of The American Society for Information Science

Vol. 26, No. 5

June/July 2000

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Observations on the American Society for Information Science Summit 2000 Meeting: Defining Information Architecture

by Richard Zwies

This article is a report of my observations and impressions of Defining Information Architecture, the American Society for Information Science Summit held recently in Boston. I am relatively new to ASIS and information architecture; therefore my observations are from the outside. However, the energy of the meeting and the discussions that it inspired are drawing me into this new area of information science.

The meeting brought together members of the new Internet commerce industry (the "dot com" community), the growing knowledge management industry and the established information science and database management community to define a new professional field: information architecture. I would like to commend the people responsible for bringing this complex and ambitious meeting together. Many of us will no doubt benefit from the greater recognition of information architecture that it will foster.

This report briefly covers

  • the definition of an information architect;
  • the architect's duties and tasks;
  • the various disciplines involved;
  • the qualifications necessary to work in this field;
  • the principles and techniques used in information architecture.

It also discusses the spirited multidisciplinary interaction that took place at this meeting. Much of what is reported here is distilled from the presentations and discussion that took place between the attendees and presenters. Some of the presentations are being posted on the meeting's Web site, and a list of books by conference speakers is attached for further reading.

ASIS in Motion

This summit meeting, which may come to be viewed as a critical event in the development of the field of information architecture, was representative of the changes taking place in the American Society for Information Science (ASIS). The organization is committed to providing a professional base for the emerging field of information architecture by assembling an information architecture special interest group. There were also calls during the meeting for an information architecture electronic mail discussion list (which immediately came to pass) and professional publications. The proposed name change from ASIS to ASIST, or the American Society for Information Science and Technology, might also reflect new directions. Defining Information Architecture was the first in a series of summit meetings focusing exclusively on particular special interests that will replace the Mid-Year Meetings. The Annual Meetings will continue to support a wide range of topics in information science, but will be complemented by the more focused summits.

General Observations

Information architecture is a young field.  However, more than 15% of the some 290 attendees who pre-registered already had jobs that included "information architect" or some variant in their titles. Most of those who identified themselves as information architects in a voice poll at the meeting had been in the field for less than five years. The speakers and attendees came from eclectic backgrounds including the cutting-edge electronic commerce and the academic information science spheres.

Definition of Information Architecture

One of the resounding successes of the meeting was that, for me at least, a clear definition of information architecture surfaced from this melting pot of new ideas and professional cultures. Information architecture, as a working definition, is the art and science of organizing information to help people effectively fulfill their information needs. Information architecture is an applied field that involves investigation, analysis, design and implementation. The definition includes the organization, navigation, labeling and search mechanisms of information systems. The goal is to help people find and manage information more successfully. This definition is mostly according to the keynote speaker, Louis Rosenfeld, CEO of Argus Associates and co-author of the book entitled Information Architecture listed in "For Further Reading." Subsequent speakers added that human factors such as system effectiveness, efficiency and user satisfaction are also key to the definition. 

During the meeting there was a focus on the information architecture of Websites, but the practice clearly applies to other kinds of complex information services.

Tasks Involved

At the core of an information architect's work is the definition of the high concepts, central message and audience for an information site or service through interviews with clients and users alike. The architects and their teams design the logical structure of the site or service and prototype the user interface based on the requirements gathered. They utilize elements in the user-centered design of information systems such as search engines, context matrixes and domain-specific controlled vocabularies and thesauri that determine the browsing hierarchy of a site.  The architect works constantly with the various and diverse members of the team to construct the system in accordance with the central concepts. He or she is also responsible for establishing metrics to determine if the goals and objectives were met.

Fields Involved

The number and diversity of fields that are involved in the construction of an information system and hence that touch on information architecture are remarkable. Information science, information retrieval, information seeking, human-computer interaction, user-centered design, Web design, computer science, software engineering, data modeling, database management, education and graphic design are just a few of the more important ones. There is a growing need for an umbrella field, information architecture, to pull them all together because the scope is beyond any individual discipline.

Qualifications Needed

An information architect needs an education from at least one of the fields involved and a commitment to master others. Some of the skills mentioned at the conference were

  • system design and development
  • information retrieval
  • graphic design
  • existing technologies (i.e., tools) - at least at a high level - including a good working knowledge of programming
  • knowledge of organizational and user behavior
  • sound logical reasoning
  • critical thinking and analytical skills
  • high flexibility

and good old common sense.  Diplomacy, needed to bring together information structures and diverse departments in highly politicized organizations, was also seen as a critical skill.

Principles and Techniques

There were quite a few displays of Internet sites and systems as examples. Of the principles mentioned, providing site consistency, feedback for the user and information integrity stood out. The elements of the information architecture included

  • navigational tools and icons
  • browsing hierarchies
  • site maps
  • category matrixes
  • directories
  • special interest guides.

There was general discussion of the importance of user testing and metrics, which are critical to the success of a site.

The benefit of providing rich browsing and searching with multiple access points and detailed cataloging was often mentioned. Information objects must be labeled for expert and novice alike. The importance of interesting and innovative visual concepts like "patterns" in information structures and hyperlinked "connections" as multiple gateways to information was also echoed throughout the meeting.

A warning not to project old technologies and techniques onto the new ones was the valid point of a talk called "Horseless-Carriage Thinking," delivered by William Horton. Hypermedia can provide methods of information access yet unexplored, even though the current practice might be to rely on techniques used with print, for example.

Inflexible organization of information and vocabularies developed for print media can create over-extended hierarchies on the Web that may impede the chances for content discovery and perhaps discourage commerce. However, it was also pointed out that programming for serendipity and providing multiple connections to content is not problematic given the current technology. Providing organization and serendipity are not mutually exclusive goals.

The need for infrastructure and preservation to build lasting systems of quality was also expressed. Things tend to persist beyond their expected lives as the QWERTY typewriter keyboard has shown (the QWERTY keyboard was designed to slow typists down to avoid sticking keys on manual typewriters). Taking the time to build a good foundation is very important.

Emerging Models

There were several attempts to provide graphic models for information architecture. (For more detail and views of the models, see the article by Denn and Maglaughlin in this special report and the Summit Website http://www.asis.org/Conferences/Summit2000/index.html - Ed.) In his keynote presentation, Louis Rosenfeld presented a diagram showing three intersecting circles, each representing an aspect of information systems: the user, the context and the content. Their intersection was the domain of information architecture.

Attendees were also asked to turn in index cards with three words that must be included in the definition of information architecture. The results were later tabulated and expressed in a diagram.

Clement Mok (chief creative officer, Sapient) and Paul Kahn (president, Dynamic Diagrams) also offered fascinating visualizations of what information architects do and make. I hope we see more of all these visual constructs.

The Big Picture

Most of the presentation and discussion centered on the architecture and design of individual Websites and portals. Occasionally, the focus shifted outward to the global architecture of the entire Web. Extensible Mark-up Language (XML) and Resource Description Framework (RDF) will be important in the organization of the Web and the meta-organization of diverse sites. Schema Adjunct Framework was also presented in a paper as a method for mapping documents or Internet sites to data stores or providing other high-level information.

Social Issues

Because social issues weigh heavily in the professional concerns of librarians, they also surfaced during the meeting. Roy Tennant spoke eloquently for adding the shared professional values of service, free access and privacy to the definition of information architecture.

There was also discussion about the loss of intermediaries in the automated information delivery process and the associated loss of the valuable human knowledge the intermediaries provided.

Interdisciplinary Interaction

It was critical that all the people at this meeting with all their interesting backgrounds communicate effectively and productively. I was thrilled when the lively discussion that ensued produced such a magnificent result. The meeting created the seeds of a new profession, and the chain reaction that followed from this unique chemistry produced a multifaceted and intriguing crystal. From the fascinating discourse came the ground for common understanding.

Obviously, there is a clear need for a common language to communicate the basic concepts of this new field. Many participants spoke about the same issues but in different tongues, the most notable were the information science and business jargons (user = customer, for example).

When cultures mix, hybrid ideas evolve, making a whole far stronger that its parts. One example from the meeting was the blending of information science dogma with the playfulness of the Internet. When addressing the Internet and hypermedia we must travel light with only the essential tools needed. Conversely, some of the tried and true techniques from information science, graphic design and communications are critical to the business success of commerce portals, and there is certainly no time to be wasted in "re-inventing the wheel."

There is an exciting and useful sense of experimentation with this new media and information architecture in general. Maintaining a creative environment conducive to free thinking will be the most challenging mission. Being able to "think outside the box" is a critical skill for information architects and a fresh examination of fundamental principles of information science as they apply to the Internet will surely be productive.

The Future

The profession and technology of information architecture are in their infancies and therefore not fully understood. It will be a while before theory catches up with practice and a deeper meaning of information architecture is achieved.

The information architecture professional community is well on its way to building a basic foundation with an ASIS special  interest group and an electronic mail discussion list. Developing common academic training and a professional literature could also spring from this meeting. With these, a common language and understanding will be forged.

For Further Reading

Rosenfeld, Louis. & Morville, Peter. (1998). Information Architecture: Designing Large Scale Web Sites. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly.

Fleming, Jennifer. (1998). Web Navigation . Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly, 1998.

Head, Alison. (1999). Design Wise: A Guide for Evaluating the Interface Design of Information Resources. Medford, NJ: Information Today.

Horton, William. (2000). Designing Web Based Training. New York: Wiley.

Several of these titles are also available for a member discount from ASIS online bookstore at  www.asis.org/Publications/bookstore/home.html

Richard Zwies is assistant registrar, Special Collections and Visual Resources, Getty Research Institute, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Suite 1100, Los Angeles, CA 90049-1688. He can be reached by phone and fax at 310/440-7635 or by e-mail at RZwies@Getty.edu

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