Recently in Information architecture, general Category

--- Originally posted on the Adaptive Path Blog ---

About a year ago, Jesse came to me and suggested I change my title from Information Architect to User Experience Designer. He gave a number of reasons, but none of them resonated with me. I clearly remember commiserating with some dear friends at the IA Summit 2008 about this proposed change in title.

I didn’t want to give up the title. I considered myself an information architect first and foremost. I’ve called myself an IA for nine years now. I was proud of the name. It was who I was. So I didn’t change it.

In Memphis this past weekend, at the IA Summit 2009, I spent a lot of time talking with first time attendees and those new to the field of information architecture. I hosted a round table at lunch for those new to IA. They were a great table, with tons of questions.

One of the things they really wanted to know was how to become a great IA. My answers surprised me. I didn’t tell them that they had to master multi-faceted classification or be able to generate thesauri and controlled vocabularies from scratch. I didn’t tell them about stencils and templates for making better wireframes.

I told them how important it was to listen to the customers of the organizations they would be working for and to deeply understand their behaviors and motivations. I told them to be champions for the user. I told them to listen to the pain of their clients, and think about how their designs could ease it. I told them not to go in shouting about CVs and classification and indexing and how their clients were doing it all wrong. Be subtle, I said. Listen for their needs. Present classifications and metadata and all that cool stuff as the way to get your designs implemented, not as an end in and of itself.

And I realized… I wasn’t telling them how to do good information architecture. I was telling them how to do good user experience design. I realized while I love IA, and it is my core competency, it is also only a small part of what I do.

For that reason, I am taking on the title of User Experience Designer.

IA as Stone Soup

--- Originally published on the Adaptive Path Blog ---

I've been looking for a metaphor or a model that I could use to describe how the Information Architecture day of UX Intensive is structured. The day is focused on metadata, controlled vocabularies, classification schemes and search. They sort of build on each other, but not in a simple, neatly stacked way. I was thinking about this while in Copenhagen a few weeks ago, when the answer hit me: Stone Soup!

Do you remember the story of Stone Soup? It's a Grimm Brothers' tale about returning soldiers and their guise to get a selfish, starving town to learn the lesson of cooperation and its benefits. They can make soup from their stone, but it will be a more tasty and filling soup if they get the whole town to pitch in and add ingredients.

Information architecture is like Stone Soup. You can make a website without explicitly thinking about the IA. You don't have to use metadata or control your vocabularies or develop thesauri. You don't have to tweak your search engine and play with recall and precision to improve your results.

But it will be better if you do.

Putting structure into your unstructured data allows you to make your site that much better. It's a way to "plus" it. A way to add some "BAM" to your site, to borrow a phrase from Emeril Lagasse. Because it's easier to slice and dice and do interesting things with structured data than it is when your data is a big, undifferentiated mass.

IA from a stone? Fancy that.

So, What Is Enterprise IA Again?

--- Originally published on the Adaptive Path Blog ---

I've been doing a lot of research into "advanced" topics in information architecture in preparation for my day in the UX Intensive. It seemed to me that I couldn't talk about advanced IA topics without talking about Enterprise IA. But the more I've dug into the topic, the more I'm realizing that there really isn't that much there there.

Most of what I've read about EIA is really core, basic principles of IA. They focus on understanding the business context, what the users need and a deep understanding of the content. The emphasis may shift a bit being a little less about content analysis and modeling and more on the business context and facilitation skills, but really, that seems a subtle shift to me. You have to understand the social and political factors that your IA is going into if you have any hope of it succeeding. To me that subtle shift isn't enough to warrant the new label of EIA.

I do, however, believe that something called EIA exists. Though, I'm starting to wonder if like the unicorn it only exists in our imaginations and mythologies. To me, Enterprise Information Architecture is something that happens in large organizations, when different business units come together and start playing nice with their information structures. I'm talking stuff like the holy grail of a single product vocabulary used by all departments (something that at PeopleSoft we were never able to achieve despite my best efforts). Or better yet, crosswalks, switching vocabularies, or meta-thesauri that map like terms between business units and their databases. This means that the marketing department and the support department and the developers can all use their own terminology, but the end user has a seamless experience as they move through the content of the site, as they search various databases, and most importantly, they don't have to worry that they aren't finding all the relevant stuff.

I'm not sure that I buy Lou Rosenfeld's vision of a board of directors that oversees information architecture within an organization. Perhaps we'll get there one day. And we certainly need visionaries like Lou campaigning for such things if they are ever to exist. But I hate for IAs to think that unless they have an IA department they aren't really doing EIA. Sure it's easier with a team. But I think even one person, with the backing of their department, can make a lot of change in the right direction.

At some point, you'll need more than one IA. I certainly found this at PeopleSoft. We needed one IA to keep the websites running smoothly. But we also needed someone who started to work at this more strategic, inter-departmental level. Someone who understands the basic, core principles of IA and sees them implemented throughout the organization, even if they have to do a lot of the implementing themselves.

So, I guess what I'm saying is, I don't see EIA as this big, different, evolutionary progression from "regular" IA. EIA is regular IA, just with a slight tweak in focus.

Long Live The Polar Bear

Recently there has been a big bruhaha in the IA/UX world over Joshua Porter’s post declaring that information architecture is dead. If you haven't read it yet, it's a great way to get the blood pumping first thing in the morning.

I read the post and just sighed and shook my head. Folks just don't get it. IA doesn't have to be put in a box. It's more than just "make my web go better" (as Peterme likes to say) - physical IA, mobile, etc.

But the "make the web go better" is still valid. There are a lot of interesting, important web-based problems that are still out there. I wonder how much of our 30-second sound bite culture is behind this obsession with "solving" something and immediately moving on?

Both the Good Peter and the Bad Peter have had very thoughtful and articulate responses. I highly recommend you check them out.

IA: More Than Just Rearranging Marketing Sites

--- Originally published on the Adaptive Path Blog ---

Lately I've gotten the feeling that there are those who feel that information architecture and interaction design are at odds with each other. I don't mean to get into another debate on defining the damn thing or anything like that. But for me, information architecture and interaction design have always been very closely intertwined. Where does one stop and the other begin? It's often hard to tell and in the end, does it really matter?

Adaptive Path recently did a project focusing on vertical search, and specifically integrating multiple search engines into a single experience. I consider the work I did on that project to be mostly information architecture because it was so focused on search -- a key component in the "ways to find things" toolbox.

But it also required a lot of interaction design. How do you take three very different interfaces and provide one overall experience to them all? Good question. There was much wireframing and musing over the controls and filters we presented to people to figure that out.

Interaction design is certainly the darling of the Internet and user experience community right now. I think the excitement of Ajax and what it brings to the web experience is a driving factor behind this. Sprinkling Ajaxy-goodness on a page is cool. Spending the day thinking about how can we make things move and glow and change effortlessly? That's the most fun part of interaction design (at least for me).

But that doesn't mean that information architecture has to take a backseat, that due to its librarian roots IA must be quietly sitting in a corner pushing up its glasses and wearing a cardigan sweater (no offence to the librarians out there. Remember, I am a librarian after all). But IA is more than just rearranging brochures and product descriptions on a marketing site. There are a lot of really cool and interesting IA-centric problems out there still waiting to be solved.

Jesse asked me today what it was that was exciting about IA. There's lots. Take that vertical search project for one; search is way cool and very interesting and nowhere near solved. With search comes good things like metadata, tagging, controlled vocabularies and taxonomies. Okay, so a taxonomy doesn't sound or look as cool and sexy as Ajax does. But for the folks so inclined towards it, there are really slick things that can be done with a solid information governance policy. Which gets us to Enterprise Information Architecture; that umbrella concept that runs through a whole organization.

But we are still left with the underlying feeling that infrastructure is not hot. Think back to Jesse's Elements of User Experience [ ], or Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn where he talks about the rates of component change in buildings [ ]. Information architecture fits squarely in the infrastructure layer. It's the support that everything else hangs on. If you can't find what you are looking for, it doesn't matter how well designed the item is.

We still need IA to make a good user experience. All the Ajax in the world couldn't make a great site if there wasn't a solid structure and organization holding it together. I hope we don't lose sight of that.

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