Zoi and Chrysanthi, students at the Technological Educational Institute of Thessaloniki, interviewed me about becoming an information architect.
1. How did the IA concept originate? There are several different opinions expressed on this matter, and we would like a clarification. Do you agree that IA first started at Argus Associates?
Who invented the airplane? When was America discovered? Where did IA begin? None of these questions can be answered faithfully with a fact. In 2004, I wrote A Brief History of Information Architecture to capture my version of the story. For different perspectives, you might also read:
- A Brief History of Information Architecture by Resmini and Rosati
- The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of Information Architecture by Royce
Looking back, I recognize we weren't entirely fair to Richard Saul Wurman, and today I'm particularly inspired by holistic framings of our field, as evidenced in Jorge Arango's Architectures, that show "Wurman IA" and "Polar Bear IA" to be one and the same. In short, I'm less interested in defining where IA began than I am in exploring where it's going.
2. Could you imagine your future progress as a professional when you studied LIS in Michigan or even when you wrote your IA book?
No. I love to tell our daughters (who are both in middle school) that I have a job that didn't exist when I was in college. But my inability to predict my own future goes much further than that. When I studied LIS at Michigan, I never planned to become an entrepreneur. When I began at Argus, I never imagined we would grow our little startup into a 40-person business. And when Lou and I wrote the polar bear book, I never dreamed it would play a pivotal role in the careers of so many people all around the world.
Now, I'm an independent information architecture consultant. I've been flying solo for over a decade. I didn't predict that either. So, I guess that means I have absolutely no idea what I'll be doing during the next 10 years.
3. You and Louis Rosenfeld are known as pioneers in this particular professional practice/field. Was it easy to find people that shared your ideas and vision, or was it a process that demanded a great deal of time to "convince" others about the power and the dynamics of IA?
It wasn't hard to find good employees. In the mid-to-late 1990s, there were lots of smart, young LIS and HCI students who shared our ideas and vision. It was, on the other hand, sometimes hard to find good clients. We learned the hard way not to waste much time trying to convince prospective clients of the value of information architecture. Folks need to feel the pain that's caused by bad IA before they're ready to invest in good IA. Of course, today, that pain has spread into every nook and cranny of business, so it's much easier to find good clients.
4. For those who are not familiar with the field, how would you describe an IA's professional object?
The easy answer is that information is the IA's professional object. In the polar bear book, we define IA as "the structural design of shared information environments." Today, that definition is still valid and useful, but I find myself increasingly drawn to the framing of IA as "the architecture of understanding" which positions understanding as our professional object.
In Understanding IA, we explain that as information architects, "We help our users to understand where they are, what they've found, what to expect, and what's around. We help our clients to understand what's possible."
5. What do you like and dislike most about your job?
I love the diversity that consulting affords. Over the years, I've worked with amazing people on web, intranet, mobile, and cross-channel challenges at the Library of Congress, Macys.com, the National Cancer Institute, Cisco, Harvard, the Kresge Foundation, Polar Bears International, etc.
On the other hand, while I love the freedom of being a solopreneur, it can be lonely and isolating. Which is why I enjoy collaborating with partners such as Q LTD and TUG. It's great to have colleagues as well as clients.
6. What is the source of your inspiration when you write a book?
My books are born of frustration. For instance, I wrote Ambient Findability because I was annoyed by over-use of the word usability. But I'm also driven by empathy for the user and a conviction that by writing books about information architecture, findability, and search, we're helping designers and developers to understand how to make better products and services.
7. Do you believe there are solid foundations to consider that make the transition from librarian to becoming an IA possible? And if not, could you suggest some actions that would empower such a future development?
There is no single path to become an information architect. It helps to have "empathy for the user" and a disposition towards "systems thinking."
8. Would you suggest a shift in LIS curricula in order for students to achieve a better understanding of IA? And if so, could you name some suggestions as courses to be taught?
Yes. The ideal program would piece together a multi-disciplinary curriculum that draws from architecture, anthropology, communication, design, journalism, marketing, LIS, HCI, and the list goes on.
9. Do you think IA should be taught in undergraduate or postgraduate level? For example, in our country (Greece), LIS studies are at the undergraduate level and there are few possibilities to receive a Master in LIS.
I'd like to see it taught at both undergraduate and graduate levels. And, the basics of information architecture should be taught to elementary school children as part of a broader course in information literacy.
10. Are there methods/actions that can help spread the ideas and concepts of IA among peers, academics and the market?
Most products, services, sites, and systems are designed without the direct involvement of an information architect. So, we have a great opportunity and responsibility to educate our clients and colleagues about the concepts, principles, and best practices of information architecture. We need to keep writing articles and books and speaking at companies and conferences.
11. In our country there are very few professionals (computer scientists, librarians, web designers, etc.) that are even aware of the term "Information Architecture." Would you consider this alarming, considering the wide-spread dissemination of ideas through the Web? Do you experience a similar situation in your country?
I find that neither surprising nor alarming. And it's largely the same in the U.S. As Herbert Simon explained, a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention. Consequently, it's incredibly hard to reach people with any message. And IA isn't an easy message to digest. Most people don't want to think about complex systems. It makes their heads hurt. Which is precisely why I'm optimistic I'll get to evangelize IA for the rest of my life.
12. In Greece, the LIS community, both academic and professional, is not familiar with the concept of IA. What would be, in your opinion, an efficient way to inform them of IA?
I've written lots of articles about IA, most of which are available for free via the Web. That's the most efficient way I know to make the information accessible. But there's no efficient way to make them want to learn.
13. Are there any obstacles/problems on getting co-workers/peers and clients to appreciate the value of IA?
I'm very lucky. The folks with whom I work generally appreciate the value of information architecture. So, I'm the wrong person to ask.
14. In your opinion, which are the top 3 skills that an IA must absolutely have in order to succeed?
An IA must be able to learn, synthesize, and communicate.
15. How much has the IA field developed since publication of the polar bear book? Do you think that the IA field needs more publications to promote IA?
Half of what's in the polar bear book is as relevant today as it was in 1998 and 2002 and 2006, but the other half is totally out of date. It's your job as an information architect to figure out which is which. I'm not sure we need more IA publications, but we do need one or two really good ones.
16. To what extent do you think that the practice of IA can help solve the challenges of information overload?
Organizing information can move us towards calm computing, but like obesity, overload is largely a cultural problem. If we're going to stop people from wanting to drive with an iPhone in one hand and a Chocolate Cookie Crumble Frappuccino in the other, we must figure out what's driving us to distraction. So, yes, I think that's a job for the architects of understanding.