Bulletin, June/July 2006
The Confluence of Research and Practice in Information Architecture
by Karl Fast
Fast is affiliated with the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at
If you have tried your hand at information
architecture (IA) – designing navigation schemes, creating wireframes,
planning usability studies – then you will know how challenging the work is.
If you have attended the Information Architecture Summit – the seventh edition
of this annual conference was recently held in
will also know that IA is characterized by its practice; not by its research.
Indeed, there is no discernable body of IA research. Of course there is a great
deal of relevant research, as can be said of any area. However, this relevant
research is scattered across many disciplines and over numerous journals, using
various names and taking multiple forms. Seldom does it establish an explicit
connection to IA, let alone describe itself as IA research.
light of the field’s history, the lack of a formal body of research is not
surprising. IA was conceived, defined and developed by practitioners. True, it
has roots in established fields with their own research literature, primarily
library and information science, human-computer interaction and information
retrieval, among others. But IA has also evolved, liberally integrating new
concepts and methods as it seeks to expand and enrich the practice.
so, IA can look more familiar than new, at least from the outside. To some it
seems little more than applied librarianship. To others it is merely a
user-centered approach to hypertext retrieval systems. To critics it is simply
old wine in new bottles. But those who have engaged themselves in the practice
and with the practitioner community come away convinced that IA is something new
and valuable. A synthesis, yes, but one that is sufficiently unique and
compelling that IA should be considered a distinct and important field.
part of its evolution, IA has consciously set out to establish intellectual,
social and cultural foundations. There are books, mailing lists, conferences,
workshops and a professional organization, the Information Architecture
Institute (iainstitute.org). And there has
been some research, a special issue of JASIST
being the most notable example. However, IA research is still an ad-hoc affair.
But this picture is changing. There is increasing recognition that not only does
IA offer rich research opportunities, but also that without a research community
the growth and maturation of the field will be constrained.
these thoughts in mind the 2006 IA Summit introduced a peer-reviewed research
stream. The intention was two-fold: to facilitate the slow process of developing
a research community and to establish a fruitful dialogue between researchers
and practitioners. A call for papers was released to solicit research
contributions, and a committee was established to review the submissions. The
final conference program included 45 presentations, four panel discussions and a
half dozen birds-of-a-feather sessions, or BOFs. Research was present
throughout. In all, eight research papers were accepted for the proceedings.
There was also a panel discussion about defining a research agenda and a
of the research sessions were well attended, each attracting between 50 and 150
spoke with many people during the conference about the research stream and
followed up with others via email. The general consensus was that research had
been successfully added to the program. Still, the
there were caveats as well. Although the conference benefited from a coordinated
research presence, it was also clear that the mix between research and practice
and between researcher and practitioner could be improved. Some worried that
research might limit itself to next-generation document retrieval problems,
which would be at odds with the trend to expand IA beyond its retrieval-centric
origins and even beyond the digital realm.
the most common concerns were that research not be defined as something done by
and for academics and that academics not view the
next IA Summit will be held in
Articles in this Issue
IA Column: The Confluence of Research and Practice in Information Architecture