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Meet the New Information Architects

by Paula Thornton
Published: October 1, 2001

I've now lived on both sides of the fence. It's time for the two parties to meet.

The 'old' Information Architects

In the mid-90s I called myself an Information Architect. If I called myself a data architect it would be assumed that I would build logical and/or physical data models and that I'd actually do technical things like write extract scripts or SQL and actually 'touch' databases (ugh!). I've succeeded in spending over 20 years in the field of Information Technology, and avoided becoming what most people would consider a technologist.

I am a conceptual designer. Since (sadly) many technologists believe that the conceptual and the logical are largely the same, it was difficult to find positions that didn't expect me to be a tool jockey and eventually create physical designs (and/or actually implement them, as well).

At MCI (mid '90s) I was able to fill a role focusing on and discovering how the data was going to be used: how often, in what contexts, in what combinations. I also determined what prevented individuals from optimizing their use of the data. Because I was on the 'delivery' side of the data, I decided to adopt the term Information Architect (moving toward the vision I clung to after reading Information Anxiety, by Richard Saul Wurman, in the early '90s).

Shhhh!

Oddly enough, even in the mid-90s most of my deliverables (much to the disagreement of management) were made available through an Intranet 'portal' that we developed. But when I left that role in the late 90s, I suddenly discovered that a 'different' Information Architect had emerged in the marketplace. And, oddly enough, it included new sources of intellectual soil: library science.

While my former role focused very strongly on identifying and managing meta"stuff" (metadata, metaprocess, metapeople, etc.), I knew early on that there were some aspects of library science that were applicable. During my pursuit of a certificate in Data Resource Management (University of Washington 1990-1991), one of my classmates was a database junkie and had a Library Science background. This was my first exposure to the relationship of library science and what we were doing. We had great conversations.

Uncovering the Flaw

The dot.com explosion created a lot of new opportunities. Let me clarify. While the availability of opportunities were new, the need for the activities were not. They had just largely been denied for many years.

The methods of Systems Engineering generates fairly pathetic results. That doesn't mean that individual practitioners don't put forth their best efforts. The teams are stifled by a lack of diversity (intellectual, not cultural) needed to improve results. Those of us who have labored diligently for years to "mask" the results with documentation, instructions and training to 'work around' the designs, knew the methods were flawed. But no one wanted to listen.

The Internet changed all that. Bad design was no longer an option (though there are bucketloads still being thrown up on the wires). The burden of performance was shifted to the application as scores of individuals refused to mold themselves to the design. In this world their jobs are not threatened, nor is their ability to achieve desired results necessarily dependent on one solution (ah, the wonders of competition). The tide turned.

Diversity Reigns

The 'new world' included consultants galore - armed and ready to deliver the goods. The most successful of them recognized the value of increasing the balance of design with technology to deliver solutions. New team models shifted the balance where members consisted of a near 50-50 split between design and technology roles. Solutions were turned around in record time and the standard methods of Systems Engineering were nowhere to be seen.

Some companies who attempted to blend these disciplines included: Sapient, Scient, Viant, agency.com, IXL, marchFIRST, Rare Medium, Zefer, Luminant. The fundamental makeup of these environments were unlike the typical IT culture. Even their offices looked different, each adopting 'offices of the future' concepts to facilitate constant change. With the new mix of skills and personalities, new management approaches were needed. As new challenges were faced, the principles of engagement held the day before were altered the next day. Nothing was fixed. Development occurred at Internet speed.

Many of the new roles were predominantly of the 'visual design' variety: artists, designers, copywriters, builders (html jockeys who were not part of the technical teams; they rendered the visual components), developers (largely Flash programmers, who identified more with the visual world than the technical world). But even the technologists had new activities, tasks and technical solutions to adopt.

Often falling in limbo were the Information Architects (IAs). While in many environments IAs are aligned to visual teams (typically referred to as the 'creative' staff... we concur that there is no reason to infer that technologists are devoid of creativity), in other organizations IAs have their own 'divisions'. The typical role of the 'new' Information Architect is to assess the 'universe' of content and activities to be included on a site and determine how to organize and deliver the components via an 'experience'. They determine the navigation of a site, the names of the labels (based on the messages they convey), and the general construct of each page.

Their roles often cross those of 'usability professionals', who also play prominent roles in this environment. Information Architects focus on delivering experiences designed from the individual's (rather than the company's, or the developer's) perspective. In some situations, Information Architects conduct the same tests that usability professionals rely on. Debates continue as to how to assign and divide tasks between the two roles.

The Discipline Evolves

The undisputed 'primer' for this discipline is Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, by Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville. Both of these individuals come from a library science background, so it was reasonable that the first national conference for this discipline was sponsored by the American Society for Information Science and Technology (http://www.asis.org/). At the first conference, in February 2000, we came together to define who we were. Attended by many existing Information Science practitioners, the introduction of the dot.comers presented a definite cultural and intellectual clash, but many described the 'friction' as a necessary and refreshing change (http://www.asis.org/Conferences/Summit2000/Information_Architecture/index.html). The most valuable result of the conference was the establishment of a 'community of practice' that finds its voice in dialog via email (http://www.asis.org/SIG/SIGIA/sig-ialist.html). We never did decide who or what we are at that initial conference, or at the second one (http://peterme.com/ia/further_reflections.html). Every once in a while, as a critical mass of new blood joins the fold, the debate sparks up again.

Many practitioners have their own sites, with observations and discussions:
http://www.argus-acia.com/
http://www.louisrosenfeld.com/
http://www.eleganthack.com/

Several of the 'thought leaders' (or perhaps just the most vocal) in the industry are featured in interviews at http://argus-acia.com/people/index.html

There are several advanced degrees offered that cover the subject
http://www.ischool.washington.edu/msim/
http://www.slis.indiana.edu/degrees/mis/mis-crs.html
http://www.sims.berkeley.edu/

Our most involved academic, Andrew Dillon, has been recently announced as the new dean of Library and Information Science at the University of Texas at Austin. With a non library science background (bringing perspectives in psychology and human computer interaction), and tendencies to throw verbal barbs at technology he considers 'silly', the programs are definitely likely to take on new flavors.

Finally, Peter Morville comments on the need (or not) for advanced education and how to get it: http://argus-acia.com/strange_connections/strange005.html. Admittedly, the 'desperately needed' demands of the industry that he reported on have passed, for now. Amazing the striking difference in just one year (try the search yourself).

The Blossom Loses its Bloom

The industry turned and the floods receded. Even the likes of the discipline leaders, Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville had to shut the doors of their consultancy earlier this year: http://www.argus-inc.com/. marchFIRST filed for bankruptcy (ironically waiting to make announcements in April, rather than March, when they formed their existence just one year earlier http://www.thestandard.com/article/0,1902,23681,00.html), in spite of reported sales growth of 145.7%. If economic recovery delays its reappearance much longer, doors will continue to close.

While the demand has waned, the need still exists. This discipline is applicable to every project that delivers anything with interaction (an online interface, a document, a process). We learned a lot in this big experimental sandbox. What we learned in these fast-tracked 2+ years can be used to vastly improve the 'staid old' approaches of Information Technology. Maintaining the status quo of systems engineering methods will accelerate the stagnation. And if you won't take my word for it, read Alan Cooper's The Inmates are Running the Asylum. Even by my standards, Alan is way harsh on developers.

Achieving Convergence

The distinctions between the 'old' and 'new' Information Architects became a point of focus in recent community discussions. It appears that the 'new kids on the block' are confused by job search results they're getting using the term "information architect". The 'old' definitions are showing up and they don't know what to make of them. They never realized there was a history and a whole 'nuther world of practitioners with similar yet different concerns.

I promised them that, having experienced both worlds, I would attempt to bring this issue to bear: To make more people aware of the likenesses and differences. I also promised that we'd make an attempt to interact more often in each other's universes.

This article is such an attempt.

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Recent articles by Paula Thornton

Paula Thornton - Most recently serving as the Information Architect for warehouseMCI - http://www.dbpd.com/9712Grim.htm, Paula Thornton works to act as an "industry facilitator," directed by an irreverent but respectful attitude toward progress in the industry.