Architecting Our Profession

“…there is definitely not enough reliance on the information architect as a professional who can cope with the details and design challenges of creating a complex system, both for the process and for the interface.”I would like to encourage the community to talk about the need for professional networks within the information architecture field, especially as it relates to creating successful software and information systems. And, I would like to compare our needs in the field of IA with the systems that have been used in other areas to determine if we can develop an appropriate support system in moving towards specialization in our profession.

The change within the interface design process over the past five to ten years has coincided with an increasing number of large companies refining an industrial style model of design instead of focusing on specialization or interaction sustainability through design accuracy. As a result of the overriding strategy, many smaller companies emulate the corporate model but find that it is indeed not sustainable; especially if they want to design appropriate interfaces and continue working within the respected boutique and agency models. This model of simply acquiring a larger IA strategy needs to change in order to give IA a place on the whole market and to allow professional networks to develop.

For instance, Company A has created a large international software application, which meets the needs of very specific market segments; the application actually has to be in a boat on the other side of the world and represented in a different language. Meanwhile, Boutique A has a very similar model of designing applications, not because it’s practical for them but because “that’s the way it’s done elsewhere.” However, the boutique only provides design, technical support and some software customization to existing customers who are within a 100-kilometer radius! This is sort of like comparing apples to oranges, but it’s more like encouraging apples to grow on orange trees. It’s attempting to implement a model of business where introducing a scaled down process leads to ineffective results.

This is the real hiccup in the current User Centered Design and Information Architecture processes; they are not really all that scaleable. Company A is driven by forces that Boutique A doesn’t need. Boutique A is a professional service firm in its own right, but it doesn’t need to work within such a large-scale model, especially not simply because of excess field pressure. In fact, customers would most likely benefit if the models were reversed as Company A typically avoids the simplicity of providing a local service like the one offered by Boutique A.

In my experience, this is the reason that projects fail in information architecture and interaction design: it seems that many companies and individuals are not insuring that they use a process which suits them. There is not enough rationing of responsibility to contractors, and therefore no appropriate delegation to specialists who can develop an appropriate model of IA for each situation. This means that there is definitely not enough reliance on the information architect as a professional who can cope with the details and design challenges of creating a complex system, both for the process and for the interface. This is the main reason IAs are unable to blueprint systems that survive the passing of time or the pressures of an evolving market, in other words, there is a round-peg in a square-hole problem here which needs to be addressed. As IAs, we aren’t playing the role of architect, artist, or even of the contractor, but the role of design team member, using common techniques on specialized problems.

Where do we find the solution? It’s likely in needs of smaller businesses and organizations. In order to make the needed room for these areas to influence the field of information architecture; we need for them to rely on or to develop their own specialists and contractors, individuals who are professionals with the insight and experience to understand the entire project, and to create new models of IA for each project. What we are missing however, is the support system to protect, establish and promote those who chose to contract out specialist needs.

In order to establish this sort of specialist and contractor system, we should understand what has worked this way in other industries, especially those that rely heavily on interactive technology, such as TV, film, music as well as video game and software development. These industries all have contractor associations and specialist houses, both of which translate well to the IT industry. In our market, business needs shift and product releases are quite sporadic, and so contracting associations and specialist houses, or firms or studios, could be the answer to providing IA services that actually reflect the needs of each project. We need a system within IA where individual professionals are given the authority to examine specific elements, attributes, and functions of a system as well as to architect the process involved. In essence, this would be the IA equivalent of hiring a director, or a sound engineer, or if we think about things a bit more pragmatically, contracting an architect.

This is all just a suggestion, though perhaps we should look at other models more closely in order to simplify IA processes. It is possibly the professional equivalent of giving ourselves a system for us after all these years spent figuring out what specializations to focus on. We do have the answers; all we need to do is create the infrastructure to begin to work in this way.

I suggest we look at a range of options for moving forward, with such possibilities as determining a board of local association members, establishing a union system and stewards, forming an open licensing system, or just seeking out legal specialists who can represent individuals and know the field well. We should begin to entrust our efforts to people dedicated to creating support systems within the field of IA. How we should go about structuring these support systems is something else entirely; it is something that we should discuss and determine together, moving towards making a professional field. Any comments?

Conclusion:

Design is a valued industry in many fields, with professional support systems to match. Without adequate support systems in IA we will be awkwardly bound to the current design process out of fear of improvement. The nature of software design should be integrated and brought into the design process in a much more sustainable way, and I see support systems as the only way to provide the stability needed to develop through specialization.

I’ve included a few links below; topics I consider appropriate grounding for considering specialization support within IA. Please be aware that the topic of blueprinting is only one example area where techniques and models need to be supported. The following links are given as encouragement for discussion.


Is there a model which would be the best for organizing our support systems?

Do we need professional contracts, licenses or listings?

How would professional support help blueprinting in terms of accuracy, precision or stability?


Clifton Evans is Irish Canadian. His role as an Information Architect has taken him to Vancouver, New York, San Francisco, Singapore, Dublin, Barcelona, Rotterdam and London to work on interfaces ranging from community-scale works to enterprise-level systems. He has co-written a book on information architecture within ecommerce development, taught and given seminars on the design of interactive systems and also works as an artist both outside and within the field. He currently works from Europe, most recently in The Netherlands, where he has continued to work on both media arts research and international interactive systems.

He looks at the world of interactive design as a playground for new opportunities, a place to be constantly creating new approaches and creating new systems of interaction. He also leads the careers initiative for interactiondesigners.com and has been an active member of the communities that helped to form the field of IA. His current personal work is involved in developing an online community for language learning and is seeking out opportunities to develop this work further. He can be contacted via CD (at) IAgency.biz

Posted in Professionalism | 6 Comments »

6 Comments

  • Uday

    March 15, 2005 at 2:24 am

    [QUOTE]
    The only professions with clearly deliniated boundaries are those whose functions *obviously* cannot be performed by laymen without the appropriate knowledge or abilities: surgeons, musicians, professional athletes�

    Since design is essentially a desk job that can (in a way) be performed by anyone, we will *never* see the bottom of this.
    [/QUOTE]

    Is this really true? Can ‘anybody’ do what we do? Doesn’t design require a certain amount of talent, creativity, ‘thinking-out-of-the-box’?

    Maybe a ‘layman’ can cut-and-paste from a good design. But, can the same person create an innovative concept?

  • greymon

    March 15, 2005 at 3:49 pm

    Do you mean to suggest that somehow designers (how ever you define them) have a monopoly on talent and creativity? That no other person and no other domain can be innovative? Are you suggesting that a person without a formal design school education (I’m assuming that’s who you mean by ‘layman’) is incapable of conceptual innovation?

    Surely you can’t this hubristic.

    In my experience most people calling themselves designers are little more than stylists, lacking the capacity for genuine critical thought, and are capable of little more than parroting momentary fashions. Like every other domain, only a few individuals have the talent and creativity to lift themselves above mediocrity.

  • CD Evans

    April 3, 2005 at 4:27 pm

    I think I’ve given enough space to provide another vague comment without cutting someone off, or something down for that matter.

    I do think, that, if you’ll hang on long enough to read another form of english, this is, you’ll find that I’m right in saying design is an art form, and should be respected as such, influencing culture, and as not a forced sale for pete’s sake.

    The reason why we need some realistic form of representation is because, like all other cultural phenomenon, we have to have the support of the people, no profession goes unchecked by the public.

    This is not science, this is art, and so is language. If you want measurable results, please go architect something measurable, the limits on information are, really, too much data to think about scientifically. Use a blur filter to get the most out of that last sentence.

    Not to harp on here, but to top that, one can write however they like, and, for whatever it’s worth, it’s not a puzzle with edges and standard forms.

    And, if you should hasten to think as well that my varying usage of grammars is ‘bad’, you should try a few other forms, it’s just information after all, something more flexible than measurable, isn’t it or is it eh.

    CD Evans

    Ps: Styling is more than design, it’s temporary.

  • mrdangel

    April 7, 2005 at 10:51 am

    Back to the article at hand, rather than the grammar flame war that always seems to spring up in these forums (or is it fora?)… why is specialization the answer?

    While having experienced managing IA on both sides of the fence (creative direction and project management), I find it difficult to believe that specializing will do anything other than drive up department costs and clutter deliverables. Especially in boutique size firms where every dollar counts. Ask any given employee if they’d rather have a detailed scalable infrastructure for their project or coffee cups in the pantry?

    I think the real challenge for IA designers is to prove how IA design can relate directly to the bottom line of a business or initiative. Education is the silver bullet (to paraphrase “The West Wing”) and it’s of paramount importance to inform not just the corporate CIOs and CTOs of bottom line investment in IA design, but also the project managers who map out the timeframe and resource priorities. It’s those players in an initiative that dictate (mostly unknowingly) the challenges and obstacles that IA designers must overcome.

    My suggestion is not to spawn yet another support group specifically for IA design (unless of course you’re looking to join the corporate conference racket and make some money from it), but to champion an effort within a larger design community or project management community. Level the playing field for what is good IA with other design/project organizations who help guide corporate citizens in utilizing their project resources. You’ll get better results for the industry with better case studies to demonstrate.

    -m

  • Max Lord

    April 8, 2005 at 10:49 am

    I believe that many industries will evolve so that they recognize the value of the design disciplines we espouse here. It is less likely that as many will evolve to support permanent, well-understood positions with common titles, for people exclusively involved in those new activities. For this reason, I am uninterested in the title-wars and wary of further career-specialization.

    The concerns we have here are too new to convince with talk. More demonstrable success applying UX, ID, IA (etc) to various business processes is necessary, and this is where I have seen our greatest gains.

  • RonZ

    April 30, 2005 at 7:25 pm

    I’m pretty much in agreement with greymon. I don’t see any commonality among designers. Perhaps they aren’t understood or appreciated because they have no common traits?

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