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Information Architecture + Service Design + Web 2.0 = crazy delicious!

So, here’s what’s been rattling around my head for a while.

If I identify with any one specific field, it is information architecture. The IA Summit continues to be my favorite conference, the IA mailing lists continue to be my favorite discussion places, and conversations with other IAs continue to be my favorite mental gymnastics.

My passion for information architecture has lead to my seat on the board of the IA Institute, my organizing of events like the workshop with MAYA last December, a forthcoming Big Event in October (details to come), mentoring up-and-coming IAs, and the closing plenary at the IA Summit this year.

One of my current points of “voice advocacy” (as GK put it) is the application of information architecture practices and principles to domains other than the Web. Complex information environments are all around us, and all can benefit from thoughtful information architecture.

Another point of current passion is service design. The more deep research I do, the more it becomes clearer that to best serve users, you have to look beyond specific artifacts or domains, and to all the interactions (“touchpoints”) people have in an experience. I’m sitting on BART train as I write this, and believe me, BART could stand to have some explicit service design — the signage, the vending machines, the turnstiles, the web site, etc. etc.

Something that strikes me as missing from the bulk of service design dialogue is an appreciation of information architecture. Service design seems to borrow a lot of tools from interaction design (heuristics, personas and scenarios, prototypes), but little from information architecture.

This is why the MAYA case study was so exciting to me — being set in a library, it was painfully evident that information architecture needed to be applied to that physical space and those experiences. I would argue, though, that, say, BART could also benefit — from things as basic as controlled vocabularies of terms to items as complex as better serving tourists encountering the system for the first time.

The other thing that frustrates me about the current discussion in service design is that it favors a strong, top-down, architectural approach. “We are going to study a whole service, and then we are going to design explicit solutions to satisfy that whole experience.” Anyone who’s ever designed anything complex knows that there are inevitable breakpoints — that you can’t design failure out of a complex system.

But what you can do is leverage principles from another emerging field — Web 2.0. (Now, I know it might seem counterintuitive to talk about Web 2.0 in a non-Web context, and this is why I’ve always hated that term. But we’re stuck with it for now.) Look at the defining attributes that Brandon identified: user contributed value; long tail; network effect; decentralization; co-creation; remixability; emergent systems.

I think there are real opportunities for service design to embrace these bottom-up approaches. I encourage designers to fight their desire to *control* the experience and instead find opportunities for the actions of the users of the service to contribute value — to figure out what the “architecture of participation” means in the service world. This could definitely include the use of the web to augment an experience service. But I’m sure creative folks can identify solely “real world” activities (one that comes to mind, with the approach of the IA Summit, are Birds of a Feather sessions planned on-site.)

Retail strikes me as a huge opportunity here. At bookstores, for example, Instead of store-planned book discussions, author readings, and the like, to give tools to the people that pass through the space to create their own events. Sure, it will feel a bit chaotic, but man, would you have remarkable customer loyalty.

And then, an open question for me: how do you apply bottom-up approaches to mass transit systems like BART?