Building the Beast: Talking with Peter Morville

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Back in 1998 Peter Morville and co-author Louis Rosenfeld wrote what many considered to be the book on the subject “Information Architecture for the World Wide Web,” which helped make information architect into a new job title. Morville and Rosenfeld also helped spearhead the field during the seven years they headed Argus Associates, one of the leading IA consultancies. As the “Polar Bear” book, as it’s affectionately known, goes into its second edition, Boxes and Arrows asked Morville about the making of the new release and his thoughts about how the field has changed since the book was first published.

B&A: So why a second edition?

Morville: Last April, after the agonizing process of closing Argus, I managed to escape into the wilderness of Yosemite National Park for a few days. I liked the romantic notion of figuring out what to do with the rest of my life while hiking alone in the Sierra Nevada mountains. So, armed with a bottle of water and some beef jerky, I headed for the snowy peaks in search of transcendental moments and healing visions.

When we wrote the first edition, we had relatively little experience. Most of our massive IA projects at Argus came afterwards.

Now, I’d like to tell you that when I arrived at the summit, a disembodied voice thundered “Thou Shalt Write the Second Edition” or that while walking through the valley, I glimpsed a polar bear flitting gracefully through the forest, but those things didn’t actually happen.

However, I did come down from the mountain with a strong desire to write the second edition and a whole bunch of brilliant entrepreneurial ideas. I wrote them all down on a couple of airplane barf bags on the trip home. I’ve still got them. Really.

B&A: So why a second edition, really?

Morville: When we wrote the first edition, we had relatively little experience. Most of our massive IA projects at Argus came afterwards. Between 1997 and 2001, we learned so much by working with our clients and our world-class consulting team. Lou and I wanted to capture it all before we forgot it.

B&A: What are some of the things you learned from these projects that you didn’t know when you wrote the first edition?

Morville: Our biggest area of learning was bottom-up information architecture. The first edition was grounded in the type of top-down processes that come with building a new site from scratch. In the second edition, we were able to draw upon an understanding of how to redesign sites that already contain huge amounts of content and applications. Our bottom-up approaches begin with lots of user testing and content analysis and lead into the design of metadata schema, controlled vocabularies, thesauri, taxonomies and so forth. This requires close integration of software and information architectures, drawing upon content management systems, metadata repositories, and search engines to provide powerful, flexible searching and browsing solutions.

B&A: What’s different about this edition vs. the first edition?

Morville: It’s much fatter. The polar bear put on some weight, growing from 202 to 461 pages. We pretty much did a complete rewrite and added lots of new chapters too. Major additions include chapters on thesaurus design, business strategy and selling IA, as well as a couple of in-depth case studies.

B&A: Were these broader additions prompted by of your experiences at Argus?

Morville: Absolutely. We didn’t set out to write a longer book, but we couldn’t help it.

B&A: What’s the best idea that didn’t make it into the book?

Morville: We both got interested in social computing and social network analysis in the past year, but we didn’t have a chance to integrate our ideas on these topics. We’ll have to save that for the 3rd edition.

B&A: What did you and Lou disagree over the most while writing it?

Morville: That’s easy. We haggled over process. Lou liked to constantly re-architect the book. I can’t tell you how many times he “tweaked” the table of contents. I preferred to just write the damn thing and organize it later. Fortunately, this collaborative tension resulted in a better product, and we’re still talking to each other.

B&A: I’m sure plenty of people have wanted to know why O’Reilly ended up chosing a polar bear for the cover?

Morville: Edie Freeman, O’Reilly’s cover designer, is the only person in the world who knows the answer to that question. But I can make up an answer. Polar bears are excellent architects. Their dens can house a mother and her cubs for many months, allowing air to circulate while trapping in warmth to protect them from the hostile Arctic climate. Where do you think Eskimos got the idea for igloos anyway?

B&A: How has the field changed in the four years since the first edition?

Morville: The field has matured a tremendous amount in the intervening four years.
From 1998 to 2000, lots of companies hired their first information architects. This explosive growth created the right conditions for the first ASIS&T Information Architecture summit, which was truly a memorable event. It was so exciting to see the emergence of an information architecture community. Then, from 2000 to 2002, many companies fired their first information architects. There’s no question our field has been hit hard by the economic downturn. While it’s been a very painful process for many of us, this period has forced information architects to be creative and to find new ways to market our skills and add value to our organizations. I’ve personally been really pleased by how well we’ve stuck together as a community through this period.

B&A: You helped inflict the “big” vs. “little” IA debate that seems to be debated at length on the mailing lists. How do you define IA?

Morville: It’s funny how seriously people take that big architect, little architect debate. I received an email message a few months ago from a woman in England who accused me of demeaning bottom-up specialists by using the word “little” to describe them. I explained to her that the inspiration for that article’s title was a book I read as a child called “Big Dog, Little Dog.” I then told her the English really need to develop a sense of humor.

Seriously, the demand for both user experience generalists and information architecture specialists will only grow. It’s silly to debate which is more important. We need them all! And by the way, I was born in Manchester, England.

B&A: Yeah, but how do you define IA? Are IAs just focused on findability?

Morville: Believe it or not, we do actually define information architecture in the
second edition. Here are our formal definitions:

  1. The combination of organization, labeling, and navigation schemes within an information system.
  2. The structural design of an information space to facilitate task completion and intuitive access to content.
  3. The art and science of structuring and classifying web sites and intranets to help people find and manage information.
  4. An emerging discipline and community of practice focused on bringing principles of design and architecture to the digital landscape.

And no, not all information architects are fanatical about findability. Some may be driven by marketing and merchandising goals, utilizing see also links to enable cross-sell and up-sell opportunities, and making sure users always end up in the online shopping cart. Others may focus on creating a pleasurable or entertaining or educational experience.

B&A: How do IAs fit into the spectrum of user experience professionals and how do they play nicely with others where there are overlaps?

Morville: It’s impossible to provide a generic answer, as I’ve seen so many different team configurations. Some information architects are members of a content management or knowledge management group. Others belong to marketing or corporate communications or the corporate library. Where they sit in the organization influences who surrounds them, which in turn influences which of their skills are most important.

If an IA is in a large, user experience team that includes professional interaction designers, business analysts and usability engineers, they’ll do well to focus on core information architecture elements like taxonomies and controlled vocabularies. But if one or more of those areas of expertise aren’t represented, which is often the case, information architects are often good at helping to fill the void, or at least to build bridges between related disciplines.

B&A: Do you think that IA will become less of a profession and more of a skill set?

Morville: IA will become more of a skill set but not less of a profession. It’s
absolutely true that most information architecture design is done by people who don’t consider themselves to be information architects. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need a core community of professional information architects who can tackle the toughest challenges and share their experiences with others. The truth is, most medical and legal decisions are made without doctors or lawyers, but I don’t hear many people seriously questioning whether we need those professions. There are far more practicing information architects today than there were in 1990, and there will be even more in 2010.

B&A: So where does IA fit into the large picture of user experience?

Morville: I strongly encourage a faceted approach to answering this question. Information architecture is a subset of user experience. It’s also a subset of usability, content management, knowledge management, technical communication and so on. And many of those fields are subsets of information architecture. I don’t believe in trying to come up with a single taxonomy for the user experience or web design professions.

B&A: Library and information science programs have moved aggressively to offer IA degrees. What are the pros and cons of this?

Morville: I’m not sure that’s true. Which ones? I feel that library and information science programs have moved far too slowly to embrace information architecture.

B&A: How so? What should they be doing that they’re not?

Morville: A few of the top-ranked library and information science programs offer a course or two on “information architecture.” To my knowledge, none of them offer a formal information architecture degree. And very few researchers in these schools are focused on exploring the kinds of problems we face as practicing information architects. I feel we are missing out on opportunities to build bridges between research and practice and between academia and business. I hope we see progress in this area over the coming years.

B&A: What other departments should have a hand in offering IA degrees?

Morville: Some HCI programs may want to embrace the IA degree, but for the most part I think it’s more realistic right now to focus on getting lots of different programs to offer one or more IA courses. I found more than 60 college courses that used our first edition as a textbook. I hope more than 600 use the second edition. We can always dream.

B&A: How is being an independent consultant different than working at Argus?

Morville: There are three main things I miss about Argus. First, I miss the wonderful team of smart, dedicated, kind people we had the good fortune to assemble. Second, I miss the excitement and sense of mission involved in managing a 40-person company. Third, I miss the fancy robotic coffee machine that delivered cafe mocha on demand.

On the other hand, I have really enjoyed the opportunity to slow down this past year. I’ve worked with some great clients, been to a number of great conferences, and have still had lots of time to play with my kids. We like to visit the Toledo Zoo. It’s got a great polar bear exhibit.

B&A: How do you sell IA to a potential client.

Morville: I’m not very aggressive in the sales department. I write books and articles and give conference presentations, where I explain the concepts and value of information architecture. Then I wait for clients to call me. They’re usually already convinced by the time I talk with them. I’ve always preferred pull to push.

B&A: When’s the next edition coming out?

Morville: When the polar bear sees his shadow.

George Olsen is principal of Interaction by Design. He has done award-winning work for a variety of companies, from dotcom start-ups, to Hollywood studios to Fortune 500 companies. He’s taught at UCLA Extension, and written about and spoken at numerous conferences about user experience design issues.

One comment

  1. In the beginning of 2001, while working in a now defunct consultancy, I found myself thrust into a position to provide a taxonomy solution for a client on a short deadline. Being the gung-ho IA I was at the time, I convinced the client that they needed to develop a multifaceted thesauri for their site to improve search and navigation (related articles) across business units.

    It was a great sell, the client bought in 100% and my dangling-by-a-thread company was estatic. There was only one problem: I had never developed a CV, let alone a multifaceted thesauri to be used with a relational database. Oops.

    Thanks to Samantha Bailey, Peter Morville and their one-day “bottom up” workshop in midtown Manhattan, I was able to get the project headed in the right direction and develop the beginning of a detailed thesauri.

    Last week I told Lou that I was going to steal the new book. Could I possibly lease it for half price? 😉


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