JASIST Information Architecture Column April/May 2002

Three down, yet more to come

Andrew Dillon, for the ASIST Bulletin, April/May 2002

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

The third ASIST Summit on IA was held in Baltimore this March and the attendance more than confirmed the sustainability of the field. Over 250 delegates turned up for the weekend events and a lively exchange of ideas and opinions persisted after the formal sessions and into the evening hours (copies of many of the presentations can be found at: http://www.asis.org/Conferences/Summit2002/iapapers.html)

The theme of this year's summit was "Refining our Craft" and the tone was set early on to move discussions beyond definition or role descriptions towards are more in-depth examination of where we currently stand after several years of effort. I made the point in the opening address that the notion of craft is more complicated than many people initially think. Compared to engineering processes, craft is more typically considered to avoid the separation of design from manufacture. Clearly, IAs might well carve the development process into several stages but, like most software design processes, it is only through embodiment of ideas that the design problem is fully understood, and locking ourselves into a pre-determined specification is a recipe for a poor final product.

Other notions of craft incorporate the concern the producing functional artifacts and the possibility of materials serving a dual purpose as both building block and tool. These aspects were also evident in many of the talks, most noticeably the detailed case studies that were a feature of the summit. Each case was given an hour and while the parallel tracks meant the audience had to make a choice, I moved through them in rotation and was delighted to hear the presenters reveal that their experiences were not all positive. Yes, real life design has problems, and mistakes are an inevitable part of the process.

The major talking point of the summit was a comment (and invitation) by the keynote, Steve Krug who stated that research into user experience tended only to prove the obvious and was of little use to practitioners such as himself. Naturally this stirred the academics among us (myself included) who feel that our research is often poorly understood or, worse, ignored by practitioners and in the response session, where a panel of 'experts' gave their reactions to the address, this comment sparked a dialog that would not fade with the weekend but bled over into the SIGIA list the next week.

Most interesting for me was the response of the participants at large to this topic. Research was defended by many in the practitioner community as essential to the development of the field. How true this is but how rare for a practitioner community to so clearly see this. Once more, the IA community shows itself a little more cultured in their understanding of issues than others. Perhaps this is goodwill borne of optimism and we shall see a more cynical view emerge in time.

But Steve struck a chord that resonated at length and raised many related issues such as what is the purpose of research, what is the difference between proof and evidence, and when are findings that appear to be obvious really telling us more than common-sense? Furthermore, where is the real research base of IA? The field borrows so heavily from other disciplines that it is hard to identify anything that is uniquely IA. For sure, this is a theme that is to be included in a future summit.

And future summits there will be. The ASIST Board agreed that we should have another IA summit. This will be the fourth and it will be chaired by Christina Wodtke of CarbonIQ.com fame. For a field that questioned its own existence in 2000, that is progress. As Peter Morville noted in his talk, there are many species of IA professionals emerging across the information ecologies of contemporary organizations, and one hopes, as one audience member noted, that we can continue to get along.

The summit also marked the maturity of IA in a more formal way. The Education and IA panel provided details of the formal degree in IA being offered by Kent State, and the special issue of JASIST on IA was announced as being published this coming September. A dedicated web publication "Boxes and Arrows" (see http://www.boxesandarrows.com) was also announced and they even have of review of the summit up there for you to get the blow-by-blow account of the weekend's events. More books on IA than one could read in a year seem to be in the pipeline too. In short, IA has developed a community identity with all the trappings that entails. In a year when other conferences are canceling or reporting record low attendances, the success of the summit really is a tribute to the membership who have stayed the course and retained their enthusiasm for the convergence of ideas under the IA label. Another year, another IA summit; it is almost becoming normal!

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