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Bulletin, June/July 2007


Information Architecture
IA Research:  The Future State of the Art

by D. Grant Campbell

Grant Campbell teaches in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario. His research interests include metadata systems, classification systems and controlled vocabularies. He can be reached by email at gcampbel<a>uwo.ca or through his website at http://publish.uwo.ca/~gcampbel/

The Information Architecture Summit of 2007 has come and gone while preparations for the 2008 Summit have already begun. As we analyze the past to prepare for the future, the research track of the Summit deserves special mention.

The IA Summit research track was instigated two years ago, thanks to the tireless and visionary work of Karl Fast, Don Turnbull, Richard Hill and a host of other academics and working IAs who wanted to bring research and practice into closer and more productive interchange. Papers submitted to the research track of the Summit are scheduled among the other presentations and cover many of the same topics. But the research track submissions are subjected to a full-paper, double-blind peer review process that makes the track and the Summit an enticing venue for researchers who need peer-reviewed publications in their dossiers.

This has been a valuable and exciting venture, and Iíve been proud to be a part of it. But as the program chair of the research track for the 2008 Summit, I find myself asking several questions:

  • What should information architecture research be doing?
  • What should the research track be encouraging?
  • What should we be asking for in our call for papers? 

On the last day of the 2007 Summit, Karl Fast, Don Turnbull and I spoke about the grand challenges for IA research. My contribution was sketchy at best, because I was preoccupied with my own upcoming research presentation, and I opted for being cheerful rather than helpful. But as I confront these questions yet again, the following topics are the answers I glean from Karl, Don and my own thoughts.

Collaboration in the Building of IA Tools 
Information architecture abounds in processes, practices and tools, ranging from wireframes and alignment models to interfaces to support faceted browsing. Academics must participate in building these tools Ė not because we do it better than practitioners, but because we are committed to pushing things out of their safety zones and making them fail. Safe aircraft emerge from wind-tunnel tests and other punishing ordeals that show the designers just how much stress they can take; we should expect no less of tools that support our information activities.

IA research, then, cannot stay isolated in theory; nor can it be satisfied with ponderous empirical studies that prove what the working IA already knows through experience. Academics involved in IA research need to be creating tools: prototypes of new methods, new designs, new interfaces and new procedures that meet the following criteria:

  • They are intended to be picked over and analyzed by those who have specific problems to solve.
  • They are to be pushed until they fail, so that we can see where things fail.
  • They exist in a public domain where they can be shared without problems of violating confidentiality.
  • They can be used to evolve consensus on some questions that tend to be posed and discussed each year.

Defining the Field Boundaries
Information architecture sits at the nexus of many different fields, ranging from library science to graphic design. Thatís exciting. Nearly every problem encountered in human life can be defined in terms of information, if you work hard enough at it. Thatís exciting too. But in practical terms, it means that practitioners frequently suffer from inflated expectations and that virtually every problem in our information-rich culture can be traced to a supposed failing of information architects. 

That wide reach makes it difficult for us to see our own limits. Only the little guys profess to do everything. IA research needs to develop a sophisticated and useful understanding of how information architecture interacts with other areas of expertise. Manhattan is an exciting place because since it was surrounded by water, it was forced to build up. IA research needs to define similar boundaries, thereby helping the field to build up.

Teaching the Next Generation
Academics may lie awake at nights worrying about their publications, but they divide their days with the equally important task of teaching. IA research needs to use both IA practice and the questions that emerge from Summit attendees to define useful curricula for the growing number of degree programs in information architecture. Are we training graduates to be useful members of the community? Or are we training them in outmoded techniques and long-discarded tools? What theoretical grounding best serves a student in an IA program? What technical infrastructure is required to teach useful courses in information architecture? And, perhaps most important of all, what are the best pedagogical techniques for teaching this complex field?

If any researcher has work that could contribute to any of these problems and tasks, the research track offers a great venue for that work, and the call for papers will be appearing shortly at www.iasummit.org . Furthermore, the Information Architecture Institute offers a program of grants to support work of this nature (see www.iainstitute.org/pg/ia_progress_grants.php). Information architecture research has an exciting chance to evolve in close proximity to field practitioners who are deeply engaged with the intellectual, social and philosophical implications of their own practices.