A refuge in the data sea

We aren’t the first folks to realize that a lot of data doesn’t mean a thing if you […]

We aren’t the first folks to realize that a lot of data doesn’t mean a thing if you can’t get the right data at the right time and know what it means. Watching “From the Earth to the Moon” last night on DVD, I was amazed at the sheer volume of raw data that had to be accessed and understood for each simple action taken by astronauts. A miscalculation in space is literally worth millions of dollars and maybe a human life.

The same is true for cyberspace. Data not found, data misread, data coming too late to the end user of a website means millions of dollars in lost profits or lost productivity. And if you think we have the luxury of not gambling with lives, well, this is the story they tell around Google. A man with severe heart burn searched on his symptoms. He realized it wasn’t heart burn—it was heart attack. He called 911 and his life was saved.

Finding is critical to our lives. Finding the right medicine on Drugstore.com, discovering a book revealing fast food malfeasance on Amazon.com, seeking the perfect interview shirt on gap.com… there are so many little tasks we as website designers think are benign, but mean a lot to some human being using our design. And a failure on our part to connect humans to their needs can mean a failure in their lives.

That’s why I am proud (and more than a bit relived) to say Information Architecture has arrived. Information Architecture is a skillset concerned with organizing information so it can be found. First coined by Richard Saul Wurman in 1997, Information Architecture has become how we find our way in information spaces. It provides shelter like a house, movement like a bridge, access like a library. It’s taken for granted like a road, but is just as annoying as five miles of potholes when it’s done wrong. Maybe in 1997 users surfed the web. Now it’s more likely they commute it, traveling from E! online to wellsfargo.com in their daily travels. And the route is determined by IA.

What’s led me to the conclusion IA has arrived? Articles on IA are seen in every publication that addresses the web, from engineering to design. A recent search turned up 188,000 results on “Information Architecture”. Information Architecture for the World Wide Web has gone to second edition, Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web hit the best seller list on Amazon in its second week on the stands, and three more books on IA are scheduled to come out next year. Jobs for Information Architects are found on most job sites, but more importantly, information architecture is listed as a skill for designers and programmers alike. And finally, the Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture launched Monday—the first organization dedicated to promoting and advancing Information Architecture. These are heady times for information professionals.

But it’s not done yet. Are websites easy to use? Not all, not yet, not by a long shot. And look at software: the other day I flipped from menu to menu in a graphic program trying to find the tool to reset inches to pixels. Not to mention stores with bad organization, airports that get you lost, and one of these days we’ll have to do something about they way that Dewey guy made the library so confusing.

I’d like to ask all of you to consider what you need to help you tackle these challenges in the upcoming century. And go to the Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture and let them know. In fact, if you can, join up and help build these things. Do you wish you had a mentor? Do you wish there was one place to look up well written case studies? Do you want to know how to be better make your case to business? Do you want to understand the pitfalls of faceted classification, and when to use it successfully? What will help you as you try to improve your product’s usability, findability and understandability? And then help share that wisdom with others.

There are people depending on us.


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  1. 1

    Congratulations! Great idea.

    I’ve been meaning to ask you this since I saw the original post about the site on SIGIA-L:

    What the hell is an Asilomar?

    It sounds like a generic analgesic delivered in a nice chocolate-covered marshmallow pill. But I suspect I’m wrong on that.

  2. 3

    “Asi lo mar” means “like that the sea”, or “thus the sea” – and it should be “el mar”, not “lo mar” if I’m not mistaken, so it really should be “asi el mar”. I don’t think it means “here is the sea” as I noticed Lou said somewhere (can’t find the link now), that would have to be “aqui el mar” (“here the sea”) or “alli el mar” (“there the sea”). Correct me if I’m wrong somebody – my Spanish grammar isn’t that good.

  3. 6

    a pinged a dear pal from Spain and he tells me asilo=refuge, mar=sea. so we aren’t completely on drugs. 😉 He says it’s not a word per se, but a combination that makes the meaning.

  4. 8

    My automated computer translation program translates asilo mar this way:

    “I do I give asylum sea”

    Close enough. I wonder what my cousin in Poland thinks I’ve been telling her in my e-mails all these months, though….

  5. 9

    Sorry, friends, asilomar means nothing in Spanish (and I’m a Spanish journalist, so I should know). It’s true that asilo=refuge and mar=sea, and I think nobody will get harmed if the combination makes sense for you and you use it 🙂

    I can’t think of a word in Spanish which means exactly that. Maybe “espigón”, a part of the port which protects the seaside from waves.

    Great site, by the way!

  6. 10

    Whether it means “refuge by the sea” or not, the folks who founded and built the Asilomar center early in the 20th century were under the impression they had the right meaning for it.
    The central reason for naming the institute after Asilomar is that it is the physical place where it was essentially founded. Even though all of our founding members weren’t able to be there (in fact, several of the busiest and most central had to be in absentia) it was still a milestone.
    The alleged meaning of “asilomar” is just a happy coincidence that made us all smile and feel warm and fuzzy about the name.
    Basically, we didn’t want to name it “The Information Architecture Institute” because that sounds awfully final and slightly arrogant. We didn’t want to name it the “Rosenfeld-Morville Institute” because those guys get enough press already. (Nobody would know how to say Wodke Institute, so it was out of the question.)
    Even if Asilomar is a made-up name, that’s fine. Since all names are made up, some are just older than others.

  7. 12

    AIFIA has arrived.

    Christinia Wodtke of Elegant Hack has written a wonderful intro for the Asilomar Institue for Information Architecture. Go find a

  8. 13
    Horacio Salazar

    Perhaps, as someone said, Asilomar doesn’t mean “sea refuge” at all. But perhaps it does: after all, California was once –a long time ago– a Spanish estate.
    To me, it has a very different ring: as a long time practicant of science popularization, I knew I had heard the damn name before… and I had. When the recombinant ADN story began to unfold and to come forward in public, Asilomar harbored the famous Gordon conferences, where the Recombinant Advisory Committe was born.
    I seem to recall that somebody compared the RAC with putting security in the hands of an arsonist, or the Church in the hands of Luther.
    In a way, then, the recent discussions regarding the IA practice and the AIfIA had strange precedents. Some of the story, albeit a very limited one, can be read here: http://www.cbs.umn.edu/~pregal/Futurists.html.
    I don’t have the reference at hand, but I think some of the good books about Genomics talk about these conferences (“The eighth day of creation”, for instance).
    Of course, AIfIA is as far from being the RAC as a loud opponent to the organization is Galileo. It just strikes me as odd that a place with such a rich and varied history is now the place of origin of a new effort.
    Best regards.

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