Further Reflections on Information Architecture
May 6, 2001


A bit back, attending the ASIS Summit on information architecture spurred me to write some reflections and projections on the field. This past week I attended Intranets2001, during which the subject came up, but this time among non-practitioners. Their perspectives lead to further reflection.

Discussed here:

  • What is IA?
  • Information Architecture != Architecture
  • Who Develops the Information Architecture?
  • Stop Whining About Marketing--Become Marketing!

I'd love for this discussion to continue. Talk about it here!

What is Information Architecture?

You simply can't avoid this topic, particularly among those who don't practice it, but who are made to feel it's something they need to know about. Little new ground was shed here, at least in terms of, "What do information architects do?", but a particularly perceptive attendee offered me a new perspective. Debra Parker, who toils on the City of Minneapolis' web site, suggested that information architecture is an "emergent property" of Web site development (be it intranet, internet, whatever) (Total aside: A search for "emergent property" on Google turns up Andrew Dillon's "'It's the journey and the destination': Shape and the emergent property of genre in evaluating digital documents".)

If IA is an emergent property, that could be one reason it's so difficult to pin down. It's also a good starting point for the thoughts that follow.

Information Architecture != Architecture

Because of the many obvious similarities, I often find it illuminating to understand and explain information architecture by analogizing it with traditional architecture.

A commonly raised similarity is how both IAs and architects serve as hubs on projects, coordinating the efforts of the business and technical people while maintaining the vision for the end product. Just like an architect needs to work with structural engineers, interior designers, plumbers, electricians, etc., an IA works with business analysts, graphic designers, software developers, and so on.

But in chatting about the topic at the conference, I was struck by a *fundamental* difference. The practice of architecture began in order to address a basic human need -- shelter. its relatively simple roots as the craft of designing and constructing buildings grew into an increasingly specialized set of subdisciplines requiring an overseer to keep it all together.

Information architecture never had a simple beginning, nor does it have the foundation of addressing a basic need (Unless you consider "relieving confusion" a basic need.). In contrast to how the practice of architecture started whole and slowly splintered as it evolved, when the label "information architecture" emerged, folks from a number of different fields with different approaches (graphi design, library and information science, human-computer interaction, etc.) claimed, "I do that." IA started as fractured discipline.

There's an interesting parallel here. Information architects often find themselves trying to make sense of an organization's confused, messy, and scattered collection of information, the collection usually having been developed over time by people in disparate parts of the company, often not aware of one another. It turns out that the development of our our practice has this same problem.

Who Develops the Information Architecture?

During the panel discussion on information architecture, Eric Perotti from Imagesmith explained how he interviews IA candidates. He asks them to consider a home page and provide constructive feedback. The responses are typically about formal aspects of the page--placement of content, readability, usability, etc. What he's looking for, though, is the candidate who asks, "Well, who is the audience? What are they trying to accomplish?" That's how he knows he has a quality information architect candidate in front of him. Many heads nodded in agreement.

I challenged this notion. I asserted, "If every single person working on a web site doesn't ask those questions, there are big problems. It's not just the responsibility of the information architect to think about the users." Professional information architects need to be careful when assuming that they're the only ones equipped for this kind of work. Because the reality is that there will always be more information architectures than information architects. All web sites have an information architecture, intentional or not. Everybody is responsible for information architecture. I believe that those of us who obsess on the subject are obligated to share our wisdom with those who need to do it as a component of their work. For the field of information architecture to succeed, it needs to promote a shared methodology of practice.

This does not mean we don't need professional information architects. I see a worthwhile comparison being how businesses have professional writers, though everyone in that organization is expected to write intelligently.

So Where Do These Professional Information Architects Live?
Having never worked in a large corporation, at Intranets2001 I was struck by how obsessed employees are with organizational structure. And for a new discipline such as information architecture, among the first questions is, "In what group would that be? Who would it report to?" Companies that did recognize information architecture placed it variously within:
- Human resources
- Creative services
- Knowledge management
- Corporate library
- Corporate communications

Within a company, information architecture is a discipline that, by its nature, slices horizontally through the vertically-oriented org chart. Like human resources or MIS, it touches every point.

In fact, the nearly-impossible-to-pin-down nature of intranet information architects provides evidence for David Weinberger's claims for the hyperlinked organization, wherein he suggests that hierarchical org structures will be replaced by flat, nodal ones.

Stop Whining About Marketing--Become Marketing!

You pretty much can't talk to information architect types without hearing whining about "marketing," by which they usually mean marketing communications--the folks who write the pabulum that gets justifiably ridiculed for its meaninglessness (and shouldn't be confused with "product marketing," a vocation that seems to serve a purpose.) Because a company's web site is often seen as another 'messaging' tool, these folks tend to be in charge, and often make it difficult to get good work done.

I've heard these complaints in various forums, and find that the more my colleagues bitch, the less patience I have. I think the problem is one of approach. As discussed previously, the current approach to IA considers it a special discipline, distinct from others. And the current approach to marketing is that some good-looking blow-dried ex-Greek system types get to set the agenda for how companies communicate with their customers. For IA to make its impact felt throughout the organization, it needs to become a methodology that helps many folks get their work done. For marketing to effectively engage customers, it needs to be developed in such a way that it honestly takes the audience into account (focus groups don't count!).

My point? If you think the marketing sucks, THEN DO IT YOURSELF. There is nothing stopping you from marketing products. If marketers have the purse-strings and the final say, well, why not become one? I've often ridiculed marketers, 'cause they don't seem to need any training or education or experience to call themselves that. Yet, um, others could say the same about me as an IA!

I think we need to integrate IA into those areas that are currently causing us pain. If marketing is a sore spot, become a marketer--but use an IA methodology to achieve your ends.

Let's Continue This Discussion!
I've set up a QuickTopic message board for your thoughts on IA.