, these days we have talent that is specialized only in one field, for e.g. content strategists, ux designers, ui developers, visual designers, etc.

    Despite of the designer’s title or the organization, making information findable and discoverable has always been the mantra of success for any project. If the organization is just looking at the tip of the iceberg (the UI) then, IMHO, the onus falls more on the shoulders of the executive UX champion and design managers. They need to drive the project in the right direction. It’s more about making right people in the organization aware at the right time so that they can lineup the required design resources.

  8. An iceberg is all ice – from tip to broad base it is only what it is. There is nothing beneath the tip to create or explain the tip. I have noticed that Internet pundits seem often to slip into neologistic jargon and inappropriate tropes in attempting explain their territory to themselves.

  9. Peter, I agree. I see it as the UX is the champion of the user and advocates the user’s needs. The IA is the champion of information and what the information communicates. In an ideal world, an excellent user experience has well ordered, semantically correct information and an excellent information architecture will have a highly usable experience.

    I have often said that we have gone away from being proponents of information and in the end, the IA is the one who is the defender and voice for the information of a project.

  10. UX ate IA, and spat out the bones.

    The bones of IA were supporting findability with tools like taxonomies, tag, ontolgoies… and a new generation of UX designers are making sites that are hard to navigate, hard to search, hard to menage. They didn’t get those skills. And we suffer.

    UX needs IA, all the time, as long as humans need to find things, just as UX needs IxD as long as humans need to use things. And our peanut butter will be in our chocolate forever, and we’ll never really be able to say when one becomes the other, only that together it tastes great.

    But IA did slow down in its growth. While IxD lept forward into gestural interfaces, voice and more, IA stuck with the cannon. Metadata, Controlled Vocabularies, Taxonomies. Having fought the big/little war, worn out from DTDT, it didn’t budge.

    It was like cabinet makers in the age of Ikea. Some old IA’s, bored, moved on the make new things, like companies. But some folks kept on making handcrafted taxonomies in the age of algorithms. Master artists, they stuck with what they know. Best bets. Facets.

    And while there is still a need for handcrafted work in many places from intranets to universities, we need a new generation of IA’s who embrace technology even more deeply. Those who will build wildly complex structures that enable greater connecting of people to the information they need. Metadata-based recommendation engines! Social-graph based search! They’ll have to be even nerdier, even more technologically savvy. But the internet needs them. We need them.

    Wait! Hope! There is a new generation of IA’s! and they are exploring, playing, revitalizing the community! The last IA Summit was like a ray of hope, and the next promises to outshine it. I know they talk funny, using words like choreography and continuums, but I said they needed to be nerdier than us, right? This way leads innovation…

    I think there will be a second act in the practice of IA.

  11. Ironically, Karen and Jared’s comments — and those that riff off them — reinforce Peter’s point. If you look at IA exclusively through the “discipline within UX” lens, you will tend to see it solely in the context of (product/service) design. Peter hints at a broader, more strategic role for IA, and I can see how the dominance of UX (be it of a content-centric product, or a service, or whatever) in our discussions can hinder IA’s evolution as a discipline by keeping it focused on these narrower concerns.

    I’ll repeat his money quote, lest it be lost among the din:

    “our taxonomy influences everything we do — the deals we strive to get, the operations of our sales force, the presentation of our offers across devices and channels, heck, it even determines where some people sit.”

    These activities are outside the scope of what we think of as UX design (or rather — and critically — how stakeholders think about it), but not necessarily outside the scope of IA. IA is clearly very important for good UX, but for its true potential to be realized it should be viewed as a critical strategic asset of the organization, one that informs the whole.

  12. […] night Peter Merholz published User experience has stunted information architecture. I invite you to read it and inform your own […]

  13. I don’t remember any but the most expansive and self-important definitions or purviews of of IA ever including redefining how a company pursues new business or structures its org charts. It’s a bit of revisionist history to say that we ever got anywhere near that kind of influence, or even to say that more than a handful of us ever wanted it. To me, IA has always been at its most glorious in its love of and anchoring in tactical craft.

    The tools of IA are surprisingly relevant in a wide range of other realms, no doubt. Many fields are influential waaay far away from where they began, and reinterpreted in lovely new ways (see: architectural pattern languages in computer programming, lean manufacturing in ux). I would love IA to be more like that, and less of the lamentation.

  14. Color me crazy but I never saw the two as mutually exclusive rather as facets of the same stone, that being an advocate for the users whether that is representing user behavior around information (what we might call IA) or user behavior around interaction (interaction design) or the nicely vague user experience that encompasses just about everything up to, including and what happens after they leave the site.

    Google picked user experience (their label) as the new driver of relevance in search results because they sensed the dissension in our community over roles and responsibilities. Hopefully, we’ll move away from the endless discussion of what label defines us and where is the ring that will empower one to unite all. When that happens and we take a more holistic view, for collaboration across discipline or to assume project-based responsibilities, the thought-processing bipeds will once again determine relevance. Relevance determines finding. Finding begins the experience.

  15. Part of this struggle is what IA means to most people. I’ll give you an example:

    At work, I have an IA intern. She’s doing a wonderful job reorganizing our help content so it’s more findable, and did research on tools to use to store the information. I’ve been pointing her to resources around IA, and she’s really helping out.

    About two weeks ago, my boss asks, “Why did you call it an IA intern?” I explained to him the nature of work she was doing (reorganizing the HIG, Help content, etc), taxonomies, all those big words that go with being an IA.

    He started talking about how the term “Architect” and how it was related to software. He clearly had never heard of IA before in the way I was discussing it, and he’s been in software for over 30 years.

    There’s been a few times where IA has meant something totally different to the people I have talked to than what we think it means, so that’s a fail on our part.

    People understand the IA role LESS than Interaction or UX Designer, role, because at least that role is easy to explain or quantify. Product Designer is even EASIER to quantify, because you’re designing a product and take care of all of the tasks that go with it. That’s why I lead a Product Design team: our role is very tightly defined, and will help define the conversation about roles and responsibilities that is happening now.

    Better defined — the market defines IA as a very narrow speciality, and that’s what matters. IA has been defined the same way research has — it’s a skill that’s usually picked up by a generalist.

    Every time I see someone who’s an IA, they’re talking about how they are upset that their world hasn’t been properly defined, and they’re usually doing it from the pulpit of a presentation telling the rest of us we have no value, or talking to me at an event and complaining they can’t get a job. (Or, they’re worse than user researchers ;) ).

    I agree that IA is very important, but it shouldn’t be a separate thing. It hurts our cause. If you read the Nielsen Norman Group’s definition of UX, it encompasses a lot — I take it to mean “we are the leaders of experience within a company” — and IA is only part of that experience, along with Content Strategy (which IS a thing).

    Frankly, you can make the case that Content Strategy should own the IA, so not only is IA not separate, it’s under Content Strategy within UX. I almost would rather group it that way, because Content Strategy can encompass a lot of things and a lot of departments within a company.

    But somehow talking how something should be separate really hurts our cause as community because it exposes the “we can’t agree on who we are” issue. And Elizabeth Bacon is right — all the academics and people who write books defining their little kingdoms is stupid.

    Stop defining kingdoms. Start solving problems.

  16. “Big IA is now UX.” This was said almost 10 years ago….

    10 years ago we thought that we are having one joint understanding of IA but in fact there were at least 2 of them. I call them: “Fundamental” and “Practical”.

    “Fundamental IA” – with all the taxonomies, search, facets, tags, library science… As it was described at the ‘Polar bear’ book. IA as a “distinct, difficult practice…” We respected those brave few who practiced it but had a little chance to apply these methods. Most of the sites we worked and still working on are much simpler to require such an advanced treatment.

    “Practical IA” – as it was described in the “Blueprints” book. This what we used in our daily practice and this is what many people now and years ago understand as IA. And this “Practical IA” is hard to distinguish from IxD. No surprise that this flow almost disappeared under the larger UX umbrella….

    Another thing is the lack of theoretical advance of IA as a discipline. No works that can be compared by impact with Polar Bear and Blueprints books appeared during last decade.

    There was a modest IA hype many years ago but now just IA sounds almost so old fashioned as usability…

  17. Great discussion, and if anyone asks, why Content Marketing has stolen the thunder, here’s the answer: Because, instead of thinking things through and constantly coming up with beautiful combinations of interesting words, they keep on adding only one word at a time to another, to which everybody has agreed upon. Dialogue Marketing, Inbound Marketing, Guerilla Marketing, Marketing Automation, … That really is a no-brainer (no offende here), which keeps the discourse formation intact. Maybe that’s the tragedy of disciplines, which want to be more thoughtful – they get eaten (they are not being fed, this is for sure), because they rather focus more on being really, really right then getting a job done. That’s why I, as a PR guy, love your company ;-)

  18. We’d all be a lot better off if we stopped focusing on the buckets and poured the contents onto the floor and watched how the mix.

  19. The thing is, we all need to start in the same place of organizational and customer understanding in order to design very specific solutions to a niche aspect of the problem.

    What would happen if we drank our own medicine and attempted to find the universal commonality among our disciplines rather than fighting for territory? Find the approaches/collaborations/solutions that make life better for everyone, and start there. We all want the same thing. We all need deep organizational information to get it. And we all express our solutions in different ways, whether it’s through IA, IxD, content strategy, or customer strategy.

    I’m well aware of IA’s struggle to own more of the strategy space, but it really is just a matter of stepping up to own it. I know a lot who have. We all wear different hats in our field at different times. Is it really just a matter of labeling? That seems a bit ironic, doesn’t it? ;-)

  20. Hi Peter! Anders Ramsay reminds me to remind you of this: http://www.info-arch.org/lists/sigia-l/0603/0173.html

  21. Smaller teams have UX, content strategy and Information architecture are handled by one or two persons. User experience as a service is easier to “sell” to management than information architecture, specially in smaller sites.