JASIST Information Architecture Column Feb/ March 2003

Measuring Progress in a Complicated World

Andrew Dillon, for the ASIST Bulletin, Feb/ March 2003

This article originally appeared in the Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, Vol. 29, No. 3, February/March 2003, 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 asked the IA panel at the recent ASIST 2002 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia if research in information architecture was really nothing more than old wine in new bottles. In fact, I was even more pointed: I asked what they were saying that would not have been said at the conference 20 years earlier. I was provoked by listening to the panelists’ presentations on user studies in information architecture. For more than an hour, we were being told how important it was to do user studies if we wished to design systems that worked for humans. Of course we must do this, I thought, but such a perspective is not new and it struck me as odd that some of the leading lights in IA would feel the need to advocate this at an ASIST meeting as if it were a novel idea. I mean, regardless of what lessons we have learned about this in software design, Henry Dreyfuss was advocating the study of users in product design as far back as the 1930s.

In response, Lou Rosenfeld urged us to recognize that the world of information architecture is more complex now than it was in 1982. He argued that while much of what the panel was saying in 2002 could have been said then, the world has become more complicated and the design process more difficult. If nothing else, IA cannot expect answers only from an ASIST community. The point was well taken – IA is an interdisciplinary field – but I remain concerned by how little information architects seem to be saying that is truly new. From the reaction of some members of the audience, I was not alone in my concerns.

In musing about this with other folks during the conference, I wondered if the measure of progress in a field such as ours may not really be the accumulation of a body of evidence or the development of sophisticated models for predicting outcomes (which might be a blessing since we have few enough of those). Perhaps the path to progress lies elsewhere. But if our theories and methods have not developed as much as we might like to think they have, what might be an alternative index of that progress?

A quick search of Google for information architecture throws up some clues. I got more than 4 million hits on that search this week, with 797 of the most relevant displayed for perusal – surely that tells us something about the interest in the area, though what exactly I will leave to you to determine. Wondering how far this listing would go before I found irrelevant pointers, I noted that even entry number 797 really was relevant – it pointed to Christina Wodtke’s new book, IA Blueprints for the Web, listed on an online bookstore other than Amazon. Exhausting Google’s search at number 1000, relevant material was still turning up, at least by name, though some pointed to that old reliable, the rebadged LIS course with the old curriculum still intact, and a few genuine oddities, like: “Floor plan spacing information – architecture forum,” a message about kitchen and bedroom layout. Well, I do pride myself on my Big IA view!

But measuring progress in IA has to involve more than quantifying our occupation of Web space in admittedly complicated times, so what other indices might we employ? Philadelphia also was the location for a small, very informal get-together of members of the Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture (www.aifia.org), a non-profit, volunteer organization dedicated to promoting and advancing the field. Not a professional society as much as an advocacy group, AIfIA certainly indicates one landmark in the emergence of the field. I also heard from one university of a plan for an IA undergraduate degree, a sure sign of development.

So, hundreds of relevant hits on the subject, a new advocacy group, a full program for a fourth IA summit, a still-busy listserv, a proposed undergraduate degree and the general sense that IA is so standard at ASIST that audience members like me can complain about lack of theoretical development. Perhaps this is all the proof we need that IA is making progress. There have been several new books on IA published in the last year and more are planned. Perhaps it is too soon to ask for more, but I would hate to be at ASIST in 2020 and have to hear again that user studies and interdisciplinary perspectives are important parts of developing information systems. Only time will tell if this is a real concern, but who would have thought in 1982 that we would still be debating these points now?

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