is big IA dead?

uxDesign says “the “little ia theory” has gained so much traction over the past two years, any conversation […]

uxDesign says

“the “little ia theory” has gained so much traction over the past two years, any conversation of the “big ia” has lost it’s validity backstage within the community. now ia has become a discrete entity, separated from interaction design, ui design and information design.”

IA has moved from Wurman’s original view of anyone who makes the complex clear to the structural designer’s mélange of taking user research and turning it into organization and interaction systems (often also doing the research as well) to an information retrieval specialist.

So is big ia done? I hope not, I may have to turn in my membership (and wouldn’t that be awkward). I am now and have always been a big IA… strategy and interaction design and well as design of information retrieval systems have always been my bailiwick. When IA is limited to controlled vocabularies and labels, I’m done being an IA.

Personally, I think we’ve specialized too fast. Design in information spaces is very new– we’re still in the horseless carriage stage, as far as I can tell. it’s one thing to identify key skills as JJG has done with his (in)famous elements, it’s quite another to turn them into job descriptions. Conversely, if we generalize too broadly, we run the risk of being “master of none.”

I guess I’m uncertain where these will lead. In the early stages of a new frontier, be it physical or technological it’s hard to be certain what anything means. Let’s wait and see…


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  1. 1

    I don’t think “big IA” is dead. I think the jury is just out on whether you can actually locate what you’re calling “big IA” in any one disciplinary space. If so, I doubt it is in a space that has an obvious “little” counterpart. My question is how is “big IA” different from “big usability” or “big information design” or “big interaction design”? Who says you can’t come to this “big” space from a variety of little spaces?

    This is one of the reasons I’m interested in the collaboration between the various groups. I didn’t join AIfIA because I want to learn about taxonomies, and I didn’t join CHI because I have any great fascination with heavy-duty information visualization. Instead, I joined because (besides the low cost of entry :), those of us interested in the big stuff need to be aware of what all these other groups are doing, as there is (currently) lots of overlap.

    I don’t know whether UX (and in particular AIGA’s ED community) is the place to localize this. I do know that I continue to be struck by the parallels between developing complex information products and making films (see I think those who are interested in the big picture are very much like film directors. And the directors have their own guild…they aren’t a sub-set of the editor’s guild or the cinematographer’s guild.

    So no, “big IA” isn’t dead. It just remains to be seen how whether or how this bigger strategic function can be defined and/or located. And how many different organizations will try and lay claim to a piece of this function!

  2. 2

    lou is by far the most vocal leader we have for ia (whether you want to call it “little” [his specialty] or “big”) and he is doing something right now that is very interesting.

    earlier this month lou presented at dartmouth, and the jist of the presentation wasn’t centered around ia. it was about uxd within liberal arts programs. uxd is much bigger than “big ia” even, so why has lou ventured out there? read his blog or ask him to get the answer straight from the source.

    my feeling is that if we espouse a ucd process for a component (ia) of solid interactive design, establishing a future design track that takes all components (ia, 3 id’s, hci, etc.) into account and is clearly established from acedemia outward, it will change the way the industry perceives interactive development moving forward.

    even though he’s a librarian at heart ;-), big props to lou for his vision and efforts. now how do we follow up on his work?

  3. 3

    Please, please don’t take this post as inflamatory, but I really have difficulty with this ‘big IA’ label (unless I’m being dopey and misunderstanding you).

    To my ears, it kinda sounds like you are saying IA is everything you want to do including usability, interaction design and anything else you fancy. It seems you are pushing the envelope of IA to include things that just don’t fit into that field (HCI, usability, interaction design).

    I think it is much more logical to have IA as a subset of interaction design or ‘big usability’. I would have the taxonomy as:

    Interaction design
    Information design

    After all, IMHO interaction design is about creating good user experiences regardless of the context: applications or information-rich websites.

    Just my opinion…

  4. 4
    George Olsen

    “Big IA” ain’t dead, it’s just becoming UX.

    Not to start another semantics flamefest, but my personal experience is that using “IA” to talk about interaction and UI design tends to confuse people outside the profession.

    It’s sort of like using “editing” to describe “directing” even though one could argue the director is “editing” the performances, the camera angles, etc. on the set.

    Wearing my IA hat, I’d say that’s a serious labelling problem, similar to our clients trying to force their jargon upon the world… RSW’s definition was nice in its time, but when the map doesn’t fit the territory, it’s time to change the map.

    OTOH, when you talk about the overall user experience and then the components that make it up (IA, which is content-focused, and interaction design, which is behavior-focused — as well as their “visible” counterparts of info design and UI design) I’ve found it’s much more understandable to people.

    I don’t know that IA is limited to controlled vocabularies and such, but I do think it’s content-focused. There’s plenty of work, from the tactical to the strategic in this, without getting (deeply) into interaction design.

    There’s always going to be a need for specialists and “holistics.” As Beth points out, the latter role is similar to a film director’s — and it’s been without a good name since the days of CD-ROM. So we’ve got an assortment of job titles around it, but like the film industry I suspect one will end up shaking out. I just hope it’s one that’s not as nebulous as “executive producer”…

  5. 5

    I have a related question. I work at a place where IA is practiced by usability specialists, business analysists and programmers. They do a great job.

    However, there is no felt need for specialised IA (as in “an information architect”) – although I believe that need is there; (little) IA is a pretty specialized skill. Just like everyone should do usability, but you still need specialists, everybody should do IA, but you still need specialists.

    I guess that wasn’t a real question after all 🙂

  6. 6

    Peter, since that wasn’t necessarily a question, I ‘ll offer an similar observation rather than an answer.

    I work in the same environment, where some IA is done by Information Retrieval specialists, though they would never call themselves IA’s. Some of them are indexers and taxonomy designers, some are content specialists and researchers, others are computer programmers. I’m the only one who wears the most IA and ID type hats in the group. In any case, we have specialists that run vertically deep in some areas with an understanding of IA (because of my evangelizing) and a person like me who is more T-shaped to help coordinate the user experience, like the guy behind the curtain pulling strings.

    I would bet a lot of corporations don’t see the need for a formal IA role, perhaps because individuals usually end up doing IA-type work without much IA exposure. I’m sure a lot of content managers just end up finding IA after the fact, no?

  7. 7
    George Olsen

    Yet another example of why I think we need to separate IA (or ID or UI, etc.) as field from the IA, etc. as a job title.

    There’s lots of need to IA, but it as has been noted it may not be done by IAs.

    The missing piece — and one that’ll probably be harder to convince businesses to add as a role — is that T-shaped holistic thinker who’s bridging the various specialties and pulling them together.

    OTOH, one reason I like “UX” over “IA” is it’s more easily positioned as a generalist who can deal with multiple areas — and then we can work ourselves into becoming the one who pulls it together.

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