No more information architecture?

17 Mar 2012 - 10:24am
2 years ago
33 replies
13499 reads
Nancy Roberts
2008

I wrote a piece a while back that there was a "war" of sorts going on between (among?) information achitects (who frequently came out of the library science, writing, or HCI fields), usability experts, and "designers," and by that, I mean makers of pretty pictures and high concepts (frequently designers who came out of a classic design-for-print-ads field). Judging by the posts I've seen on this forum, the job listings (and requirements) in the general field, and, oddly enough, feedback I've gotten from users, "information architects" have lost the field and retired - IMHO to the detriment of the discipline. (And I'm talking here about websites and web apps, kiosks, smart phones, etc.,  not hand-held devices and products or things like menu structuring for DVD players or car audio systems.)

When I started, there was a phase in the development of any new or revised site or application in which an information architect worked with a client to determine what they needed and wanted to share with their audiences. The result of that work was typically a site structure (or application flow) and wireframes, maybe a prototype.  Now, this phase is either skipped (the job going straight to "concepting"), or is handled by designers.

I had a converation with a user this morning that prompted me to write this post and see what kind of reaction it might generate: she was terribly unhappy with the changd interface in an application she was running. She found it difficult to find action options, and even more difficult to discern what was meant by certain icons, particularly as they were grouped. Having suffered the same myself, and heard other complaints from other users about latest-generation software and websites ("I finally found it, but why was it there? It makes no sense!"), I began to wonder if we're not doing a disservice to our users by skipping the information architecture phase of a project.

When I've suggested this to designers, they tend to react with "It's not that difficult, I don't need that done for me," or "I can't design from boxes and arrows, it limits me. I need to work from the entire concept." What I end up translating that to is, "The high concept/design matters more than the user's ability to get what he wants quickly and easily."

So, what's your take? Have we done away with information architecture? Are we now designed more "adlike" websites and applications, as opposed to utilitarian and functional ones? Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Is there a way to re-integrate the architecture phase so that we don't lose ease of use, logic, and all the information and activity users might need or want,  and can still provide creative, interesting, fun concepts (where they're needed)? (I can only say, Amazon doesn't have a very "creative" look,  nor does Google, and neither is "high concept," but they're both beloved by users...)

 

 

Comments

17 Mar 2012 - 11:09am
jeremiespoken
2011

Interestingly looking forward when new generations of designers will be educated with IA, IXD, Usability, Engineering and Visual Design will our profession have more unicorns(people will all these skills) or specialists?

17 Mar 2012 - 11:30am
mgreen49
2007

I thought this had been decided already a few years back, but I'm also fighting renewed challenges. Similar to your case, they involve the feeling that designs modeled from wireframes come out too utilitarian and lack an overall creative spark. I think part of it in my case is that the final pieces of print collateral are being discarded by our clients in favor of digital and the designers can't ignore our work anymore.

17 Mar 2012 - 11:44am
a2slbailey
2010

I don't think that information architects have retired or been done away with and suspect that the 600 folks who are signed up to attend the Information Architecture Summit next week in New Orleans would agree with me. I work as a freelancer and call myself a "user experience designer" and I offer user research, information architecture, interaction design, content strategy and usability engineering services but I emphasize that my area of deepest expertise is information architecture (and I openly acknowledge that interaction design is my weakest skillset). I have more work than I can handle and virtually all of it has an information architecture component; often the IA piece is the only piece that I am brought in to do. 

I find organizations are very mixed in their maturity/sophistication when it comes to understanding what they need to invest in if they want to have superior interfaces and in organization who are unfamiliar with the concepts and who lack internal champions or evangelists there is often a failure to recognize the importance of information architecture. That said, many of the organizations I've worked with who have initially been unaware of (or even resistant to investing in) IA are often the very same clients who become convinced that if they don't get the IA right they may as well not bother with the rest because the interface won't work well.

(I hope this post goes through; maybe one of the reason IA is underrepresented on the IXDA listserv is because it's not always easy to post replies!) 

17 Mar 2012 - 12:19pm
milan
2005
I'm a bit confused by your use of the word "concept". Isn't a concept in UX a definition of how an interactive artifact works structurally, sequentially and functionally? In other words isn't IA an essential part of a concept and therfore also of the design process? Milan
17 Mar 2012 - 12:45pm
morville
2010

Like Samantha, I've experienced a strong, consistent demand for information architecture consulting. However, it's true that IA fell out of fashion in the UX community (e.g., discussion lists, conferences) for a while. I'd argue that the solid numbers for the upcoming IA Summit and the surprising amount of interest in the Prezi we launched recently (over 60,000 views in the past few weeks)...

http://prezi.com/aafmvya6bk7t/understanding-information-architecture/

...suggests that IA is on its way back. Cheers!

Peter Morville

 

17 Mar 2012 - 1:07pm
Nancy Roberts
2008

Maybe it would help if I explain that I work for an agency that started out as an interactive agency, but because of some internal structural issues went in the direction of a more traditional "ad agency." Agencies, the kind that offer "integrated services," are usually organized around a Creative Director, and many of them come out of the print/billboard/tv world in which the "concept," as in "look, feel, big idea" is King. So where we used to start our projects with basic architecture, we now start them with "what's the "big story" of this organization?" Then we back up and try to fit the concept you're talking about (how it works structurally, sequentially and functionally) into a pre-ordained template that may or may not fit (for example, I've actually been told that "there is not enough room in our design for that number of top nav items," or "our design doesn't accomodate tabs" when tabs are called for) the content and needed activities.

I'm seeing that kind of approach more and more - even among posts on this site. I used to see a lot from IAs, but see very little of that now. The other trend, it seems to me (and believe me, I'm hoping I'm wrong!) is toward the developers/programmers taking over the IA function and making it a subset of site/application engineering. Again, it seems as though this is leaving out a very necessary step of simply "what content is there to share, and how it that content best organized?"

And I agree that IA should be included in touchscreens and the like, believe me, but I was more addressing my own experience and its apparent disappearance, where large amounts of content and many small apps have to be wrangled on a larger platform, like a website or web app.

17 Mar 2012 - 5:17pm
Bruce Esrig
2006

Even if there is plenty of sunshine to go around, it's probably a cloudy day somewhere.

I guess the feeling of these two overlapping communities is that there is still information architecture expertise available, and not everyone appreciates it, nor what it could do for them.

You may be right about a culture shift, but I see it as a pendulum swing that is going in different directions in different places. We had a phase when information architects were the only designers who understood structure. Then interaction designers and usability professionals began driving structural decisions from creative criteria, and information architects learned to do that too (if they didn't know before). What you're describing is even further toward the creative: we need a creative cover on the experiences we deliver, which makes it even harder to connect back to information architecture, whose structural principles seem antithetical to the spirit needed for a creative burst. In a combined process, each type of thinking informs the other, but it takes a strenuous process discipline to get there. Each participant needs to learn enough about the others' way of contributing to understand how to connect. The closest analogy I can think of for this situation is the Six Thinking Hats perspective of Edward de Bono. It's a slender book in which he says that a group that is collaborating must try the thinking pattern of each participant in turn in order to make sure to learn and benefit from each perspective. (It also matters that you pick the right participants.)

You might not need this suggestion, but here goes anyway ... If you're in a conversation in which a creative person is coming to closure on their concept, are they willing to walk through it one more time with you? Can you say "hmm, how are these issues handled in your design?" (You'll need to state the issues in terms of their problem domain.) Should users search for what they're looking for? Can they click around and get there? Is it important for them to find it? Will they be able to? It's really better as an off-line conversation, but I thought I'd ask.

For your local situation, it seems as if the questions are what will get you there, once the creatives at your organization have their solution already warmed up. And if not, you'll have to live with it, or quietly collaborate with whomever they hand the project to once they think the design is done. As you say, the questions are surely being asked and answered somewhere, and it might be possible to bubble them back up the chain to where they should be answered, especially if the answers that are being produced by the existing process are yielding results that fall short of where they could be.

As others have said, there is mentoring and mentor cultivation going on in the IA community, as this session at the upcoming IA Summit indicates: http://2012.iasummit.org/schedule/mentor_meetup.html

I'll send you email through a mutual link, and through that or through direct outreach, you can get in touch with some people who would be glad to talk with you more about it.

Best wishes,

Bruce

18 Mar 2012 - 1:09am
Phillip Hunter
2006

While I'm sure that there are those that confuse a visually pleasing experience with a successful interaction, many of the interaction designers I've worked with over the past 10 years recognize IA as a crucial component. Finding information easily and making sense of it are foundational. Designers who ignore that aren't, in my opinion, designing for people.

Recent industry events seem to point in the same convergent direction. Microsoft (I work there) bases its Metro design language in part on the principle of focusing on content, including information design. Yes, the visual component is meant to be striking and engaging, but with the intent of bringing the information usefully to the forefront, not simply to be an attractive UI.

I do understand the frustration of working with designers that don't get the real big picture, but I honestly think their number is shrinking. Now, as to those people who aren't designers or IAs, but who think they know what to do because they can say the phrase "design thinking", well...

18 Mar 2012 - 3:56pm
Nancy Roberts
2008

Bruce,

I agree, what you describe is how it should go... But what I've found alarming is not even getting a chance to have that conversation... or having your suggestion that users may, based on your research, want to get to a certain information set, dismissed with "that doesn't fit in the design." Something is seriously wrong with that!

18 Mar 2012 - 9:29pm
Jared M. Spool
2003

From where I sit, Information Architecture, is as strong and needed as it ever has been. Thanks to the hard work from folks like Peter Morville, findability is a regular discussion point and those organizations that recognize the value of great experiences see why IA is critical. The strength of IA is reflected in how this year's IA Summit is as big as this year's IxDA conference.

What I also see is there is less discussion about the role of Information Architects. Many teams are looking for folks who are capable of many of the different UX disciplines, with IA being one of the core skill sets. They refer to their positions as designer positions, while they think of IA as a necessary component of design.

Interestingly, that push to integrate IA into the design process is reflected in the conversations I'm seeing at the various conferences. I think the field is moving in the direction of generalists, as I suggested might happen when I wrote this article: Ideal Team UX Makeup: Specialists, Generalists, or Comparmentalists.

I think this is happening in both agencies and within corporate UX efforts. There are still some that are dividing their work up by role, but the best teams are taking a unified approach and cross-training the team to have a good expertise across the board. (The myth that you can't be good at more than one discipline doesn't seem to be borne out by the actual experience of these teams. They are producing great talent that are demonstrating excellence in a variety of skillsets.)

Jared

18 Mar 2012 - 10:50pm
Carlos E. Kramer
2011

 

The question itself is ill defined. If the designers you work with are this kind of "makers of pretty pictures", they aren't designers. Design is a) form and b) functionality working together for a c) purpose. It's a three legs definition. 

In the other hand, information architecture, in most cases, is not a role, but a step of the system's design. IA as a role historically emerged in a vacuum of true design in the field of interactive systems for the Internet, a vacuum left by bad designers. Many of the "old school" product designers (descendants of Bauhaus/Ulm) wrongly have rejected "webdesign" as a field, and the consequence of that was the association of Design with this kind of graphic "artist" you've mentioned. Or did anyone here denies that thinking on the information architecture of a project is to "design" it? 

To have an information architect doing the "pre UI" phase of a project and a designer doing only the visual design of a project is a schizophrenic way of working, since there's no true separation of form and function. Every form has a function (at least presupposed) and every function expresses itself in a form or another. In the "real world" architecture, there's no such separation of roles. Architecture, says the Wikipedia (and the common sense), "is both the process and product of planning, designing and construction." Is the "art and science of design and erecting buildings and other physical structures". Is a "style and method of design". And a "Design activity, from the macro-level (urban design, landscape architecture) to the micro-level (construction details and furniture)." This is Architecture: a design activity, the design of spaces. The fact is: many people who came from other areas (library sciences included) ignored what Design really is, and tend to understand Design only as graphic design, not as product design, which drive them to believe in the necessity of another role (another professional) to think the product. 

As the industry evolved, we have noticed that, specifically for interactive systems there's no space (and no need) for a long premeditation of designs. Systems (understanding systems as the interface AND its users) are living beings, living social structures. You propose a design, measure its impact at the system, understand how the human part of the system interact with that, and redesign it (trust me, architects of buildings envy us). Information architects (the role) lost their force in this kind of (agile/lean) world, and took refuge in this "big picture" and "strategy" fantasy. Fantasy, yes, because is a ingenuous thought believe that we are "the" guys who will plan the business and the strategy alone. We can contribute to strategy, we can offer ways to see the big picture, but that's not a role (again!), that's a part of our job, a part of everyones job, unless you are a robot. 

There's still plenty of space for information architecture as a field of study, but I am not so sure if there's still much space for information architects as a separated role in industry. And, of course, it doesn't mean that designers have to take it all from their minds or from their "artistic" visions. It's a foolish assumption. Good design is obviously concerned with and focused on users needs, business goals and everything else. At least, as a team interaction designer of a IT company, this is how I am experiencing things now. Maybe it is different for agencies and consultancies. But I think the strong demand for IA consulting mentioned by Morville is, in fact, a strong demand for good design and usability. 

All that some can call "Information Architecture", I call Design. We do not need different names for the same "god".

 

19 Mar 2012 - 8:13am
Lorena M. Proia
2009

,

19 Mar 2012 - 8:12am
Lorena M. Proia
2009

 

Well, by your definition I am a "Designer" who was trained in the print field to "make pretty pictures". I don't know where you got your definition from, but that's a topic for another day. Most recently, (about 9 years ago) my title has become and settled on Information Architect. I used to take things from wire frame through to design, but the field has become more specialized and I don't have the time any longer. I hand it off, but I don't expect colored wires to come back, I expect even more improvement on what I did.

I started in this field when it was a person scrambling for anything that wasn’t gray and black. I was pulled in because I was able to make sense of these awful, awful, software applications being developed and made sense of them for other people as well. I'm not from the Library Sciences, yet, my specialty is complex software applications. *GASP!* and... (further shock and horror) I've received awards, while my specialty is the financial and medical industries. You know... those "information light" fields.

I'm sorry to say, but you obviously don't know what a good designer is. A good designer is someone who not only makes things attractive and pleasing to the eye, but a good designer has learned about composition, about organization of information systems and legibility. Above all else they learn about the information/topic being presented and then distill it into something highly consumable. A good designer can take scattered confusing mounds of information and organize and make it clear to the average user. In short, a good designer can design anything. Why? Because they understand the principle is not to make it look good, but to make it work. And work with an elegance and attractiveness that usually goes unnoticed by the user. The average user doesn't know what good design is when they see or use something. They just know they really like it and it works.

I have interviewed many designers who didn't get it. I've also interviewed many Library Science and HI graduates who didn't get it. I don't hire either. I hire the people who understand people; how they think and how they go about deconstructing the information to find what they are looking for. I don't think that is a talent that is in the sole purview of one field or another. To me it is a certain gift of common sense believe it or not. Not some fantastic scientific formula, just good old common sense.

What I find particularly disturbing is that you don't believe that anyone but a Library Science, Writing or HI field graduate can be an Information Architect. I've known Information Architects from programming, accounting, and all types of fields. They were all great at their job. Not all could make it "look" more attractive than their wire frames, but they all understood users. I agree with Mr. Kramer that it is a cohesive process and one without the other is only a step in the final 'design'.

So, is information architecture dead? If it means only certain degrees can become IAs, then I hope it is. Any field that excludes someone because of their degree instead of basing it on their talent, their abilities to think and reason, and their work product, is a field that is doomed to spiral into failure.  A field that looks at "designers" with disdain is a field that doesn't understand the principles of it's own calling.

 

19 Mar 2012 - 9:28am
hassan.schroede...
2009

Lorena,

I'm sorry to say, but you obviously don't know what a good designer is.

I doubt there's anyone in this conversation who would disagree with your definition of a "good designer".

The problem is the huge number of people out there with  "designer" in their title who, in fact, are only drawers of pretty pictures, and who know nothing of IA/usability/etc. and have (apparently) no inclination to learn. 

19 Mar 2012 - 10:19am
Nancy Roberts
2008

Lorena,

I was sort of wondering when/if the knives would come out, but believe me, I have no desire to offend. That's why I wrote the second post trying to explain that my view of all this is limited to two things: 1) where I work now, and 2) looking at the job market.

Far from it, I don't look at the designers with disdain. I look at them with great respect, and love it when we can work together and produce something truly fine.

What I do think, though, is that, like the blind men and the elephant, by training and inclination we tend to come at projects from different perspectives, all of them important, and all of them valid, but we sometimes can't see a given project except from our particular perspective.

My observation is that a vital step - the IA step - is often compromised when it is subsumed under "design."

As I said, IA people - again, people who by training and inclination were likely to be attracted to this discipline - are usually interested in what information is conveyed, and how it is conveyed in terms of organization, not necessarily where it is placed on a page, or what color is used (though I can tell you some horror stories about designers who use 10 point font on a site aimed at people over 60 who find 10 point font hard to read, or about an arrow that pointed toward a non-linked word rather than at the linked word, and things like that). I am NOT demeaning, as my examples just indicated, the importance of what I am calling "design." I think you're right in one way, it's ALL design.

But I guess what I'm saying is, the more people, and approaches, you bring to the table, the better for the project. And I have noticed that there is a creeping attitude that IA can simply be a subset of what the "designer" does. And I don't agree.

I'm lamenting the fact that champion it though you might, the "information," its organization, the words used to convey it (particularly in navigation), what's said, how much or how little is said, the voice, and so on, are becoming more and more an afterthought than an origination point.

I guess if you read my post carefully, you'd see that I never said that "only" a person with library science, writing, etc., could come to IA. I said "frequently." My guess is that's because they are natively interested in information (content) and how it's organized and conveyed. They have a feel for it, a passion for it. I know one thing for sure: I can use Photoshop and In Design and Illustrator very well, and I had a minor in fine arts in college, but neither my passion, nor my professional career (I actually came out of television) has been about design - but if I were to simply start designing a website here where I work, without consulting the designers or engineers/programmers, particularly the people who have the job title "designer" or "creatives" would scream bloody murder, and would insist that I know nothing about how to design a web page. And to an extent, I'd agree with them, even though I could probably do a good enough job of it.

My point is, I think (agree with many of the people who've commented) that interactive work is a collaborative process, and there is a need for people whose focus and passion is the content, its organization and structuring. I think that's when you get the very best result. And I was just wondering if anybody agreed with me that, as a unique discipline, IA is disappearing.

19 Mar 2012 - 11:43am
holger_maassen
2010

 

Great thread - Great comments.

In this days and age of abundance of communication and information or let me say data ( data only become information if it's understandable, relevant and perceptible for the individual person ) It's quality, not quantity, that counts - and it's the mesh of experts, not titles, that counts. 

I prefer planning with and by experts - by people who know what they are doing and that means they know why they do it this way and not the other way around. In our complex world it's hard to work with jack-of-all-trades. Don't get me wrong there a multi-talent but up to now in my life I met maybe one or two.

Teamwork is the capability to work together within a intermeshed process and toward a common vision. And that's hard enough, although every team member is a different kind of advocate ...

An advocate ...

... of budget, of the client,  (Project manager, Account manager, ...)

... of content, of fulfilment of tasks  ( Business Analyst, Information Architect

... of utility, of usability,  ( UX planner, Information Architect, Usability Engineer, Interaction Designer, ... )

... of look and feel, of brand  ( Visual Designer, Interaction Designer, ... )

... finally and at the end of the project, our user/customer is the final judge - and he don't care who made what - He ask "Is it worth my time and money?"

If you're in a small company or agency it's an inevitable consequence to gather a few responsibility in one person but that is always just the next best thing.

 

19 Mar 2012 - 12:34pm
Nancy Roberts
2008

Wow, I can't tell you how true what you wrote rings for me! Thanks!

19 Mar 2012 - 10:57am
pkdaly
2010

I have seen this shift, more so if you look at  IXD and AIGA and the design schools blogosphere/punditry--my main evidence is seeing more emphasis on your design portfolio in job postings for usability/UX. I don't expect they're looking for my task analyses and test reports.

I even submitted a presentation to a design conference about 'UXers from Mars, IXDesigners from Venus'--got rejected, maybe they don't agree.

My point was that the 'designers' I see  jump into the 'making' phase and skip 'understanding' and 'evaluation'.  In some cases there is open disdain for the overly analytic testers and researchers, and their focus on deliverables...

Personally, though, I always saw (and used) IA as a method; not a discipline--e.g. which has a content map or task flow deliverable. But as I look at the other tools and methods IA'rs think broader than that, where I see the role as same as a 'usability professional' with a different name. I come from a generalist human factors background/mindset so that's maybe my bias.  Either way I agree with your inital point.

19 Mar 2012 - 12:50pm
jonkarpoff
2009

First, library science folks are what I call content strategists. The misapprehension of IA focusing on library science and a focus on taxonomic structures was an appropriation of the term by Lou  Rosenfeld , et al. Richard Saul Wurman who coined the term in the 70s (and also founded TED) defined IA as the visual organization and design of complex information so as to make the understanding of such complex data simple to comprehend by the viewer. By the original definition, IAs are by nature visual designers. IAs tend however to be more involved in the interactions and the user interfaces derived from those interactions rather than pure aesthetics or branding.

Second, it is true that in agencies there is generally still a dearth of true digital/web designers. Many are still attached to the Swiss school of print design, a column-based page layout style from the 30s and 40s. In fact they are largely still "page-oriented". Theses designers coming from a non-interactional design background are unused to working with IAs. Tradionally IAs have focused on utilitarian design (because someone had to and many designers did not). This unfamiliarity with IAs, a marginal understanding of the web as a design medium and the inherent opposition of utilitarian and hedonistic demands of user experience design engendered the discord between IAs and Designers. IAs were the people who said "No" and overly constrained the artistic scope of the designer. Designers were the flashy, shiny object folks that didn't care if the end product delivered on business or user needs only that their designs were "neat".

Understand also that designers at many agencies -- even digital agencies -- are incented to this very second to win design awards over delivering value to the client or their customer. Their future as employees and their advancement within the agency depend on those awards. If you over focus on the wrong incentives then don't be surprised at the results.

Having worked in many creative agencies for many years I have seen a trend in the best digital agencies to move toward integrated user experience groups where small teams collaboratively develop the user experience interactively through white boards, sketches and design workshops. There are some designers who can do soup to nuts UXD, but most cannot and specialize. In large agencies there is a tendency to specialize anyway, hence the need for teams. But if you are still having a daily battle between IAs and Designers you possibly (a) have the wrong kind of IA, (b) the wrong kind of designer or (c) a really bad culture at your agency and it’s time to transform the culture or move on.

It is correct to say that today IA is a role and not a person. IAs are not disappearing -- they are shifting to a wider role. With the advent of the Content Strategists and Taxonomists, IAs have been able to shift their focus to functional analysis, user/system interaction and the supporting interface design. And, as visual designers that truly understand the web as a design medium become more prevalent the lines between IAs and Designers blur -- or at least they understand each other and work collaboratively to create an integrated solution that delivers on the business needs as well as the targeted end-user's needs. That's my kind of agency..

19 Mar 2012 - 3:10pm
Nancy Roberts
2008

I've had the feeling that IAs had to come up with a new name for what they did, so they called it "Content Strategist." I suppose it's as good a name as any. But I still contend that the starting point for 85% of websites (which is really what I was referring to to start with - and why I purposely didn't include touchscreen menu systems and so on, though I agree that they desperately need "architecting") which tend to be content heavy, need to start with content and activity. After all, wheels weren't invented because someone thought the shape would be cool. And books weren't printed because the pattern of the letters looked neat on a page. The point was do something, or share information. I still think that's the starting place, and in my small corner of the world, that's what the "information architect" was for: to find out what that was and apply human behavior patterns to that need.

Perhaps it's simply word choice, labeling, etc., that has this part of the discussion headed off this way: whatever we want to call it, I feel we are starting to abandon concern for the end purpose of many interactive systems: what do users want to DO or FIND OUT, and get that material organized before we start sketching the interface. My complaint was that way too often, an interface was designed because it looked cool, and then we had to go running around trying to find relevant content to make it work, rather than the other way around. And nobody was asking the question, what does the user want or need?

(Just as a side note, some of the most popular sites, like YouTube, have pretty clunky "design." But they're easy to use, and they created a need most of us probably didn't even know we had! And again, I go back to Amazon. Not pretty at all, but very easy to use, and extremely effective at getting me to what I want to do (buy something after some pretty easy comparison shopping), and what they want me to do (buy more).)

My experience with many agencies is that they're often using the web as a place to put ads, not really paying much attention to user needs or wants.

20 Mar 2012 - 1:22pm
chrischandler
2008

Nancy,

I appreciate you making it clear that the comments represent your experience, but I have to say, it seems like you haven't really been following the wider dialouge in our disciplines very well. In particular, your "feeling" that "IAs had to come up with a new name for what they did, so they called it "Content Strategist" is wrong on both counts.

First: I don't think IAs have had to come up with a new name -- it would be more accurate to say that a new name for what a lot of IAs do is User Experience. The domain and discipline of IA is now considered a subset. Other subsets include interaction design, HCI, user research, visual designers and prototypers. I don't mean to claim that UX is the correct or only or limiting choice, I just mean that UX has become a widely accepted umbrella term and is used that way in the marketplace.

Secondly: Content Strategy is a distinct discipline which you might want to learn more about. It's been around (almost) as long as IA -- at least at Razorfish, Sapient and other native interactive agencies for sure. There are books and blogs that will help you understand how Content Strategy, like IA, IxD etc, is a subset of the UX discipline.

In your second paragraph you say we too often design interfaces and then fill them with content without asking what the user wants or needs. It would be wrong to assume that only the IA or only the IxD (or whoever) is concerned with these questions. And, it is the Content Strategist who will ask "and where is this content coming from, who is producing it and how often are they producing it" which is a set of crucial questions that have been the ruin of many cool looking and even "usable" designs.

-cc 

19 Mar 2012 - 3:10pm
Nancy Roberts
2008

I've had the feeling that IAs had to come up with a new name for what they did, so they called it "Content Strategist." I suppose it's as good a name as any. But I still contend that the starting point for 85% of websites (which is really what I was referring to to start with - and why I purposely didn't include touchscreen menu systems and so on, though I agree that they desperately need "architecting") which tend to be content heavy, need to start with content and activity. After all, wheels weren't invented because someone thought the shape would be cool. And books weren't printed because the pattern of the letters looked neat on a page. The point was do something, or share information. I still think that's the starting place, and in my small corner of the world, that's what the "information architect" was for: to find out what that was and apply human behavior patterns to that need.

Perhaps it's simply word choice, labeling, etc., that has this part of the discussion headed off this way: whatever we want to call it, I feel we are starting to abandon concern for the end purpose of many interactive systems: what do users want to DO or FIND OUT, and get that material organized before we start sketching the interface. My complaint was that way too often, an interface was designed because it looked cool, and then we had to go running around trying to find relevant content to make it work, rather than the other way around. And nobody was asking the question, what does the user want or need?

(Just as a side note, some of the most popular sites, like YouTube, have pretty clunky "design." But they're easy to use, and they created a need most of us probably didn't even know we had! And again, I go back to Amazon. Not pretty at all, but very easy to use, and extremely effective at getting me to what I want to do (buy something after some pretty easy comparison shopping), and what they want me to do (buy more).)

My experience with many agencies is that they're often using the web as a place to put ads, not really paying much attention to user needs or wants.

14 Apr 2012 - 9:59am
penguinstorm
2005

I definitely wouldn't describe YouTube as "easy to use." If there's a prime example of a site that needs some good Information Architecture that would be it in my mind. It's extremely difficult to find something specific if you're looking for it. If you consider "easy to use" falling down a rabbit hole of randomness akin to channel surfing on a conventional television then maybe....

19 Mar 2012 - 2:04pm
philipbrook
2008

Lots of discupline basing going on!

Let's not forget how important the mappIng and planning role is when defining a system. This is where old school IAs found their niche way back when (IAs tended to be graphic designers or 'human factors engineers' or after that 'usability engineers'). it's a task that needs doing to control costs, although in scrum methods it's becoming less vital in a complete pure way.

Big corporate teams can afford highly specialised roles, but the smaller the team and budgets, the broader the role people must perform.

In the UK it's technically illegal to call yourself an architect unless you build buildings (same as calling yourself a nurse).

19 Mar 2012 - 4:16pm
eriklevitch
2008

I'm more of a UX generalist, but IA is a normal activity; account managers and clients just know it as "UX".

 

19 Mar 2012 - 4:51pm
Carlos E. Kramer
2011

Nancy, I think the problem here is the way you understand "design". It seems you understand "design" as graphic arts, not as project. We can say graphic artists are "designers" only in a "lato sensu", a broad sense of the word. 

 

19 Mar 2012 - 5:43pm
Nancy Roberts
2008

Carlos,

I hear ya. I have been using "design/er" as a shorthand to refer to that part of the project in which the graphics/gui are created. But while yes, the shape and color of a button, or an image chosen are most certainly "information," and definitely part of the bigger design process, I guess I was trying to distinguish between that and the work that goes on in making decisions about what topics to cover, how to group them, what to call them, how much to include, where an interactive element is needed, and so on. When I first started in this field, that, plus site map/flowchart and first pass wireframes (the old boxes and arrows stuff) was what we handed off to the graphic designers and usaiblity experts to get them started on their valuable work, and the engneers/developers to get them thinking about how to best make this work, and where interactivity could be enhanced. I suppose some of my view of this is having come out of a medium sized interactive group in which we had areas of expertise, but couldn't afford to have everybody involved at every client meeting, so IAs (what I call IAs) typically started the process with SMEs and AEs. I guess I'm victim to the blind man and the elephant here, too, to an extent. ;-)

19 Mar 2012 - 7:43pm
Maish Nichani
2007

 

Interesting discussion. Do you think that the lack of job postings or discussions on IA reflects the fact that IA work is not "glam"?   How many readers are you going to get if you write a blogpost on creating a metadata schema? How many will you get if you talk about creating "glass" buttons? 

The dangerous implication to draw from the lack of visibility or marketability is to equate it to not being required. The disappearance of physical banks does not mean banking is not required. Having no policemen on the streets does not mean policing is not in effect. Imagine designing a university website or sites like the World Bank or a large government intranet without focusing on IA? 

The agency setup has long been known to follow the path of "least effort". Interaction design is (again dangerously so) is perceived to be more quick, more pertinent and more glam than IA work and hence the instant embrace.

The solution I think is position IA for what it is: the hidden workhorse behind certain types of designs. It is one of the things required to put together an effective design. Smart designers will study it and know when to use it and when to not to. Books like Persuasive IA will do its part in brining IA close to the masses, and the community should do its part in showing how IA is used in its many forms (the BBC redesign comes immediately to mind).

 

19 Mar 2012 - 8:35pm
AndrewHInton
2007

Tried posting this via email but it was rejected ... let's see how this goes... 

----

This issue has been coming up in many conversations, blog posts, etc in the last year especially. 

It's almost as if a lot of people are looking up from their work to realize that, over the course of the last 10 years, something went awry -- like "how did we end up here?" 
(There's a "waking up after St Patricks day revelry" metaphor in there somewhere, but I'm not going to try working that out...)
A lot of things happened to the **perception** of IA as a practice that somewhat ghettoized it -- and some of those things are as much the fault of the IA community at large as anyone else. (e.g. IA is just about organizing web pages; it's just about making wireframes; etc)
Thankfully that's starting to turn around. 
All this stuff we design -- it's all part of larger systems, where lots of things are connected. Whole environments made of information and interaction. That requires planning and modeling based on a deep understanding of the people who will be inhabiting these places. 
Last year, we did a panel at IA Summit on how architecture is "more than a metaphor" for IA ... and it does a better job of explaining some of this than I can do in an email. 

20 Mar 2012 - 2:38pm
Nancy Roberts
2008

I'm really fascinated by the wide range of responses to this post - which sort of validates my original question, in an odd way. Yeah, we all have "our experience" with this field, and I still am somewhat convinced that the elephant is the snake is the rope is the tree trunk. Yes, a lot of what each of us calls "IA" is what our particular experience of it has been. I started in this field about 15 years ago, and while it wasn't exactly infant, it might be described as toddler. It didn't really have a name where I worked at the time, and I was actually the one to bring things like wireframes and prototypes into our group (the interactive department of a traditonal agency).

I have actually done a great deal of reading on the subject, but one source of information I think is often overlooked is job listings.  If nothing else, they tell you what organizations of all types, sizes, and attitudes are looking for. It's only been in recent years (2-3?) that I've seen a lot of job postings for "Content Strategists," and "Design Communicators." Prior to that, it was mostly IAs, or UX. I'm sure it's true that organizations such as Razorfish are leading the way in terms of how things get done, and who does what. But another source of information is what's being taught and how at universities, and it's still frequently the case that IA is an outgrowth, or even still housed in, the Library Science department.

For quite a number of years, I freelanced quite a bit as an IA for a range of interactive shops, and the work I did was always more or less the same: dug around in the client's business until I had a pretty good idea of what they needed to achieve, helped them structure it via site maps and/or flowcharts, wireframed the main pages and templates, and worked with designers and developers (at the time "usability" was still under the umbrella of IA to a large extent) to meet the needs of the website or application while still creating an inviting, attractive, and "current" design:(I was also doing things like personas, user testing, scenarios, etc., as an IA.)

I guess my original post was musing on the notion that those several tasks are now being carved up among a number of different job descriptions, and I was wondering if there was anything left that we would call "Information architect."

What's also interesting is that most recently, I have been contacted to do pretty much the same chores that I've always done, but the job has been posed to me under a number of different names, which also tells me something.

20 Mar 2012 - 4:11pm
violet424
2010

Seems to me that UX Designer is the new word for IA. I've also seen "UX researcher" and "experience architect". Really, it seems like your skills and experience, not your title are what will get you a job.

As for bad design... The same people who made type too small to read on brochures and billboards are making websites horribly unusable today! Good designers care about the people using/enjoying their work!

22 Mar 2012 - 3:01am
James.V
2012
It seems that there are a lot of differing opinions on this subject. It also seems that there are things within design and technology that are changing so fast. Your article gets your points across very well.

 

Designers and architects seem to be at odds with each other a lot but that doesn't mean that these general tips don't apply.

11 Apr 2012 - 7:37pm
StevenDufresne1
2012

The Mobile First approach will force developers/designer back into the information architecture space. There will be less room for purely 'design' elements.  Content will again be king.

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