JASIST Information Architecture Column Apr/May 01

Practice makes perfect? IA at the end of the beginning

Andrew Dillon, for the ASIST Bulletin, Apr/May 01

This article originally appeared in the Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, Vol. 27, No. 4, April / May 2001, 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

This issue marks the first anniversary of the original summit on Information Architecture held in Boston in April 2000, and at the recent IA2001 summit at San Francisco (http://www.asis.org/Conferences/Summit2001) it was apparent that IA has made significant strides in its first year (or at least in its first year as an ASIS&T theme). By all accounts, attendance for this year was slightly up from last year's surprisingly large attendance. Again, there was a majority of professionals and sprinkling of academics in the crowd, with this summit moving on from last year's attempts at definition towards an emphasis on describing IA practice.

Now before we assume all is sweetness and light in this new profession, I should note that my sense of the event was that while many people were 'doing' work they called IA, most of these expressed some doubts about how representative their work and their experiences were of a larger field. In the absence of a definition, it seemed that most participants were prepared to agree that we at least understood what information architecture involved even if the titles and roles of the people performing this work within any organization were contested.

Part of me admires this pragmatism but I noted a lot of angst amongst some attendees whom I felt were more concerned with being called an 'information architect' than they were with clarifying the role of such a professional. Though we all seem to be relieved that the navel-gazing stage of definition is over, there appears to be an obsession with the ownership of the term that reflects anything but maturity in the field.

These points of contest ran through the proceedings but not in an openly discussed manner. Rather they were raised in audience questions or discussed in the breaks. Does IA concern itself with Content Management? Most people there seemed to think so but some felt otherwise. Where does IA end and usability testing begin? For some there was a firm line; for many others no line at all. And is IA really just LIS in 21st century clothing or something more? A lot more, seems to be the majority view but a substantial minority of doubters remain. If you think these sound like problems of definition more than practice, you might be wondering if there has been any development in this field over the last 12 months. The view of attendees seemed to be that we have made a lot of progress but fundamental questions remain.

In defense of progress we should ask if any field could reasonably expect to have defined itself so clearly that there would be no debate on the discipline's form and subject matter after one year? Better, surely, to evolve a shared definition over time that embraces the varied interests, skills, problems and methods of the community than to attain a fixed but inflexible definition that can be memorized by rote and chanted on demand in the presence of skeptics. Furthermore, the fact that such a large audience could be drawn together again to discuss the issues and present work experiences one-year on is proof enough for me that IA is more than a fad.

I think the best conceptualization is one that emphasizes architecture not architect. Or to put it another way, one can practice information architecture, or at least part of it since the terrain is so wide, without having continually to defend the label 'architect' in one's job title. Indeed mention was made often of 'architecting' as a verb describing work practices at the collaborative or group level. This seems a fundamentally accurate portrayal of practice to me, and one that neatly encompasses the range of issues that some would set in opposition to IA such as content management and user experience testing. From this perspective, it is harder to see how IA can be accused, as it has been of late, of 'ruining the web' by denying creative inputs to design (see www.alistapart.com/stories/curse) since the resulting architecture is a product of such diverse inputs. But I don't think I was alone in wondering why so many of the case studies presented at the summit seemed very similar (and all recounted wonderful successes too, which made many of us wonder: "does anyone else have problems and failures in their designs?")

Of course, if we insist on architecture either as a process or as a title, there are some basic methods that those who profess to be architects must master. IA as a field is a little behind in that sense but the remedy is surely not in re-labeling every LIS program in the country an IA degree, or in seeking accreditation of qualifications for entry to the field. Do the methods and theories currently embodied in such existing programs represent the full body of knowledge and training that can be provided budding IAs? Clearly not, and many attendees articulated a self-perceived need for further training to extend what they had learned in such programs. These and many related degree programs do offer a point of entry to the field (if appropriately selected and exploited by the student), and new programs are coming on line all the time (e.g., an new undergraduate Information Science program at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock was publicized at the summit). But would-be IAs certainly lack the recognizable credentials that bestow identity and respect from co-workers. Similarly, the lack of tools for IA also points to a field that is really in its infancy. Mention of possible tools for IAs brought forth gasps of delight (and offers of venture capital); accounts of existing tools seemed to elicit groans and a shared sense of frustration at what IAs can exploit in current software toolkits. In the absence of both formal credentials and tools, IAs must demonstrate their worth through direct involvement - perhaps the most rigorous and definitely the most valid test a professional can take. That so many of the presenters at the summit are able to do so routinely indicates a strong future for this field.

So, if this is IA at the end of the beginning, where does it go next? Alison Head, on the panel that explored this topic, stated emphatically that the stage of theory building is over and IA must move forward into everyday practice. I am not convinced that theory building should, or even could, be so divorced from practice or be completed meaningfully in such a short space of time (is this my academic voice speaking?) but I like the sentiment of moving forward into the design world. It is in this setting that IA will reveal its true value to the world. Information architecture is here; it has survived and, according to some of us, seems to have thrived. If we are moving into practice then let us be clear that such practice can refine and hone the field if we adopt the right approach and keep reflecting on our work and progress. If IA is to be more than a sexy label there needs to be clarification on substance, which can only come through continued work and continued engagement with those whose practices also shape the information technologies around us. Practice makes perfect? Perhaps not, but it might give us some better tools, some less fear of being misunderstood, and some rich case studies for future summits. To paraphrase Churchill, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning. Onward!

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