a title is born

I’ve been corresponding with adam, the author of the terrific article I mentioned below, “Why is usability so […]

I’ve been corresponding with adam, the author of the terrific article I mentioned below, “Why is usability so hard?” and I got so het up I thought I’d share:

adam writes:

And therein lies the irony. As much as usability specialist and usability engineer may be confusing, it’s nothing compared with the confusion that surrounds information architect. I suspect that you and I have similar definitions, but I’ve had people tell me that it’s an extension of library science or that it’s part of database programming, and when I look at job listings and see information architect, what they’re usually describing is someone with good, solid user interface design skills. You seem to approach it as if it were most closely related to information design, is that correct?


pretty much–

you have to understand the history of the title to some degree.

Richard Saul Wurman selected the title Information Architect to describe anyone who organized information into a form that promoted human understanding. In his book, Information Architects he showed examples of this that ranged from folks who did weather maps in newspapers to website design. But what he didn’t know is the title already existed in the software world as a type of database engineer. When Lou and Peter came out with their definition in Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, it was heavily affected by their background in Library science. As former librarians, they were very good at organizing information for retrieval– the key problem in most intranets (nearly all Argus’s clients were intranets in the beginning). So their definition was filtered through their experience, just as Wurman’s was through his background as an Information Designer.

Next: a lot of companies had these two books laying around: “Information Architects” and the polar bear book–“Information Architecture for the World Wide Web” And as websites grew too big for any one person to hold it in their head, people stepped up to plan those websites out– sometimes graphic designers, sometimes usability folks, sometimes project managers, sometimes writers, sometimes engineers— all they really had in common is they looked at big websites and thought “what a mess.”

So they started organizing the websites. And in those days of strange and shifting titles, they realized they were spending all their time planning and organizing the structure of the website and no longer doing their old job, and maybe they were due a title change. And odds were high they had one of the two books on their desk, and decided that Information Architect was probably the best title for them, even if they didn’t do everything in the book, or even if they did quote a bit more. IA’s have grown up quite organically, responding to a need.

We are actually seeing some title-splintering now: new titles such as experience architect, information designer, interaction designer, content architect/strategist are showing up left and right. It is entirely possible as the job of “plan and organize website” becomes “plan and organize the interface” or “plan and organize the content” or “plan and organize the interactive behavior on the website” that the information architect will disappear much in the way webmasters are becoming more and more rare. Or Information Architect may only do one tiny part– just the content organization, perhaps. Or just create site maps.

Personally I think that would lose the greatest value the IA gives to a project. When you have nothing but specialists work on a project, you have the equivalent of blind men describing an elephant: most engineers don’t much care about business or user needs and they concentrate on how to make the code most effective. Most business people don’t fully understand the consequence of code (nor do they care) and are interested in users only as consumers, and usability folks often get so concerned with users they forget the business needs or the engineering constraints…. A good IA takes in what is possible from engineering, what is viable/profitable from business and what is desirable/necessary from the users and balances them out into a system that works.

Please note my qualifiers “most” and “a good.” I know many folks who can see beyond their discipline, and I know some IA’s who cannot. But in my experience most IA’s act as translators, going from one discipline to another to ferret out the compromises that will allow a solid system to be created. At Jesse’s talk at ASIS: “What Do You ‘DO’ All Day?” pdf we discovered most IA’s do a fair amount of requirements gathering and a chunk of project management. Mostly they don’t touch the schedules (except to complain about them, natch) but they do run back and forth trying to marry conflicting requirements. Once those compromises are reached, they document them and realize them by designing systems (site maps, content organization schemes, wire frames, conceptual models and the like) to create a blueprint for the work to be done by design and engineering.

So if they IA is whittled down into the role of “thesaurus designer” or “interface designer” who will see the big picture from a design standpoint? Who will know what the elephant looks like? On the other hand both those jobs could be full-time jobs. I wonder what the future will look like. Will be have both? Neither?


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  1. 1
    Ralph Brandi

    It’s funny; every web site I’ve worked on has gone through roughly the same stages. For the first iteration, the techies ran things, and things were plain and boring and kind of obscure. For the second iteration, the people paying the bills called in the artists first to jazz things up, and they got unusable glitz. For the third iteration, they started to pay attention to the writers and librarians (IAs), and started to get something usable. For the iterations after that, the MBAs started calling the shots and things got worse. They would have been better off if they had stopped at iteration three. 🙂 I guess I need to wait a few years until they catch up with the rest of the industry that usability and information architecture are key. Maybe the dot.com shakeout will clear some minds. Either that or I need to get an MBA so I can start being the one calling the shots. 🙂 (Actually, Don Norman made exactly this point at CHI a couple of years ago, but did it in such an annoying and offensive manner that I don’t think anyone paid attention….)

  2. 2
    Michael Angeles

    Excellent discussion, Christina. I have to say that I agree and disagree with different parts of your view of the IA. I agree that there is a great need for the IA as the individual that sees and understands the high-level information topology. However, there is also value in having specialists within some contexts. Take intranet Web development. Often, we IAs that do the content analysis, site maps, user flows, etc. cannot work without people who really understand the content and specialize in the managementof the content. I see these people — people like the taxonomy developer — as an extension of the IA practice, even though they are solely content focussed and could care less about some of the stuff we IAs do. I have worked for an agency where it is the IA’s responsibility to ramp him/herself up and understand a client’s information corpus and then figure out how to chunk and present points of access to it. From my current perspective working on large scale intranet collections, however, there are people who just do taxonomies — I mean enormous taxonomies that describe knowledge in a specialized area in more ways than the Dewey Decimal System afforded access to the entire corpus of knowledge in a library. So there are exceptions in specialized arenas.

  3. 3
    Michael Angeles

    Just read peterme’s blog entry for 4/15. I see and agree with the analogy of the architect, where there is one person leading the vision and many skilled individuals building the parts. The splintering of our field into so many skillsets mirrors what happens in architecture. A designer, a CAD draftsperson and the project manager all call themselves architects depending on who they talk to. But does an interaction designer, an information scientist or content engineer always refer to their field as Information Architecture? I know I don’t always call myself an IA. I never call myself a Usability engineer.

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