JASIST Information Architecture Column Aug/Sep 01

The state of the profession

Andrew Dillon, for the ASIST Bulletin, Aug/Sep 01

This article originally appeared in the Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, Vol. 27, No. 5, June / July 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

There has been much discussion on the SIGIA list recently about the economy, specifically how the recent downturn has affected employment opportunities for IAs. Tales abound of lay-offs, lack of new opportunities, and the general paucity of vacancies with IA in the position title or job description. This change in fortune has been apparent to me in several ways, not least in the sudden disappearance of volunteers who agreed to review papers for the JASIST special issue on IA. In recent weeks, my emails to four of these reviewers were returned with the not-too-subtle message that the person did not have an email account at the company in question. One such message might be expected, three in a week is the sign of a change in underlying conditions (and when three are from the same company, then you know something depressing has occurred).

My own students have noticed this downturn too. Giddy with the prospects of large salaries and stock options being thrown at any new graduate with a passing knowledge of HTML, PhotoShop and Jakob Nielsen's Heuristics, the employment market of 2000 showed no signs of softening. But as the new reality set in this year, it has become clearer to people that just calling yourself an IA or UE analyst is no longer a passport to employment. While I do not wish to appear unsympathetic to those genuinely affected by the downturn, I am hopeful that employers can now recognize the difference between those who are a few pages ahead in the latest application guide and those that truly possess the skills and understanding of information design.

Of course, the change in employment climate has led to considerable concern on the SIGIA list with just what it means to be an IA and how to convince employers to hire you. If you think these concerns have been discussed before, you'd be right. For an interesting set of comments and attempts to define IA (even now), try Christina Wodtke's collection at http://www.eleganthack.com/blog/archives/00000069.html; never has definition been such fun. The general consensus on the list seems to be that if you wait around for a job announcement seeking an IA, you will be far less likely to gain employment than if you position yourself to fill the class of vacancies covered by such titles as 'usability specialist', 'content manager', 'interface designer' or 'user experience analyst'. Such an approach seems sensible to me, and pretty much in keeping with the view of IA that I espouse - IA being a process with many activities rather than a role filled only by one person. But if you are obsessed with titles more than activities, and you really believe that being an IA is a role apart, then the prospects are likely to remain gloomy.

Will IA survive? I have no doubt that it will thrive. The needs that IA seeks to serve have barely changed and are likely to grow in the near future, although whether or not we name the field that services these needs 'information architecture' or something else is debatable. But we need to see development. The education of IAs remains as spotty and uncertain now as it was last year, though the word 'architecture' is becoming increasingly popular in the curricula of traditional LIS schools. That is both good and bad news. It shows that universities are waking up to the subject matter, but sadly, this awakening too often results in repackaging of old courses with new titles.Where are the IA programs that break the traditional disciplinary moulds? Where is the research base? I see these concerns as the biggest tests of the field's status and future, without which it will be rightly accused of selling old wine in new bottles.

There are other signs for optimism. The Augus gurus, Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville are working on a 2nd edition of their field-defining text for O'Reilly, who are planning to bring several more IA titles to market. Clearly these guys are not standing still in the current market and that is welcome news to many in the IA community.

Beyond that, the JASIST special issue on IA attracted over 20 submissions from around the world, more than we expected, and more than is usual for a JASIST special issue. Furthermore, plans for holding an IA Summit in 2002 are underway, and I shall take this opportunity to let you know that I shall serve as Chair of the Program Committee. If you have ideas for contributions and themes, feel free to contact me. If the only reason for IA to exist is to service the employment sector, then the future, if not exactly bleak, is hardly intellectually exciting. Without the excitement that comes from intellectual curiosity and serious research there is no field, only a trade, and therein lies a difference that will define the future of IA in the coming years.

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