Karen Loasby 2001 to 2006: Five Years of Information Architecture
Jinfo Blog

Friday, 1st December 2006

By Karen Loasby


Karen LoasbyIn 2001, FreePint featured an article on the still-new concept of information architecture (IA) in "Information Architecture and web Usability Resources" <http://www.freepint.com/issues/190701.htm#tips>. Five years on, IA may still be an unfamiliar term for many, but it is a booming field bustling with conferences, books and rather desperate recruitment consultants struggling to fill a myriad of vacancies.

Some things haven't changed since Hal P. Kirkwood wrote his article. He described information architecture as a 'more thoughtful approach to web design' and portrayed information architects as pitched against designers and developers who wanted to 'ensure that their sites were cool or hot'.

The topics of the day were understanding your audience, site organisation, navigation and labelling. There were plenty of badly organised websites, so there was plenty of work to be done. There still is. Most companies have a more grown-up attitude to their websites, but that doesn't mean the crimes of executive-centred design and organising your site like your organisation have gone away.

However, five years is a long time on the web. Some topics we consider staples in today's IA are startlingly absent from that early article: facets, content management, folksonomies and Web 2.0.

Faceted classification is hardly a new idea -- people have been categorising data with multiple classifications, rather than hierarchies such as the Dewey Decimal system, for years. But it wasn't a concept represented in the average early website. In 2001, most IA literature considered 'search' and 'browse' to be entirely separate concepts and that to 'browse' was inevitably through a hierarchical structure. Many in the web world were uncomfortable with hierarchies. They feared that they represented an authoritarian interpretation of the world and, more practically, they didn't necessarily help people find what they were looking for. Faceted approaches alleviated some of those fears, and in 2005 there were eight sessions at the American Society for Information Science and Technology's Information Architecture Summit <http://www.iasummit.org/> that discussed the use of facets in search and browse.

The 2005 IA Summit also showed the progress of web content management. In 2001 CMS Watch <http://www.cmswatch.com/> was only new, but by 2005 hand-coding a large-scale website was no longer deemed a sane thing to do (this is not the same as saying that no one was doing it). For IAs this meant new topics: content modelling, content reuse and a renewed interest in metadata.

Some in the industry were concerned by the prevalence of words like 'audit', 'control' and 'management' creeping into their working life. They were relieved by the arrival of Web 2.0 in 2004. It remains a popular buzzword. Its precise definition is disputed but it can be considered to describe a different interaction model, a particular technological approach and a distinct philosophy (one of an open, democratic, collaborative web). It can also be considered one big game of buzzword bingo, encompassing Ajax, RIAs, web apps, a web of data, APIs, the long tail, RSS, CSS, perpetual beta, social software, mash- ups, podcasts, hackability, network effects, blogging, wisdom of the crowds, citizen journalists and emergent everything.

Now there is a uniting visual style of Web 2.0 architecture, and wannabes can be identified by their use of star-shaped badges, soft shadows, large type, reflections and gradients. The style has become somewhat ubiquitous and has attracted the associated mockery. Look beyond the superficial details, though, and Web 2.0 has created huge opportunities for information architects through the enthusiasm for ideas such as the web of data and an increased focus on semantically valid mark-up. It has also raised concerns that the focus on the user creating and organising the content dismisses the importance of the IA role.

One feature of Web 2.0 that has been of particular interest to IAs is a folksonomy. A folksonomy is a neologism for collaboratively created, free-text tags and was coined by Thomas Vander Val in 2005 . Many IAs first encountered folksonomies on the photo sharing website Flickr <http://www.flickr.com/> or the bookmarking application del.icio.us <http://del.icio.us/>.

Many implementations of folksonomies include a 'tagcloud'; a list where the popularity of tags is indicated by font size. The Flickr tagcloud shows that photos of weddings, friends and flowers are popular. This is not meant to be an earth-shattering revelation, but it tells something of the personality of the site. Folksonomies are simple, cheap and helpful but most of all they represent the real language of taggers with all its richness and quirks.

Many IAs have asked the question, 'Do they make folksonomies controlled vocabularies?' Or, 'When should each be used?' The philosophy behind folksonomies is essentially relativist with all tagging having equivalent weight and 'truth'. Harlem.org have touched on the issue that folksonomies ignore the need for objective metadata. They are concerned about the metadata attached to Jazz Music <http://www.harlem.org/itunes/index.html> since everyone's ideas about who wrote a song are not necessarily equal. Controlled vocabularies are important where your audience expects you to 'know' what the content is about (titles and authors) and folksonomies are invaluable for subjective facets where the site authors cannot know how to describe the content e.g. mood or quality.

The interest in folksonomies was partly a symptom of a continuing interest in navigation and how people find information. This focus is often what defines the information architect as distinct from the similar concept of interaction designer. Peter Morville, president of Semantic Studios and a leader in information architecture, coined the term 'findability' to encompass this particular IA passion: the quality of being locatable or navigable. Morville says on <http://www.findability.org/> the scale and distribution of the web presents 'unique and important findability challenges' but 'the concept of findability is universal and timeless'.

He also promoted 'pace layering', or the theory that different parts and layers of a product (or building or organisation or culture) change at different rates but also influence each other. This seems particularly pertinent for those trying to solve the folksonomy- taxonomy problem. Less seriously he sparked a fad for new words ending in '-ability'.

Tackling findability has forced IAs out of the web space as user research shows the web is just part of people's information-finding strategies. At the IA Summit in 2006 Peter Merholz, information architect and president of Adaptive Path, appealed to the audience to think bigger than the web and consider 'cross channel' IA. The poster child of cross channel IA is MAYA Design's work on the Carnegie Library.

Now that there is a larger and more identifiable IA community, it's easier to keep tabs on developments over the next five years. The formal community is spearheaded by the Information Architecture Institute <http://www.iainstitute.org/>. Founded in 2002, the IA Institute is a non-profit organisation 'dedicated to advancing and promoting information architecture', with over 1000 members in 60 countries. They run a mentoring program, conduct research, run a jobs board, and are building a repository of tools and templates, amongst other activities.

The American Society for Information Science and Technology continues to organise the IA Summit, which first launched in 2000. In 2006, the summit had over 550 attendees, which is a lot of information-architecture geeks in one hotel. Outside North America, conferences and retreats have been held in Europe, Australia and Chile.

The IA Institute also organised Idea 2006 <http://www.ideaconference.org/> ('A conference on designing complex information spaces of all kinds'), which brought together museum design, information visualisation, librarians, environmental design, user research, engineering, interaction design and product strategy in the Seattle Public Library.

IAs also have more informal (and cheaper!) gatherings. IA groups and cocktail hours are casual, open and a good way for newcomers to the field to immerse themselves. They tend to involve meeting up for a drink and to chat about work. Some have agendas and speakers. Some don't. At <http://ia.meetup.com/> and <http://groups.yahoo.com/> you can search for groups in your area. There are big groups in New York, Brussels, Copenhagen, London and Amsterdam.

The community is also unsurprisingly visible on the web. The SIGIA-L mailing list <http://www.info-arch.org/lists/sigia-l/> has been joined by a community Wiki <http://www.iawiki.net/>, an online magazine <http://www.boxesandarrows.com/> and a multitude of personal blogs. The blogs often feature some of the best discussions and are a good place to spot new concepts and directions. IAwiki provides an intimidating list of the blogs at <http://www.iawiki.net/BlogsOfNote/>. The blogs usually have RSS feeds, so subscribe to them through an RSS reader, and you'll only have to check in one place.

More old-fashioned forms of communication still turn out useful and topical information on IA. Morville and Lou Rosenfeld are onto their third edition of "Information Architecture for the World Wide Web" (or The Polar Bear Book, named after the sketch of a polar bear on the cover, as it is more commonly known). Many members of the field have now published books including Christina Wodtke, Jesse James Garrett, Peter Van Dijck, Adam Greenfield, Ann Rockley and Dan Brown.

Peter Morville has also published "Ambient Findability". Its tagline 'What We Find Changes Who We Become' is somewhat more poetic than 'Designing Large-Scale Web Sites' the tagline for The Polar Bear Book, perhaps another symptom of the early IAs desire to start 'thinking big'. Lou Rosenfeld is not only still writing but is publishing too. Rosenfeld Media <http://rosenfeldmedia.com/> is dedicated to publishing user-experience design books and has titles lined up on search analytics, card-sorting and alignment diagrams.

Thanks to academia, information architecture is set to keep developing. It's now taught within the context of a number of degree courses, including information science, human-computer interaction, product design and business studies. Full degrees dedicated to information architecture remain rare. Kent State University's MSc was around in 2001. There is also Illinois Institute of Technology's MSc in Information Architecture and in the UK, Manchester Metropolitan University led the way with a three-year undergraduate course.

However prevalent IA workers are these days, the community remains dogged by attempts to define information architecture and to distinguish it from other disciplines. IAI attempts a definition <http://www.iainstitute.org/pg/about_us.php>:

1. The structural design of shared information environments.

2. The art and science of organising and labelling websites, intranets, online communities and software to support usability and findability.

3. An emerging community of practice focused on bringing principles of design and architecture to the digital landscape.

They follow these definitions with a caveat; 'our craft is new and still taking shape. We're clear on the centre but fuzzy at the boundaries.' This uncertainty isn't helped by the multitude of job titles touching on the same space: interaction designer, user experience designer, experience architect, etc.

But I know an IA spirit when I see one. They have a passion for the complex combined with a desire to help out. They are the sort who, on discovering the library books pulled from their shelves, would relish sorting the mess out rather than bemoaning the terrible transgression.

In 2011 those people will still be sorting those problems out -- whatever their job title has become. I'll be there to look back.

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