state of the profession

It’s time to look at Lou’s post, and if we are going to talk about future directions of IA, we need to finalize what IA is.

After doing my big survey on definitions, I started to formulate this model of information architecture that consist

of three parts

  • content architecture (polar bear style) that has a concentration on the organization of information for easy retrieval.
  • interaction design (about face) which as all about architecting for use, to accomplish tasks, much more application oriented.
  • information design (wurman’s information architects) What concentrates on both organizing information for comprehension but also concerns itself with gui design.

For information architecture for the web, this makes the greatest amount of sense. One can then organize information, design systems for retrieval and use, and create ways to access and comprehend. Almost all websites are combination of these elements, so I feel that with these three concentrations of skills, IA’s are well equipped. I’m going to assume many IA’s will be stronger in one concentration than another, much like a graphic designer might be a better illustrator, or a specialist in type. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few IA’s specialize in only one of the three, and come in at key junctions of a project to lend their skilled hand to crafting a small but vital part of the site. But I think all websites will need an IA that has some skills in all three. Or some human who plays that role.

Some of you may be asking where the user is in this model? Well I would say that user-centered is an approach, not a unique skill, and one can do user-centered IA, user-centered design, user-centered anything… one is a layer that fits over the other. Whether this requires two people (a usability specialist and an ia) or one (a user-centered ia) is up to the organization of the company. I personally prefer the first, for a number of reasons I’ve articulated in the past. And since this is an approach, that means there can be other approaches

So, to turn my attention to the Lou post, August 23, 2001: Future Directions for IA

There is this French phrase my hubby uses all the time “et alors?”. It means “and then?” When I read Lou’s post, I thought “and then?” — these were all things I thought IA’s were doing already. Then I realized if we are, we aren’t talking in public about it. We need to spend more time articulating problems we have solved and the methodology we used in hopes of growing our knowledge as a profession. Lou’s post revealed to me that we spend too much time dealing with either the “big” questions of IA (what does it all mean? What is IA) or the “tiny” questions (what software do you use to make a sitemap) and we rarely talk about the meat and potatoes of our work. I think Lou’s post illuminates some key areas that –if you are innovating– are worth writing up some white papers, or speaking about at the next summit.

  • Distinguishing users’ information needsIf one is practicing user-centered IA, and you are doing content architecture, you are very likely doing this. Who is the user, and what are their needs in retrieving the information on a given site is core to the work of any content-rich site’s IA, be it IHT or epicurious. Carbon IQ is doing a lot of this for our clients, I’m going to guess we are not that unique.
  • Determining content granularity and
  • Understanding and using metadataThere is a reason XML talks keep showing up at the IA summits.. Hopefully someone is making the connection right now…. Controlled vocabularies are key to search, especially search/browse cross use such as yahoo has been doing for years.
  • Developing hybrid architecturesThe nature of the web is almost all architectures are hybrid. Take egreetings: one had to design 1st and information retrieval system that allowed a user to successfully find a desirable card from one of multiple mental models of seeking (occasion, recipient, mood) then *send* it, track it, reply to it… from content architecture to interaction design with a fine veneer of information design on top we have a fine hybrid. I can point to everyone’s favorite example Amazon, which mixes browse architecture, recommendation engines, search and susceptible moments… We’re doing it.

    (mini-topic drift: does Amazon have IA’s? How much great IA is being done by non-IA’s?)

  • Presenting search results betterIs Avi in the house? And does this belong to IA’s in their information design role, or does this belong to designers?
  • Rolling out enterprise-wide architectures

And now we are back to what some folks call big IA….

I don’t always agree with this idea that we need a CIA, but I do believe we need a CUXO– we need one person who holds the vision and assures a consistent user experience across the company’s properties in order to protect the brand.

A CIA (Chief Information Architect) might be necessary in a company that was highly information based, or catered to content seekers. Though personally I doubt it. However, a Chief User Experience Officer would be a welcome addition. The user experience is heavily influenced by information architecture, but it is made up of many elements including

  • advertising
  • identity design
  • product feature set
  • product design
  • product integrity
  • product packaging
  • shared peer experience
  • employee-product perception
  • customer service

A CUXO would be responsible for standardizing and assuring consistency of the brand throughout all these elements. Of course not all aspects of the brand can be controlled, but the bulk can be and those aspects that cannot be controlled can be influenced. A CUXO’s team includes marketing, customer

service, design (graphic) and IA, product development and a CUXO must work closely with the CEO, CTO and the COO in their areas of overlap. Any company that has a user (or customer) should have a CUXO.

An IA only belongs to those companies whose products can be helped by the their unique skillsets: content architecture, interaction design and information design. The short list this would include would be

  • web sites
  • software
  • hybrid physical products (cellphones, palms, blackberries, etc) where the physical and virtual interfaces are highly interdependent

A long time ago Don Norman posted a long email to the CHI-WEB list explaining three different types of models. They make a good template for how an IA works in the organization as well.

Mental Model: How a user perceives how a system works. Here is where a usability expert can be of great use, determining the user’s model of a given domain before anything is designed, then verifying they are able to deal with the item after it is created.

Design Model: “mental model held by the designer of the artifact” in other words, that held by the system architect who knows how the dang thing really works.

Conceptual model: “the conceptual model refers to a description of the workings of a device.” This is the realm of the IA, who hides the messy complexity of the design model from the user, and makes it simple to comprehend and use the product.

The IA perches between the technologist and the user, helping makes the creations of one palatable to the other.

time to run to work. more later, most likely…


Add Yours
  1. 1
    samantha bailey

    I’m working in an environment where interaction design and information architecture are not differentiated–a big change after helping to define the Argus methodology which focused almost exclusively on information architecture as a distinctly different kind of work from interaction design. I’ve been struggling to develop a new definition of what it is I do, or what this department I’m hoping to build (a fledgling user experience group that will encompass IA, ID, usability, and possibly content strategy). At the moment I’m defining IA as follows (it ain’t pretty); not sure I’ve hit on the right elements to really encompass our interaction design elements and would be interested in refinement that might better get at that:

    Information Architecture is the art & science (practice) of organizing information so that it is:
    findable (information retrieval)
    manageable (content management)
    useful (user-experience, interaction design)

  2. 2

    I think it’s important to be able to -explain- IA. But is it really necessary to nail down the ultimate definition of IA?

    I mean, there’s a reason that every IA has their own definition, and why people fight so passionately about this topic on the various lists: IA isn’t a pure science, and it’s not stable (and it shouldn’t be, either).

    I think one of the strengths of the evolution of IA is that it -is- fluid, drawing on experience in visual design and/or library science and/or technology. “What IA is” changes on every project, for every company. It’s highly volatile.

    IA will never be “finalized.” And I think that this is a good thing. Why strangle evolution?

  3. 3

    from a post to SIGIA back in June:

    “For a long while I was in Andrew Dillon’s and Peter Morville’s camp, and believed that the term Information Architecture could stay open and fluid and big, and we could live without a definitions. But I’ve discovered there are two key problems with that:

    *I work in a consultancy: I can’t sell a product I can’t explain.

    *I’m tried of having every conversation I have with a group of IA’s return to that same damn question.

    At the latest San Francisco Cocktail hour, a conversation on the difference between being an IA in a product company vs. begin an IA in an agency once again degenerated into — you guessed it– what is IA?

    Our lack of a acceptable definition holds us back. Until we have a common ground for conversation, we keep returning to the act of defining terms. I find IA’s tend to have meta-arguments more than arguments anyway; we are
    always saying “what are we really talking about” or “what do you mean by that word.” Someday I’d like to have a conversation where an IA says “well, when you say IA, what do you mean” and I say, “Well, I’m working from the
    standard definition blah.”

    Our inability to articulate what we do keeps us from being effective in promoting our discipline, whether it’s within a company or when trying to sell our value as part of a project pitch.””

    It’s time to at least have a loose defination that we can either grow from, deepen or work around.

  4. 4
    JF Petit

    I must agree wholeheartedly with Christina. Our consultancy in Montreal faces the same eternal question: what is it that you do exactly? We are always defining ourselves by what we do not do. By the way, I am struggling to define IA for a mostly french-speaking market, which is an additional challenge vocabulary-wise! Luckily, we are all bilingual and I forwarded Lou’s excellent post to everyone here and I will forward yours also.

  5. 5
    Lou Rosenfeld

    Thanks for all the responses (especially Christina’s; hope I didn’t keep you up too late working on it! 😉

    Of course, despite my desperate plea, we’ve gotten back into defining IA. Maybe a way to look at my post is that it’s an exercise in defining IA by describing what we *do*, not who we are, how others see us, or by a simple definition.

    I humbly submit that many of the areas I mentioned are what most of us *will* do but are definitely *not* doing right now. I’ve had the… um… opportunity to get back into consulting and have met in-house IAs in that context, and have been tracking SIGIA-L pretty closely, and I really don’t encounter many IAs thinking about much less addressing the areas I mentioned in my posting. Maybe my sample stinks, but I think that most of us are still stuck in the world of wire frames and blueprints.

    OK, fire away…

  6. 6

    I definitely agree that we need to be able to sell and explain our own IA services.

    What I strongly object to is an absolute definition of IA. It just isn’t going to happen. What we do is system design, and the kind of work we do to define a system is highly dependent on the needs of a given project. And not everyone will choose to do that work the same way.

    I guess my pet peeve is that I often sense an undercurrent of “our way is the only way to do IA” in some of these discussions. I see this in many posts about IA certification programs, especially. It seems grabby, somehow.

    Also, on a related tack: IA is really nothing new. It’s closely related to work that has been done for years by people working on large systems. (A woman at IA 2000 in La Jolla, who had done system design for Boeing in the 70s said as much while she listened to a group of IAs go on about this “new” field.)

  7. 7

    I definitely agree that we need to be able to sell and explain our own IA services.

    What I strongly object to is an absolute definition of IA. It just isn’t going to happen. What we do is system design, and the kind of work we do to define a system is highly dependent on the needs of a given project. And not everyone will choose to do that work the same way.

    I guess my pet peeve is that I often sense an undercurrent of “our way is the only way to do IA” in some of these discussions. I see this in many posts about IA certification programs, especially. It seems grabby, somehow.

    Also, on a related tack: IA is really nothing new. It’s closely related to work that has been done for years by people working on large systems. (A woman at IA 2000 in La Jolla, who had done system design for Boeing in the 70s said as much while she listened to a group of IAs go on about this “new” field.)

  8. 8

    I may be trying to take a stab at this from a different direction, but it helps me pitch the need for IA skills. At the base of what we do is provide and efficient means for the audience/users to find, get, and use information. I look at the world from an information application perspective. This application may be a Web page/site, content management tool working with templates, knowledge portal that is accessible by traditional browser or handheld, client and server interface. Understanding the user, their mindset(s), information and application flows needed to easily and efficiently perform the user’s desired task, and work to store and access the information on the server storage and application side efficiently.

    In a sense we are the advocate for the user of the information, where as a project manager is the advocate for the project sponsor. Ultimately the sponsor wants their information and application to be used and in this sense we are looking out for the sponsor’s best interest. These understandings may stretch to the Rosenfeld broad (inclusive of enterprise wide architectures) definition. This broad definition could also fall under the knowledge management or Chief Knowledge Officer role or a better defined Chief Information Officer (many CIOs are mis-titled or mis-purposed CTOs).

    The IA role reaches far beyond the wireframe building. I find there is a depth of communication theory, information theory, and information design (among many skills) used on a regular basis to help define ease of use and developing efficient interfaces and applications to disseminate information.

  9. 9

    In my opinion and experience, much of the enterprise decentralization has hindered efficient information use and has made some satellite information stores incongruent with much of the enterprise as a whole. Some organization have been moving to centralized knowledge/information portals to help reverse this trend of decentralization so to better manage their information in a data warehouse. Turning information into knowledge, which some enterprises equate with a positive ROI, is a difficult task if the information is not easily accessed nor properly maintained.

  10. 10

    Christina wrote:

    An IA only belongs to those companies whose products can be helped by the their unique skillsets: content architecture, interaction design and information design.

    I hope I’m interpreting you wrong, because if I’m not, I really have to disagree. (Maybe you meant to write “A CIA only belongs…”) Even for old-school old-economy boring product based companies, IT is a way of life. I’m working now in the energy sector and I think everyone would be surprised how computerized everything is. The heavier you rely on IT, the more you need IA (and UX). Every company has an intranet; most are nowhere near the level of sophistication they need to be. KM is picking up big time and there’s a big crossover with IA skills and needs for that. With more companies developing internal apps or customizing ASP applications, the need for user-centered designers is growing too.

    So, in that sense, I’d definately have to disagree; IAs can be useful in ANY type of company (or non-companies — nonprofits, schools/universities, trade groups, foundations, etc.).

    You did redeem yourself, however, when you wrote “Territorial behavior is the biggest roadblock I’ve seen to consistant user experience.” Amen. Who’s in charge of a company’s web presence? Is it the corporate communications department (PR, Public Affairs)? Is it IT/IS? Marketing? Everyone has important roles in it, but it’s usually hard to tell who’s in charge. Usually it gets put under IT, but in most cases IT people don’t understand UX; they understand servers and scripting and programming and bandwidth, but they don’t understand color pallettes and readability and user needs and information design and interaction design.

    I really like the idea of having a CUXO. I can see that being its own business unit, with representatives from marketing and sales, IT, PR, customer service, organizational development, HR, etc., and covering all the bases so that there is a consistent experience both internally and externally for employees, customers and investors (both current and potential), external news organizations, research groups, vendors and business partners, and the public as a whole.

  11. 12

    I tend to agree with Lou that most IAs are probably stuck at wireframes and architecture diagrams. I think, though, that Lou ought to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater here–wireframes and architecture diagrams are SUPER important, and might always form the core of an IA’s work, and that’s okay. I mean, of all the things that IAs do, that might be the most important/useful.

    Christina–I think your original postulation is missing two things. An appreciation for the development of content (writing/content strategy, whatever) — I think if IA is to do it’s work better, it needs to better integrate and understand issues around content.

    The other thing is an understanding of organizational behavior. There are two parts to this. The most obvious part is understanding organizations so that you can build better content architectures that address their concerns. The less obvious part is developing a process for information architecture that fits within an organization–in order for Good IA to happen, it must work within a company’s work processes.

  12. 13

    I am curious how IAs have been narrowed in sponsor/client perspective to wireframes and architectural layout?

    I completely agree with Peter about the content (as this is one of the three skill areas along with context and users in an earlier post) as well as the understanding the organization’s business process. One of the things that bothers me is entering a new client environment where they are wary of any “technical” product as they have had many implemented prior that they really are not using, which is nearly always a result of a product being used that does not mesh with the organization’s business processes (old dog and new trick metaphor may apply). The IA and Business Process Analyst roles sits in a great spot to make information related suggestions to ease information flows for efficiency and consistency. The decentralization of business practices has negatively impacted, to some degree, the information flow process and information accuracy (not to mention design consistency, which seems to be swinging back). The users for information applications are multi-headed, in that they are internal to the organization that creates the external product as well as those outside the organization structure that are the end users.

    I have come to the IA party through a back door (oh, now I tell you). I learned the processes and skills from the client/sponsor side of the world in the pre-Web days. Dealing with vendors, to make modifications so systems and interfaces were usable and provided the resources needed, was one of the hats that I wore in a relatively unrelated position. When I began working on the services provider side of things it was related to the Web and I used Vivid Studio’s processes and explanations of how things should run (1995 to 96 timeframe). I read everything I could on the development process and found the early-in-the-processes work of business assessment and planning provided the best end results. I was applying these skills from the sponsor and service provider side of the equation at the same time. I bought and read the Polar Bear when it first was published and found much of what was in that wonderful book had already been incorporated into what I was calling Web development. It was not until SXSW this past year that it really sunk in there is a large pool of folks whose role is solely IA, which is where much of my passion resides, but my mental map of the definition is not nearly as confined as many of the definitions I have run across. The IA skills in a broad sense help focus information and communication efficiency. The result of our work is often systems and architectural efficiencies, which in turn equal a positive ROI for the client.

  13. 14
    Madonnalisa Chan

    I would have to admit that it has been an interesting challenge to only work on one aspect of IA at a time. I am going through the transition from what the SIG IA list and UX folks in SF talk about to more database structures and concept/subject structures. It’s a strange transition that even the publishing group and my own staff have an interesting time figuring me out.

    I was an IA(from the interaction pov), now I am an IA(from a really weird mixture of system design, database design, search, thesaurus, taxonomy pov). It’s definitely enlightening to really use my MLIS in this setting and be able to share my knowledge. I hope to find a time and/or place that will allow me to spread around my IA skills in the different pov’s of IA work.

    As for business process, I think the challenge is peeling the layers of the onion of an organization’s structure. Yes I believe most information structures have revolved around org charts and it takes content systems, IA sitemaps, search and navigation systems to steer away from that. Contrary to Peter, I think that businesses have to rethink their org charts to utilize the effectiveness of IAs in their organizations. We are not just about design or online web interactions…

    we are about developing accessible, beautiful,coherent, consistent, dynamic, useful, meaningful information systems.

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