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Maybe information architecture is not sleeping, just resting…

So, I spurred something of a shitstorm in my post where I commented on information architecture is sleeping. Most people focused on the wrong thing, the cancellation of a workshop, when what I was hoping to expose was the tendency towards isolation and insularity that the community seemed to be falling into.

So, I’ve now returned from the 8th IA Summit, and I’m thinking of revising my statement. While the content was mostly blah (though with a few delightfully notable sessions), the conversations I had definitely demonstrated a profession evolving. The curious thing is — it’s not clear what it is evolving into. Unlike every past event, no strong themes emerged. The closest we got was something to do with “rich internet applications,” but even that was pretty weak. Content (and hallway discussions) were all over the map — interaction design, mobile, engaging with business, second life, managing teams, etc. etc.

It made me realize that the profession is in a period of uncertainty. I wish I had attended Andrew Hinton’s highly-lauded talk, because from what I heard, he addressed this a bit.

Two of the thoughts that occurred to me about IA:

– I think I can say without much hubris that I’ve had a hand in establishing the field of information architecture. But, in discussion with Jon Littell and Jennifer Bohmbach, I realized that I found myself in that role not because of a passion for IA _per se_, but for a tendency to go after the interesting unsolved problems and take a whack at them. What this means is that I won’t be in any profession for very long. Once something begins to settle, I become restless, trying to figure out how to engage some new problem that I find critical. So, in the last few years, I’ve drifted away from things like IA and interaction design, and more towards helping organizations understand the great value of taking an experiential approach to delivering their products and services.

– My ONE BIG CONCERN is how, at this Summit, I saw no examples of interesting work built on IA principles. The presentations are all very process and framework oriented. Can you imagine going to a graphic design conference and not seeing books, posters, collateral? Or to an architecture conference, and there are no pictures or models of buildings? I’m afraid the field won’t be able to move forward until we are able to share the outcomes of where all this process and framework thinking lead to.

  1. Not many case studies, were there? I only see one in the main program, and I missed that session.

    But it’s clear that lots of work is happening. Maybe next year we need to have a case study track, or a format for shorter presentations to support a few case studies in one session.

    And don’t worry, peter, we’ll do fine, even if you drift a little bit away 😉

  2. There was some work built on IA principles. The research track featured several. PDFs of the papers will be posted soon. Admittedly, some of this was highly academic, but for the most part they were practical and relevant.

    FaceTag ( is a prototype combining facets and tagging. Emanuele Quintarelli, Andrea Resmini, and Luca Rositi have built a working prototype.

    Margaret Kipp (University of Western Ontario) is studying tagging structures. She is compiling quantitative evidence about how these structures develop and evolve. She is not dealing in rhetoric and breathless pronouncements about why tagging is or will be better than traditional classification. She is trying to understand how and why it works, which is much harder than conceptualizing about it.

    Grant Campbell (University of Western Ontario) is starting to look at information spaces for the cognitively impaired. This is framework-y stuff, but looking at edge cases is a common scientific approach for understanding the general case. Our understanding of human vision uses this approach: most research is based on optical illusions or people with some sort of brain injury that inhibits “normal” vision.

    Dave Robbins, Jason Holmes, and Heather Robins (all from Kent State) used eye tracking to look at how visual design affects credibility assessments in the first few seconds of seeing a page. This is exploratory research. It aims to question existing principles and perhaps establish new ones. It will take time to develop conclusive results, but that’s true of all good research.

    Jason Hobbs (from South Africa!) did an ethnographic study of internet cafes in developing (i.e., poor) parts of South Africa. His work challenges long-held notions about technology in developing contexts. Most designs are based on assumptions that do not hold for these people. The message was that good design can make technology and information more accessible regardless of economic and social policies and programs.

    Andrea Wiggins (University of Michigan; soon to be a PhD student at Syracuse) surveyed the field of web analytics. This area is driven by industry. She highlighted various research problems that industry is not motivated to solve, but are important research questions.

    So….there was indeed interesting work built on IA principles. More importantly, this work often questioned some basic principles and extended others in new directions.

    Reason for optimism in my view, though as chair of the research track I am terribly biased.

  3. Though, you prove my point. With the exception of FaceTag (which I should not have neglected), none of these are products of IA work. They are all studies, theses, critiques, and frameworks. I want to see what all this activity produces, from the perspective of *things people use*.

  4. Peter, did you catch the “Information architecture meets industrial design: Working collaboratively across disciplines” session?

    Though the talk focused on a physical product, I can see their approach expanding to include sales, training, and support channels (on and off line).

    Is this in-line with your thinking?

  5. And I forgot one also – Michelle Watson’s talk had a theoretical title, “Online product development in the financial services industry; can it be done?”. But in fact it was an excellent case study of a specific project and the design solution.

    It was veru much based on core IA questions of what’s the content we have, what is the customer’s information need, and how do we best translate that into an answer?

  6. So prior to 2005, what have IAs built? What “things people use” did IAs create?

    All of my examples are from *after* 2005: Intuitect, MindCanvas, SlideShare, Measure Map, Swipr, FaceTag, and probably a few more.

    If “things people use” means “software” or “digital tools” or something like that, then I wonder if we’re doing better in recent years than worse? I’m sure there are older examples; I just can’t think of any off the top of my head.

    Plus, those are just the public things. A lot of IA work is on internal, private, closed systems.

    That’s not to say we cannot or should not build interesting things. I’m just not sure that we have a history of this, or that the lack of such things points to a problem with the field. I’m not sure it means the field is “sleeping.”

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