of The American Society for Information Science

Vol. 26, No. 5

June/July 2000

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World's Fastest Modeling Job, or Information Architecture: What Is It? The Multidisciplinary Adventures of Two Ph.D. Students

by Sheila O. Denn and Kelly L. Maglaughlin

The last thing that Ph.D. students want to hear is that we need to take more courses. Yet the ASIS Summit 2000 on Defining Information Architecture left us with what seems a lifetime agenda. Philosophy, literature, anthropology, landscape architecture and ecology were just a few of the suggestions mentioned as desirable preparation for information architects - all in addition, of course, to our current full program at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill (UNC-CH).  One of the major themes that emerged from the summit is that information architecture truly is a multidisciplinary area. The people in the profession do indeed come from a wide range of academic and career backgrounds. Becoming an information architect is very much an art and not a science. There is no set path to get there.

Which is not to say that our program at UNC-CH is not excellent basic preparation. Practicing information architects really do use the skills we work on in our classes on systems analysis, user interface design, database design, information retrieval and communications. As an even more exciting prospect, the demand for information architects is growing, ensuring that there will be jobs available in this field when we graduate.

One of the goals of the summit was to bring together academic information scientists and practicing information architects to discover common ground and to make an attempt to formulate a definition of information architecture. First we will discuss some of the major themes that emerged from the sessions. Then we discuss the process we undertook, along with the summit organizers and other volunteers, to synthesize a model of information architecture, the feedback we received about the model and the implications of the model-building exercise for the field.

The summit was kicked off by Louis Rosenfeld, president of Argus Associates, who presented a model of information architecture that served as a jumping-off point (Figure 1).

This model is meant to represent information architecture as the intersection of the content and applications included in the architecture, the users who will be using the architecture and the context (including business goals, politics, culture, etc.) in which the architecture exists. Subsequent speakers were invited to use this model to frame their talks or to propose different models that more closely mirrored their own experiences.

Another theme that came up repeatedly during the summit was the distinction between the client for whom one is developing an information architecture and the end users of that architecture. This arose, in part, as a result of the demographics of the summit. Unlike gatherings like the ASIS Annual Meeting, there were a large number of people from outside the academic world working on information architecture as part of consulting firms. In this light, the concern for differentiating the client from the end user makes good sense and was reflected in the model that was developed and proposed at the summit.

Another theme that emerged was the close interrelationship between information architecture and user interface design. A number of speakers stressed the importance of involving interface design staff early in the process of designing the underlying architecture of the system, because the underlying structure will necessarily influence what can be done at the user interface level.

One of the most interesting aspects of the summit was examining the variety of fields that are contributing to work in information architecture. These include information retrieval and librarianship, visual design, HCI and usability engineering, technical communications, interface and interaction design, markup and data modeling, anthropology and ethnography, and computer science, just to name a few. Information architecture is drawing practitioners from such a diverse array of fields that there is an increased need to define information architecture itself as a field. As we continue to move into ever more multimodal information spaces, including multimedia elements and new visualization technologies for data beyond simple text, the field will increasingly be called upon to provide more complex solutions to more complex challenges. All of the fields described above have much to offer to information architecture, but any one approach is incomplete for designing a complex information system.

The notion of purpose seemed to be an important one. Alison Head, principal of Alison J. Head & Associates, felt so strongly that purpose was an important (and often overlooked) element of information architecture that she spoke to a "purpose crisis" in organizations engaging in information architecture. Purpose can be a difficult issue, because often there are competing purposes - sometimes even within the client organization that has requested a site. In addition, the organization completing the architecture needs to be mindful not only of the client's purpose for the site, but also the purposes that users will have in visiting the site. This problem is compounded because, as Mark Hurst, founder and president of Creative Good, mentioned in his talk, we as information architects are not our users, nor are we like our users. So it is not possible to divine what kinds of purposes the users of an information architecture will have without examining the users carefully.

Defining Information Architecture Exercise

We approached this exercise with some trepidation. The idea was that we would get each participant to write down two or three terms that they thought should be included in a definition of information architecture. Then a small group of volunteers (Darla Franklin, Keith Instone, Gary Marchionini, Maribeth Sullivan, Karen Trimberger and the authors) would synthesize all of these terms into a single model of information architecture that would be simple enough to be easily understandable yet complete. And this was to be done over lunch!

If that doesn't necessarily sound impossible, consider just how much variation you can get when you ask 300 creative people for their ideas. And especially when people interpret term rather loosely - responses ranged from single words to entire paragraphs. The complete list of terms will be available on the ASIS Website. Not only did the length of the responses vary, but they were also focused on different facets of information architecture. Some participants were more concerned about the people involved as creators and users of information architecture, others were focused more on the process of creation and still others were trying to characterize the end product. The challenge was further increased by the seven of us, who were attempting to formulate a model from all these terms, because we were all interpreting them differently.

So, salads in hand, we cloistered ourselves in a small conference room and tried to hash out a workable model. Somehow, we prevailed, and had a draft model (Figure 2) put together in enough time to make copies and distribute it to the participants before the end of the afternoon sessions.

The horizontal axis represents the people involved in information architecture, with the users on the left and the architects on the right. The vertical axis represents the information involved, with raw information at the bottom and structured information at the top. Within each quadrant are the kinds of operations that the people perform on the information, and in the center are the goals of the completed architecture. The grayed-out aspects on the sides of the model are meant to represent facets of the context surrounding the architecture that influence the architecture process, but indirectly.

The participants were asked to critique the model and bring it back to the morning session on Sunday so that we could take a look at their comments and make some summary remarks on how well our proposed model seemed to work. Not surprisingly, participants had mixed responses to the model. Some were generally satisfied with it, but others felt that it did not speak to them at all or that it was too simple to represent what really goes on. On the basis of the feedback, we believed that we needed more than one model of information architecture or a model with multiple dimensions, depending on the perspective from which you are approaching it. For instance, there could be a model or dimension for each of the following:

    • What an information architecture looks like
    • What the process is for building an information architecture
    • What the relationships are among the stakeholders involved in the information architecture
    • Where an information architecture fits in overall system design
    • What different staff positions contribute to the information architecture enterprise.

Work will be continuing to try to process the responses that were received and to develop these models. Regardless of whether the model we produced is a workable one, the process of creating it certainly has generated a lot of discussion among the participants. This discussion continues at a rapid pace (our mailboxes are filling up even as we type) on the newly formed information architecture special interest group mailing list. So the summit has succeeded in accomplishing another of its goals - stimulating the formation of a community of people interested in information architecture and opening the lines of communication between academics and practitioners in the field.

Sheila O. Denn and Kelly L. Maglaughlin are Ph.D. students in the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill. Denn can be reached denns@ils.unc.edu; Maglaughlin is at maglk@ils.unc.edu


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