By Adam Polansky
Richard Saul Wurman
Although not limited to the Internet, a title that is becoming more common and is largely associated with web development is “Information Architect”. In truth, the newest thing about the discipline is the title that, in spite of its general acceptance, is still hotly debated. It has recently been used to describe a new discipline that concerns itself with the development and management of navigation systems and information design as it relates to the user-interface. They facilitate the construction of the website’s functionality through the translation of business analysis and user research, site maps and prototypes.
Some questions persist:
In the broadest sense, the task of taking a web project from a chaotic mass of random ideas to an organized functional application has always been someone’s job whether it was the project manager, the creative lead, the technical lead or someone else specifically tasked with mapping a web site.
A short while back, when the nature of a corporate web site consisted of brochure-ware aimed at extending a branding message, the demands on development were small in relation to the more sophisticated applications in production today. A development team of two to four people could undertake the entire project with all of the planning being done by whoever was at hand. The decision to build a web site was often a “me too” project with companies scrambling to have something/anything on the web thinking that the value lay simply in being there. “Visit our web site at www.noclue.com!” This lack of understanding on the part of many businesses resulted in the launch of under- funded, under-researched, under-planned, under-resourced and under-tested initiatives.
What has changed?
Time and lumps.
Many firms have two or more web projects behind them or in existence. They’ve taken some lumps along the way. The result of their pain is the legitimization of the Internet as an arena that requires the same level of strategic consideration and planning as any marketing, business or traditional software development plan. The most successful Internet development firms have abandoned the model of a custom design boutique and approached the market in the same manner as the large consultancies by offering the services of highly trained and experienced professionals from within the Internet space as well as from major verticals such as healthcare, retail or finance. These specialists provide recommendations and offer solutions geared toward much more than just establishing a presence.
Size needs ceremony .
The Internet has increased in its technical capabilities and sophistication. Companies now look toward developing specific applications that reach more deeply into their business processes. A web initiative can consist of multiple projects that provide everything from supply chain management to consumer and industrial e-commerce offerings. Within the framework of a project life cycle, the increase in the size of engagements warranted an increase in the need for ceremony. In larger projects, where more money and potential revenues are involved, clients insist on a higher degree of custodianship over projects. They will often hire or appoint someone internally whose sole responsibility is to manage and oversee the life of the project(s) as opposed to delegating it to someone as a secondary responsibility. Clients are now less likely to accept that the web development team will “just take care of” the project transition from conception to reality. That means more checkpoints and status calls.
The user really does rule.
In spite of the fact that there are sciences that concentrate on Human-Computer Interface, Cognitive Psychology, Librarianship, Information Retrieval and Software Usability, The user is often the first victim of oversight during aggressive development projects. As the Internet has matured and its use has been subject to some increasingly reliable and documented measurement, more emphasis has been placed on the needs of the user.
Enter the IA.
The Information Architect or “IA” is a user advocate, the one accountable to the client for functional design and the tactician for “what works on the web” for the user. More than any other member of a development team, the IA sits at the center of a project between the client and the development staff. They occupy the space within the project that used “just get taken care of” by fostering a development process as it goes through the transition from concept to reality.
What Qualifies an IA?
At the first Information Architecture summit in Boston, over 300 specialists in Information Architecture, Library Science, and Information Retrieval gathered with the stated goal of “Defining Information Architecture”. Over the course of two days, more than 20 speakers and countless respondents stepped up to the podium or floor microphone with their own definitions of IA, case studies, philosophy, research, arguments or proposals. Among these speakers and participants were some of the foremost minds and voices in the industry. Surely the definition would surface out of this most representative group. In the end “Information Architect” seemed to remain the title of choice for the majority of the attendees (not without exception). However, no clear definition emerged. The argument still rages with each opinion ranging from impassioned (proposing complex and belabored analogies) to indifferent (why does the title matter anyway?).
Certain commonalities did surface in spite of the lack of agreement on semantics.
It is this last dynamic which might explain the continued disparity in establishing absolute parameters for the role of IA. Everyone that filled the gap between concept and delivery, filled it according to the needs of his/her own environment. That Environment was defined by the skills of the people around them. If they worked with particularly skilled graphic designers with a background in interface development, That particular IA might not have been tasked to that extent. If they worked with trained business analysts, they might not gather requirements. The point is that IA is as IA does from firm to firm. Having said that, there is still enough overlap to still draw a line, albeit a fuzzy one, around a set of activities for which, to a greater or lesser degree, most IAs will take responsibility.
The most interesting commonality was that in describing their processes, and given similar circumstances from a project standpoint, the individual tasks and deliverables were usually similar regardless of the project scope or the nomenclature associated with them. These shared traits suggest that the best training for an IA is experience and that if left to their own devices, common sense will drive the process and has in most cases. For many in attendance, this was the first external validation that they were ”on the right track” so to speak. Roy Tennant, the Librarian at the University of California Berkeley made the following observations[ii]
· At least a passing knowledge of most of the various professions discussed here. [During the course of the conference this included, nearly every skill associated with analysis, creative design and technical development.]
· Analytical and critical thinking skills
· Project management skills
· Communication skills
· A high-level knowledge of existing and near-term technologies
· Skill at enabling and fostering change
IA Personality Traits
· An ability to learn constantly and quickly
· A propensity to take risks
· An abiding public service (user experience) perspective [Peter Merholz: empathy is not a trainable skill[iii]]
· An appreciation of what others offer and the ability to work cooperatively
The circumstances that gave rise to the identification of the Information Architect are born out of the maturation process that the world is experiencing as the Internet and it’s technologies and capabilities increase. As the Internet further develops into a viable arena for humans to congregate and interact, greater care is being taken to provide information that users can locate and manipulate with limited preamble. To do this someone has to understand and be the advocate of that user by carefully fostering the transition of a project from concept to concrete. IAs manage that process. They are accountable to the client for it’s evolution. They foster the exchange from the client to the development team while remaining mindful of the users needs and the client’s objectives.
[i] Richard Saul Wurman, Information Architects, ed. Peter Bradford (Zurich: Graphis Press Corp, 1996)
[ii] Roy Tennant, ASIS Summit 2000 “Defining Information Architecture” presentation. “A Librarian’s Perspective on Information Architecture. April 9, 2000
[iii] Peter Merholz; Creative Director, epinions.com ASIS Summit 2000 “Defining Information Architecture” presentation. April 9, 2000