Bulletin, June/July 2006

IA Column
The Confluence of Research and Practice in Information Architecture


by Karl Fast

Karl Fast is affiliated with the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at University of Western Ontario ; karl.fast<at>pobox.com

If you have tried your hand at information architecture (IA) – designing navigation schemes, creating wireframes, planning usability studies – then you will know how challenging the work is. If you have attended the Information Architecture Summit – the seventh edition of this annual conference was recently held in Vancouver – then you will know that information architects are a smart, creative and enthusiastic lot. And if you have worked with information architects then you will have respect for how, and how well, they grapple with tortuous information problems in all their real-world complexity.

You will also know that IA is characterized by its practice; not by its research. Indeed, there is no discernable body of IA research. Of course there is a great deal of relevant research, as can be said of any area. However, this relevant research is scattered across many disciplines and over numerous journals, using various names and taking multiple forms. Seldom does it establish an explicit connection to IA, let alone describe itself as IA research.

In light of the field’s history, the lack of a formal body of research is not surprising. IA was conceived, defined and developed by practitioners. True, it has roots in established fields with their own research literature, primarily library and information science, human-computer interaction and information retrieval, among others. But IA has also evolved, liberally integrating new concepts and methods as it seeks to expand and enrich the practice.

Even so, IA can look more familiar than new, at least from the outside. To some it seems little more than applied librarianship. To others it is merely a user-centered approach to hypertext retrieval systems. To critics it is simply old wine in new bottles. But those who have engaged themselves in the practice and with the practitioner community come away convinced that IA is something new and valuable. A synthesis, yes, but one that is sufficiently unique and compelling that IA should be considered a distinct and important field.

As part of its evolution, IA has consciously set out to establish intellectual, social and cultural foundations. There are books, mailing lists, conferences, workshops and a professional organization, the Information Architecture Institute (iainstitute.org). And there has been some research, a special issue of JASIST being the most notable example. However, IA research is still an ad-hoc affair. But this picture is changing. There is increasing recognition that not only does IA offer rich research opportunities, but also that without a research community the growth and maturation of the field will be constrained.

With these thoughts in mind the 2006 IA Summit introduced a peer-reviewed research stream. The intention was two-fold: to facilitate the slow process of developing a research community and to establish a fruitful dialogue between researchers and practitioners. A call for papers was released to solicit research contributions, and a committee was established to review the submissions. The final conference program included 45 presentations, four panel discussions and a half dozen birds-of-a-feather sessions, or BOFs. Research was present throughout. In all, eight research papers were accepted for the proceedings. There was also a panel discussion about defining a research agenda and a research-themed BOF.

All of the research sessions were well attended, each attracting between 50 and 150 people. (Total Summit attendance was over 550, the highest to-date.). Just as important, the presentations generated many questions and much hallway discussion. Although research was only a small part of the program, it was visible and valued. It was also thoroughly integrated into the conference, not shuffled off to one side under a sign saying “researchers over here, everyone else over there.”

I spoke with many people during the conference about the research stream and followed up with others via email. The general consensus was that research had been successfully added to the program. Still, the Summit is a practitioner-driven event. Research should continue to be a vital and vibrant part of the proceedings – only a small part. Overall, it was widely agreed that IA, as a whole, must develop a research community, formulate a research agenda and facilitate the conversation between researchers and practitioners. The Summit can play an important role in achieving these goals.

But there were caveats as well. Although the conference benefited from a coordinated research presence, it was also clear that the mix between research and practice and between researcher and practitioner could be improved. Some worried that research might limit itself to next-generation document retrieval problems, which would be at odds with the trend to expand IA beyond its retrieval-centric origins and even beyond the digital realm.

Perhaps the most common concerns were that research not be defined as something done by and for academics and that academics not view the Summit as yet another publishing venue for promotion and tenure purposes. Throughout this article I have used the term researcher instead of academic. To some, these are synonymous. But this false synonymy was consciously disregarded when planning the Summit . The call for papers was explicit on this point – research could be submitted by anyone so long as it met certain standards of quality, clarity, validity and originality. Attracting academic researchers was certainly one of the goals, but the broader and long-term goal was developing a research community that will be intellectually, socially and culturally engaged with IA’s practitioner core. Toward these goals we have taken one more step, one of many.

The next IA Summit will be held in Las Vegas in March 2007. The call for research papers will be published later this spring. The submission deadline will be in the fall, probably early November. Complete details will be available on the conference website (www.iasummit.org).