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
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.