Why I’m Not Calling Myself an Information Architect Anymore

I could probably put it in one simple word—respect. But if I left it at that, it wouldn’t make for much of an article, nor would it provoke discussion, in the squares & directions community, toward moving to an answer to the dilemma of industry labels.

To start, let me say that I learned so much about this issue due to my first real “Information Architecture is not the same as interaction design or user experience design.” set of industry conferences (back-to-back). The AIGA: Experience Design forum was an amazing get together that took the seeds that have been developed and started turning them into saplings. I feel very energized by what I call a movement in our sphere. The CHI conference for me was a loci where practitioners and researchers came together, not to listen, but to talk. This was a tremendous experience outside the papers, panels and demos that helped shape a lot of what I’m going to put forth.

At the reception on Tuesday night I had the opportunity to step into a guru’s conversation about her first attendance to the IA Summit. This person has been around since there was something to be around, and I very much appreciate her contribution to the field, especially around field research and usability. She was speaking with others, who are more old school than myself, about the IA Summit and she was explaining her surprise at how the IAs want to “own the process.” Her surprised stemmed from her previous understanding of IAs as library scientists interested in facets, categories, vocabularies and maybe, at most, navigation. She never thought of IAs as those who make layouts, design behavior, do usability or field research, etc.

It was at this point I interjected my feeling that IA is what she thinks it is, but because of the history whereby IA is also what Richard Saul Wurman expressed it was, that many informally (and formally) trained designers have come to feel at home within this title. It is a title that seems to generate understanding among clients where “user experience” and “usability” have left clients confused or seem too widely or narrowly focused. It’s just what worked and has built up, especially in the consultancy community, a big following that can’t be ignored.

Of course there was the usual cry from those of the old STC, UPA, HCI school, “but we were doing this for centuries” and more discussion ensued. They have been doing this for a long time. But only if you think “this” is user-centered design. But IA isn’t user-centered design. IA is IA and it was with this that I was convinced. Actually, convinced is not the right word. Turned—yes, I was “turned.” I don’t think there is anything I can say about her argument that actually convinced me of her position, but it was more a feeling I got about the state of IA and what people need it to be, if we are going to move our field forward, that changed my thinking. That feeling is clarity. Clarity was missing from the Experience Design group, and that wasn’t good, but the ED group is not trying to define a title or a discipline but a philosophy (in my humble opinion), so the lack of clarity isn’t really an issue.

But this is not just about clarity. As I said, the single word is respect, and clarity is just one way of expressing that respect. I know I am not an Information Architect because I know what Information Architecture is, and I respect those that can do it. I also want to make sure that those who can do it, aren’t obscured by those that can’t.

Information Architecture is not the same as interaction design or user experience design. The line is very clear and the only reason we allow it be blurred is because early adopters from different disciplines within the field coopted the term and have applied it to a broad swath of responsibilities.

Does this mean we are all clear and cozy? No, it doesn’t. There is still a definition, an early definition, of IA that is out there that needs to be reckoned with. As noted above, Richard Saul Wurman coined the term in 1972. He used it in a great and informative way for its time (for all time in fact) by saying that the writer and graphic designer need to be one. He felt that the visual display, layout, texture, surrounding iconography, etc. that set the mood and set context for words directly affect their inference by the reader. This sets in motion (IMHO) the idea of user experience in the print world. But how do we reconcile this early use of the word IA with that which is taught in universities? The IA tied to the library science community that discusses organization and classification (of which RSW spoke about, but did not focus on), and is within the digital and interactive domains.

What I suggest here is that Information Architecture is an arrow in an interaction designer’s quiver. Sometimes that arrow is a whole other human being, who works beside an interaction designer, and that person is known as an information architect. But it works both ways. An information architect should also have interaction design theory as an arrow in their quiver, and sometimes that arrow is a person called an interaction designer (or similar).

I would say the same for a usability engineer. Usability is both a set of theories and a person who specializes in those theories that add support to the creation of interactive digital experiences.

What is important to me is that Information Architecture doesn’t get lost. at CHI, I attended a paper presentation by an HCI researcher and it was so obvious to me that most of the answers this person needed, to fill in her admitted holes, were already known by the Information Architecture community—the official one. Not the one that allowed me to take that title without any knowledge of thesauri, facets, and classification theory, but the one that the Polar Bear book was trying to teach people about, get them excited about, and entice them to join in.

So respectfully, I remain a member of this community, but I revoke (retroactively) all titles I ever held that included Information Architecture in them.

I believe that those who hold this title have more to gain through its controlled use, than through it being drowned out in the debates raging for what should we call this evolving genre of designing human-centered interactive computer experiences. It’s really a battle that is a waste of time (as Alan Cooper said at the Forum). And I believe that IA would win more by not joining in.

David Heller, is currently a Sr. User Interface Designer at Documentum. His current projects include new web-based clients to Documentum’s currently powerful set of Enterprise Content Management solutions.

Posted in Big Ideas, Workplace and Career | 22 Comments »

22 Comments

  • Lyle Kantrovich

    May 6, 2002 at 11:43 pm

    David, I also didn’t want to claim to be an “IA” — although I do some of the same things IA’s do. That’s why I selected the title I did: User Experience Architect. See a description here: http://crocolyle.blogspot.com/2002_05_05_crocolyle_archive.html#76253186

  • David

    May 7, 2002 at 5:08 am

    I wonder whether *any* IAs actually do *all* of the things it is claimed IAs do!

    I’m pretty sure most of the IAs I know don’t have any experience with facets, categories and meta-data beyond constructing a site map or carrying out a few random card sorts every now and again.

    And I know that most people I talk to smirk when I say I’m a “Customer Experience Architect”.

    Such is life… one day we will all be web designers again and that will be the end of it!

    Cheers, d

  • Greg

    May 7, 2002 at 8:42 am

    What is with everyone beating the dead “identity” horse? Really, is it relevant what we call ourselves? By and large, most of us have responsibilites that dictate we take care of certain tasks and roles, usually moving through most of the IA, ID, UCD, etc. fields that we spend so much time discussing. I don’t care what we call ourselves…I may have at one point, but it seems so trivial now. The fact is, these different fields are the ROYGBIV color spectrum of a development cycle. Each is a crucial part of the whole, blending ever so delicately from one “color” to the next. Let’s stop worrying so much about what we call ourselves and move on to the work we actually do and how we do it better!

  • David Fiorito

    May 7, 2002 at 9:43 am

    When I took on my latest job as Information Architect, I found that I was called upon to do IA (labeling, taxonomy, meta-data, etc.), UX (site flows and pathing), UE (usability testing and heuristic evaluations), and UI (page layout and prototyping) work.

    So what am I? I prefer the title Information Architect because, in a literal sense, that is what I do. I craft the information presented by the business for presentation to the employees and customers of the business. I am essentialy an architect.

    I guess what I am saying is that, as I see it, the title of Information Architect evokes the image of a professional that crafts an information space and a traditional architect crafts living space.

    I see no problem with it.

    Cheers,

    Dave Fiorito

  • RuthK

    May 7, 2002 at 10:57 am

    I agree with David. If you look at titles for other types of roles, such as Producer, Project Manager, and Product Manager, they encompass many responsibilities and skill sets. The problems I have had with titles is that they’re often too limiting. Even Information Architect, one of the more general titles for the discipline, has been too limiting. What do you call an IA generalist (as David has described above) who also does requirements, copy writing, and project management? Maybe all it comes down to is how to represent all this stuff on a resume. It usually doesn’t matter what your title is while you’re working within an organization.

  • matt

    May 7, 2002 at 1:57 pm

    haha and also – the tao that can be described is not the tao, right…

    two quotes:

    “Even the finest teaching is not the Tao itself.
    Even the finest name is insufficient to define it.
    Without words, the Tao can be experienced,
    and without a name, it can be known.”

    http://www.clas.ufl.edu/users/gthursby/taoism/ttcstan3.htm#1

    and finally:

    “Names is for tombstones, baby” -Mr Big, james Bond: “Live and Let Die”
    http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Land/8672/lald/tomb.wav

  • Gene

    May 7, 2002 at 8:11 pm

    I’ve always thought the “architecture” portion of “information architecture” was a bit of pompous inflation, especially when used in reference to the LIS-IA school. I mean, “information organization” and “information classification” work just as well, and are probably more descriptive.

    (But I think I’m coming around to Matt’s POV that “architecture” is a useful term when we talk about the coordinating functions of Big IA.)

    Anyway, I see what we do as information product design. I like that term because a) it’s simple and (I think) easy to understand, and b) it focuses on things we can control (the product and the information it delivers) rather than things we can’t (e.g. user experiences).

  • Madonnalisa

    May 7, 2002 at 9:02 pm

    iOMAR

    That’w what I’m calling the work that my group does. I wanted to avoid IA at all costs since it was so associated with websites only.

    It’s definitely a big dose of the user-centered
    LIS-IA…

    information organization
    information management
    information access
    information retrieval

    and we do not have a mascot named Omar…yet!

  • brandy

    May 8, 2002 at 8:20 am

    why a name is important?

    Something for a company to put on a job list for one thing. I am tired of all these ass backwards job descriptions with the wrong title, or a weird title.

    Designer can often mean production design.

    It helps when it comes to getting a paycheck, title = money in a lot of classical work environments. I am aware though that web dev isn’t exactly a classical environment :)

    It gives some people a sense of worth, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. People like to know what’s expected of them.

  • Betsy Martens

    May 9, 2002 at 12:14 pm

    As someone pointed out already, this is perhaps mostly a question of self-identification. After listing all my diverse “hats” on a business card, then (joyfully) feeling empowered to lump them all under “information architect,” I now have settled on a tag line to do the job. My business is information design (encompassing more than Web stuff), I use the title “information architect,” and the tagline reads: “Content and the space it occupies.” So much better than a big stack of hats.

  • Mike

    May 10, 2002 at 7:00 am

    I have always been intruiged, confounded and slightly amused by the way terms like Information Architect are picked up and used by people. In the 15 years that I’ve been around this field I’ve been a “Communication Designer”, “Document Designer,” and “Information Designer” at various groups. I have rejected the title Informaiton Architect, though. It simply doesn’t feel right for the general kinds of communications projects that I do, although I’ve come across others who have made Information Architect the next stop on the user-centered design train.

    All the terms lack percision to me becuase they are picked up and used by so many people — and they certainly seem to confuse clients. I’ve yet to find one that I feel comfortable with. In my last group we all used the title “designer” regardless of our specific pont-of-view or the output we produce.

    My all time favorite confusing term? A group that called themselves “Design Integrationists.”

  • RuthK

    May 10, 2002 at 7:12 pm

    David,

    Thanks for reminding us about the original point you were trying to make. I can certainly appreciate it, and here’s why: In the one job I have had where my title actually was Information Architect, I did exactly what you describe, among other things. Most of my work was designing modular information products/applications and developing metamodels and data dictionaries. I considered this work information architecture because I was actually setting up a framework for content — i.e., architecture. The GUI design work felt, literally, like a different discipline.

    The problem I have encountered since then is that as I look for a job now (after layoffs), most of the Information Architecture positions are truly User Experience Design and Usability Analysis positions, and I have developed a sense of inadequacy because those are not my strong suits. That’s my problem, but I just wanted to point it out because it supports your argument.

    For many proprietary applications and web sites, usability engineering and user experience design may be more than enough because the app only has to work in one configuration at a time. For web services, applications often need to be flexible and modular, and that is where I think the IA work is mostly needed — to give the content and functionality contours in ways that correlate packaging from a sales & marketing perspective with user-centered design and database management. This can also be said of information distribution — content needs to be modeled and packaged in a way that it can flow from system to system more easily, and I think this is another job for the likes of an IA.

  • Adam Greenfield

    May 13, 2002 at 2:09 am

    I’ve avoided this dialogue until now, because I think it’s generally known that I have the precisely opposite opinion from David’s and I didn’t want to be a shit-disturber if I couldn’t add anything new or productive.

    But I’ve been kicking this over for a few days, and I think I’ve come up with something that sums up my discomfort with his position. My POV probably stems from a few biographical and experiential quiddities – I’m *so* not old-school, I’m a generalist by instinct & have no formal training in anything even remotely relevant to the field, etc. – but I hope it resonates for some of you.

    There’s a good reason we use the word “navigate,” as in “navigating informational spaces.” The primate nervous system evolved in physical space, and happens to be well-adapted to problems of finding its way in physical space. It maps other problems which feel (however incorrectly) analogous onto the problem of doing so. This appears to be true even if the “space” to be navigated has many more dimensions than the watch-out-for-that-tree three we’re used to.

    Well, who is it that devises strategies for the organization of physical space? Traditionally, we call this person an “architect.” Too, as has already been pointed out, the architect marshals the resources of a team of designers, engineers, etc. in his or her attempt to find acceptable solutions. For all these reasons, I feel that “information architect” is a globally appropriate title.

    To me, it doesn’t matter that the term first accidentally arose in this or that field (or that this or that visionary but sloppy conceptualist applied it to a book about practitioners who worked in a field that already had a perfectly good name, in an attempt to be marketable). *It describes to a high degree of fidelity what we do*, and to me this descriptive fidelity is the best index of the term’s usefulness: I surely architect information, but I’ve rarely if ever touched the LIS aspects of any job I’ve worked on.

    I do agree that tribalism serves no one well, but my response is to point out more-or-less hard-assedly that if the title doesn’t sit well with you, you’re free to not use it to label yourself. In my opinion, you can’t argue away its suitability for the work that we do.

  • David Heller

    May 13, 2002 at 5:04 am

    But Adam …
    Why do you presume that I’m not a generalist? When I say I’m “old-school” I mean I’m pure slacker internet raised roots. I have no formal education, except for a degree in Anthropology that some feel I make use of from time to time.

    I also said nothing about the use of the word “architect”. I love that word and when I own the process and can direct the resources used for design as well as the processes for design I will claim that word as part of my title. but I will call myself a User-Experience Architect, b/c IA is just a small piece of what I do as that architect: Interaction Design, usabilty testing, information design, etc.

    I also said I came to this conclusion b/c I respect those that actually do use more formal IA. People like Peter M. (pick one), Louis R. and Jesse James Garnett use formal IA to categorize and organize content. They create vocabularies. They do Information Architecture. You can’t call it anything else but that. Not all of them have formal MLS degrees, but even without the degree they have formal understanding of what IA is in this non-generic sense.

    So it is my ability to separate what I do from what they do, that I must stop calling what I do Information Architecture. You might do this level of IA and that is great. Join their club and be fruitful and multiply, but the vast majority of people on the SIGIA List do not, I guarantee it. When I was hiring IAs (your version) back a year ago, maybe 1 of every 10 applicants knew real IA processes and methods.

    Louis is trying to promote IA … I didn’t read the results of his poll yet, but it seems to me the biggest thing that IA needs is legitimacy. I don’t mean User Experience, btw. I mean IA. IAs need legitimacy to get on the right projects, to be part of the right teams, and so that their jobs are better understood, and that their value-add is better understood. Confusing IA w/ UX is just hurting the cause.

    - dave

  • Adam Greenfield

    May 14, 2002 at 2:29 am

    Never meant to imply that you weren’t a new-school generalist. ; . )

    Unfortunately, I’m just not sure there’s much of a middle ground here – or at least it will take someone wiser and more Solomonic than I to point it out. This probably stems from the fact that I *don’t* actually think “information architecture” is the best title for the JJG-style tasks – I think using that particular label for those tasks is acceding to entirely too narrow a definition of information.

    I am actually working on a book explaining at appropriate length why I feel this way, so this probably isn’t the best or the most appropriate place to continue. For now, let’s just leave it at this: I respectfully disagree.

    Cheers,
    A.

  • Andrew Hinton

    May 14, 2002 at 7:09 am

    Architecture is too big a word to fit inside the bottle of interactive LIS. I appreciate how complex, deep, and difficult LIS really is, and how much good it has done in the new world of Internet/Networked information environments, but I also appreciate the depth of knowledge, training, and excellence necessary for architectural engineering. (see definition at http://www.asee.org/precollege/disciplines.cfm#arch )But to confuse architecture with engineering is to ignore some very big things about architecture.
    I keep wanting to give up on this point, but it keeps coming up, and until there’s some kind of referendum that tells me to say otherwise, I’m convinced that Architecture in shared information environments is the “virtual twin” of Architecture in physical spaces.

  • jonathan hanemann

    June 7, 2002 at 7:39 am

    As a person who worked with David Heller, I find it interesting — and shocking — that one of the leading IA minds (oops – ‘experience architect,’ ‘interaction designer?’) had such a turn of belief. I must say, however, that I’m on the same brainwave.

    Example:

    A few months after I joined a web-telephony company as a Senior Content Developer. They asked me to re-brand the phone prompts for one of their products. While re-branding these prompts, I noticed a few usability glitches. I suggested they take out this step, re-write this step, etc, etc.

    What I realized is this: no one in the company had ever bothered to take a look at the phone prompts and see if they were usbale. So, I used what organizational skills I had and re-wrote them. End-result — a more usable product.

    So what do I call myself? Content developer? User experience designer? Copywriter?

    Do I care? Hell no. As long as the paychecks keep rolling in.

    As Clement Mok said, “Information architecture is not rocket science, it’s social science.” We work in a nebulous arena. We can’t call ourselves DBA’s, programmers or business developers. What IAs and experience/interaction designers do is considered by most to be a ‘soft’ skill — far less important to the average Director of Marketing than the 100 page demographic report. It is so very, very hard to tell the average business executive that if they only improved their user experience, they might retain more customers. For example, as a writer, I have tried to promote the fact that marketing fluff on the Web just doesn’t work. On the outset, my clients totally agree. But when that site is launched, I unerringly find my concise and user-centered text muddied by marketing jargon.

    I do know this: as the world is filled with more information (or ‘crap’) there’ll be a need for people to sort it out. They are burying themselves out there. It’s so obvious! So worry about what to call yourselves later!

  • Suzanne

    December 20, 2002 at 8:02 am

    I am one of those Information Architects who actually is an Information Scientist but falls into the LIS category of Information Architects as I categorise information but don’t do UI design. I’d like to share with you the mission statement of my profession “CILIP: the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals” (created when the Library Association and Institute of Information Scientists merged); http://www.cilip.org.uk/about/mission.html, and specifically the phrase;

    “…support the principle of equality of access to information, ideas and works of the imagination…”

    As you can see, we – including all of you on this discussion – work to achieve this aim because as Jonathan so neatly put it, “the world is full of information” and without us it would be (and often is before we get there) like trying to find a needle in a field of haystacks.

  • Suzanne

    December 20, 2002 at 8:03 am

    I am one of those Information Architects who actually is an Information Scientist but falls into the LIS category of Information Architects as I categorise information but don’t do UI design. I’d like to share with you the mission statement of my profession “CILIP: the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals” (created when the Library Association and Institute of Information Scientists merged); http://www.cilip.org.uk/about/mission.html, and specifically the phrase;

    “…support the principle of equality of access to information, ideas and works of the imagination…”

    As you can see, we – including all of you on this discussion – work to achieve this aim because as Jonathan so neatly put it, “the world is full of information” and without us it would be (and often is before we get there) like trying to find a needle in a field of haystacks.

  • Richard

    February 16, 2003 at 11:19 pm

    I see myself in a position similar to a movie producer with resposibility for making it all happen from the script to the special effects.

    So, as someone involved in Website Production, I call myself a Website Producer. It can have more that one meaning.

  • Neil

    February 18, 2004 at 8:56 am

    We, you, they – are all IAs, part of IA. Building architects start at the superstar high concept designers like Normon Foster at one end, to people who draw out the heating duct plans for tin shed distributions centres. At one end you have big thinkers who want to change the world, at the other jobbing draftspeople who just want to make a living. They are ALL architects, because they all contribute. Isn’t that the issue here? If you need a high concept experience design you need one flavour. If you need a few extra pages deep in your finacial services website, then you need another. It’s a broad church. Ich bin eine IA.

  • Rob

    October 13, 2004 at 11:10 am

    interesting discussion

    one observation: although “information architect” often strikes outsiders as a bit nebulous and pretentious, nonetheless it is now much more accepted and understood, certainly in Europe, than it was even 2-3 years ago. It is recognised as a valid job title just as much as “business analyst” or “graphic designer” – and more widely understood than, for example, “interaction designer” (I think)

    Personally I´ve been amazed by how things have changed from a situation a few years ago where absolutely no one understood the term, let alone saw any need to employ information architects

    so, from a purely practical point of view (i.e. getting work and gaining other people´s understanding/acceptance), the term “information architect” seems like a good one to stick with, even if not everyone in this field wants to call themselves that

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