Bulletin, August/September 2006

Inquiry and Application

by Stacy Merrill Surla

Stacy Surla is the Bulletin's associate editor for IA. She served as a chair for the IA Summit and is on the IA Institute Board of Directors. She works at MITRE Corporation and can be reached at ssurla<at>MITRE. org

Since ASIS&T hosted the first IA Summit in 2000, information architecture has been in some senses one of its wards – invigorating and sometimes challenging, like a bright, crazy teenager in an orderly household of dons. ASIS&T doesn’t "own" IA, of course, any more than it owns library science or bioinformatics. But it has, in a concrete sense, enabled IA to happen. The importance of the annual Summit in engendering exploration, community, leadership, sharing, learning and growth are well known. The SIG-IA email discussion list is a lively forum and has been a principal means of gathering far-flung IA practitioners, many of whom were initially lost members of a tribe they hadn’t known they belonged to. The regular IA column in the Bulletin is another manifestation of the interest ASIS&T members have in the discipline of IA. Supported by this foundation, people have gone on to build organizations focused specifically on information architecture, including Boxes and Arrows (boxesandarrows.com), IA Slash (iaslash.org) and the IA Institute (iainstitute.org).

This year, as in others, discussions at the IA Summit concerned both deepening our current practices and figuring out what we might face in the near future. Most interesting are the conversations at the intersection of these two vectors that ask: Where, from a grounded practice, might we open up new areas of inquiry and application?

Overlapping relationships with other disciplines, some venerable and others as new as IA, are of key importance to the development of IA. Interaction design, user experience and human-computer interaction intersect IA (or overlay or underlie it – depending on whom you talk to). The practice of IA is informed by the mindsets and methodologies of library science, ethnographic research and information management crafts like software development. To keep IA viable in corporate, academic, government or any other institutional settings it must also be cognizant of business practices, including project management, benefits-costs analysis and the arts of influence and persuasion. Further, IA continually gleans from disciplines and philosophies that at first or even third glance have nothing at all to do with it. Yet the conversations of IA practitioners today are threaded with references to cognitive linguistics, semiotics, the art of drawing comics, the world of online gaming. Turning attention to IA in international settings gives us a chance to examine regional challenges, while at the same time makes us look more deeply at approaches we need to be using in any context. Practitioners everywhere benefit when regional dialogues about culture and context are more widely shared and begin to inform one another. As this trend continues, it may not be long before the international perspective stops being an edge case.

Another element that has been emerging over the past several years has been a movement to bring to IA a needed intellectual rigor, a groundwork of theory and a body of research and scientific practice. There has always been a craft of IA. The craft is a key way the discipline has spread itself and how it has identified itself to others. The science of IA, however, has come from the work of a few individuals doing actual IA research and from the aura of “scientific-ness” that is lent by using research methodologies in business settings to gather data to inform IA decisions. The promulgation of IA craft is being forwarded by the IA courses, certificates and degrees being offered now by library science, information technology and design departments of colleges and universities. However, an endeavor founded on craft – even craft informed deeply by other people's theories – is not yet, not quite, a field. A discipline that wants to really be a discipline calls out for its own theories and bodies of research. It needs lots of people to be thinking about, propounding, arguing against, building upon and digging deeper inside all matters that concern it – and doing so within agreed-upon frameworks. Fortunately, there are a growing number of individuals working to bring this sea change about.

With the diversity of elements that make up IA at this moment, this special IA issue of the Bulletin is, appropriately, something of a kaleidoscope. Grant Campbell leads us in with his delightful first-person account of an academic’s foray into IA. Through several experiences with the Summit he has come to understand something about the inhabitants of this strange new land and to value the perspectives they bring to new and old problems.

Brian Arbogast de Hubert-Miller, author of the second article, was a doctoral candidate at Florida State University, a participant in all seven IA Summits and a respected member of the information architecture community. After a long battle with cancer Brian passed away this past spring. His article was edited for inclusion in this issue by Kathleen Burnett of Florida State University. It summarizes Brian’s work to introduce a grounded theory of information architecture that enables the informal and widely dispersed conversations taking place within IA right now to be integrated with the more formal academic discourses that pertain to it. In this way he moves us toward achieving an actual philosophy of IA. Dr. Burnett will continue editing and publishing pieces of Brian’s dissertation as articles in other professional and scholarly journals to further this important conversation.

Christine Connors is a MSLIS who intended to go the route of a reference librarian but instead found herself in a corporate setting in charge of taxonomies, metadata and website management. In her article she gives practical advice on transmuting the arcane elements of her profession into concrete intranet services that provide value to users and improve the bottom line. 

Samantha Starmer follows with an engaging article on how to sell IA in the corporate environment. While her recommendations are directly applicable to the situations faced by many in IA, they will also resonate with innovators in other fields who need to persuade bosses and peers of the value of their propositions.

Andrew Hinton looks at online gaming and explores the relevance of game modalities to the IA – and the world – of the future. Computing is already transcending screen interfaces and integrating into the everyday matters of our lives. Game architecture is serving as a prototype for much of this shift in conventional software design. It can also inform how IA practitioners design information architectures now and guide us in adding a “game layer” that connects – or lets people connect for themselves – the Web spaces we build for them.

When developing software interfaces, members of development teams need to be able to talk with one another about how screens look and behave in different states. As we build richer interactions we need richer design languages. Austin Govella outlines this need, points to existing pattern libraries and makes a case for creating and collecting pattern languages to facilitate this work.

Finally, Jason Hobbs’ article on designing in developing countries offers insights pertinent both within South Africa and beyond that particular milieu. Through a photo essay on the density of Internet services in a suburb of Johannesburg, he uncovers truths about actual availability and usage that contrast with dominant notions about who uses the Internet, what they’re doing and where they are when they use it. These observations are broadly relevant. A mistaken conventional wisdom drives website and Web services design in places besides South Africa. As-yet unrealized opportunities exist in all parts of the world to improve people’s daily lives through appropriate design of, for instance, online commerce and e-government. Jason’s inquiry and the specific ideas that emerge from it should provoke deeper engagement among information architects about these issues in their own cultural and technological contexts.