JASIST Information Architecture Column October /November 2002

It's everywhere and nowhere baby!

Andrew Dillon, for the ASIST Bulletin, October /November 2002

This article originally appeared in the Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, Vol. 29, No. 1, October/November 2002, a publication of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 1320 Fenwick Lane, Suite 510, Silver Spring, MD 20910 USA. Phone 1 (301)495- 0900 http://www.asis.org

I’ve spent part of the summer wondering about what is next for IA. On the back of planning next year’s ASIST Summit on IA (to be held in Portland OR on March 21-23, see http://www.asis.org for pointers) and the successful publication of the JASIST special issue, 2002 seems to have been a good year for IA. O’Reilly has now published Peter Morville and Lou Rosenfeld’s 2nd edition of the “polar bear”, the IA community’s nickname for the book that can claim to have started it all (at least this time around). If I am not mistaken we are even beginning to see more new positions for IA’s announced on SIGIA-L. Certainly the signs are positive.

However, away from the community and intellectual aspects of IA, the realities of information space for real users is not so rosy. I use an exercise in my classes that encourages students to critically examine their interactions with the world of information technology. Rather than just blindly blame their errors on either themselves (a strangely widespread human affliction in this context) or on the ignorant designers who produced the application, I teach people to think through the issues as a stream of psychological and physical processes that mediate between initiation and completion of an interaction. A consequence of this exercise, I have noted, is that once you start doing this, it can prove difficult to stop analyzing the range of interactions you experience daily.

This is certainly true for me and I find myself continually trying to understand just how some spaces (physical and informational) are considered acceptable by users. Wondering through Chicago’s O’Hare Airport recently looking for an ATM I was bemused and subsequently annoyed by the lack of meaningful signage in the gate area. Here is one of the busiest airports in the world and the lack of meaningful information in that space betrays a cavalier attitude to user experience (and I never did locate an ATM).

Wrestling with OSX to connect wirelessly for the first time on my laptop in a public space had me cursing Apple’s (usually excellent) designers for violating the expectations of the faithful who had used (and eulogized) the Mac for generations. The list is endless. Ever try keeping notes in real time with a stylus and a handheld device? I did, which is why I switched to paper.

Examining the multitude of devices that fill my life (but do not fulfill my needs) I see a mess of wires and connectability nightmares that leave me wandering what happened to the third revolution –ubiquitous computing which promised us that “computing devices connected in a wireless web will permeate our entire physical environment, toiling behind the scenes to monitor and manage our houses, factories, roads, vehicles - even our bodies” (see http://ubicomp.editthispage.com/).

As usual, the toiling is all the user’s. I see people with laptops, cellular phones and PDAs lumbering about like beasts of burden, talking aloud in public like village idots. Is this what we are promised more of in the future? I am all for staying connected (within reason) but could some design team put all this on my wrist please? And as long as we need to carry 15 inch screens around with us in order to view information does it really matter how much speed or memory you can stick on the head of a pin to dance with the angels?

21st century computing leaves a lot to be desired and when I think of the promise of information architecture it lies mostly in the vision of merged physical and informational environments where I need carry little with me other than the means of identifying myself. This is not immersion or Virtual Reality but true ubiquity, where, as the advocates say, the computers ‘get out of the way’.

Such thoughts are a long way from website metadata concerns or search engine design but if we are concerned with creating experiences then information architects need to stop being so tool-centric and start examining how we can enable users to move through space. Now that would be a global information infrastructure that took proper account of physicality. Anyone want a used PDA?

Comments and reactions to this column can be emailed to adillon@ischool.utexas.edu