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.
- What is IA?
- Information Architecture
- Who Develops the Information
- Stop Whining About
I'd love for this discussion
to continue. Talk
about it here!
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.
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.
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.
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
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
claims for the hyperlinked organization, wherein he suggests
that hierarchical org structures will be replaced by flat, nodal
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.
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