Bulletin, December/January 2006

The End Is Nigh

by Andrew Dillon

Andrew Dillon is dean of the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin . Email: adillon at ischool.utexas.edu

This is my last column on information architecture (IA) for the Bulletin. I started writing here in 2000, shortly after the first summit held in Boston, and it is appropriate that I sign off, five years later, fresh from the first ever European IA Summit held in Brussels (http://www.euroia.org/). It's been a pleasure to receive so many responses from readers to the various issues raised, but it's surely time for new blood.  I am delighted to note that Stacy Surla will serve as IA editor for the Bulletin with plans to solicit columns from across the spectrum of IA interests.

In the intervening years I have made a number of points about the field, which I'd like to reflect on in numbered form, for closure:

1.       No, we never did define it to everyone's satisfaction but I don't think that matters.

2.       Communities matter more.

3.       There will be something else after blogs, wikis and memes.

4.       Understanding people's needs for information is a thorny problem.

5.       A profession is not defined solely by financial concerns.

6.       Findability is not a sufficient basis for architecture.

7.       Usability is a design value, not a field.

8.       Data is stored: Information is experienced

9.       Most of the world is still not able to have this experience.

10.   We're still figuring this out, so don't stop trying to shape it.

IA is real, it's here and it has a history. Everything else is just hair-splitting. While deriving a definition might be really important to the academics among us, I no longer see it as essential to success of the field.  In fact, it is the endless concern about arriving at a definition satisfactory to academic interests that has hampered many other start-up interest areas, from social informatics to HCI. What is more important to the long-term health of IA is the community spirit that has sprung up among the summit attendees, regardless of what they call themselves.

The IA community has grown even as its membership has proved transient. What's really interesting here is the nature of this community. Its size has not prevented its partial splintering into various lists and factions, yet the community of IA holds together as a reasonably identifiable cohort. The ASIS&T Summits have been a tremendous vehicle for in this regard and, as attendees of both the summits and the regular ASIS&T Annual Meetings will attest, the IA event has the air of an "alternative annual," replete with regular speakers, a core constituency and complaints about the proceedings.

Of course, the problem with a community focused on making a living in the real world is that current technologies and information problems dominate discussions. It is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture and the future in such a climate, but I remain optimistic. I have found many in the IA community to be very receptive to discussions of professional ethics, education of future IAs and the necessity of developing a stronger theoretical base for the practice of information architecture. If IA is to have a real future (as it must) then the delivery of real differences on these matters is crucial.

Of course, IA can  (and will) have a real future, even if it is no longer called by this term. As I keep saying, the name is not the terrain. Regardless of what we call the problem set of information architecture, bright people will still need to study the issues and improve our solutions to information problems. Doesn't this mean that IA is really the name for the entire field? Now has it taken you five years to realize that this is what I have been saying all along?

This will not be music to the ears of the usability professionals or the information retrieval folks, but to my way of thinking the various attributes to which the suffix -ability is attached are not fields, as their proponents often proclaim, but are design values. Usability, accessibility, findability, portability, adaptability and similar concepts are important and should form part of the requirements for most information architectures, but they are design values that drive a process. They are not the full story of the process involved in producing the resulting information system.

The full story of any information architecture is both technical and social in nature. One need not be a technical expert to be an IA, but information architectures are technical systems. Still, the question of what information is remains, and while ASIS&T readers are no strangers to the debate, I would just add that it helps me to think about information as being experienced, not just stored and retrieved. As soon as one thinks this way, the idea of experience design being distinct from IA seems to add little.

The truth remains that while the world now has more than one billion Internet users, the vast majority of the more than six billion people on this planet do not yet have easy access to the Web. This situation will change rapidly, and there is no guarantee that the forms and standards we now take for granted will withstand wide scale adoption. On the other hand, it is likely that designs and decisions we make now will have impact, largely unintended, on the majority of users and their communities yet to come. With this thought in mind, we need to remain open to the possibilities of what a truly worldwide information architecture should enable, and the best way to do this is to keep trying out new ideas, new information forms and to embrace the Web 2.0 dream of shifting from users to co-creators of information spaces. It's a time of opportunity and wonder, if only we could be sure to remember this. We still have a way to go.  See you at the summit!


The Bulletin is seeking articles and comment on information architecture practice, research and philosophy. If you are interested in writing on IA for the Bulletin, please submit a brief proposal to bulletin@asis.org. Depending on the nature of the article, final submissions can range from 900 words to a maximum of 3500 words. We encourage you to include graphics and other illustrative matter.