Hitting the mainstream in the late 1990s, the concept of information architecture (IA) grew within library and information science, but it is closely tied to multiple fields, making an organized approach to learning and teaching a challenge. A World IA Day 2013 session explored IA through a survey and town hall meeting for insight into how and where people learn the craft. Survey responses showed four in five information architects come from other than information and library disciplines, but about half took a college course in the field. The vast majority of survey respondents and town hall attendees cited practical experience as critical. Without a consensus on core concepts and skills in IA, educators have no clear direction as they try to prepare students for work. Until agreement is established, input from multiple disciplines and on-the-job learning will remain key, though inconsistent, parts of IA education.

information architecture
information science education
curricula
skills
professional competencies

Bulletin, October/November 2013


Learning and Teaching Information Architecture: The Current State of IA Education

by Craig M. MacDonald

Since the late 1990s, the field of information architecture (IA) has played a pivotal role in shaping the structure and organization of the Internet. Although the term information architecture has been around for decades, the rise of IA as an established profession was aided in large part by the publication of Peter Morville and Lou Rosenfeld’s Information Architecture for the World Wide Web [1] – affectionately known as the “Polar Bear Book” due to the presence of a polar bear illustration on its cover – in 1998. Morville and Rosenfeld’s work was important not just because it was one of the first mainstream books to use the term information architecture in the context of hypertext information systems, but also because it presented core library and information sciences (LIS) concepts, including taxonomies, organization schemes and information retrieval systems, as fundamental components of IA. The perpetuation of web-based information services and a LIS-focused brand of IA was not a coincidence, as the application of LIS expertise to the design of information-rich websites was (and is) practically and theoretically consistent with the core of the LIS discipline. 

The widespread popularity of IA in the late 1990s and early 2000s prompted a great deal of interest in IA within the LIS community (for example, Dillon [2]) and it remains an important topic of discussion in the field today (see, for example, Dade-Robertson [3]). But while LIS played a major role in building IA as a profession, treating IA as a purely LIS-based discipline is not entirely accurate. Structuring and organizing information-rich, web-based hypertext systems is still a critical IA task, but the increasing pervasiveness of digital interfaces has led to a much broader challenge: designing cross-channel, multi-screen experiences that deliver different types of information in volumes and ways that are difficult to predict as explained by Resmini & Rosati [4]). The complexity of this challenge has expanded the scope of the field, leading to an influx of professionals who have diverse disciplinary backgrounds (including, but certainly not limited to, LIS) but who are still tasked with solving IA problems. The multidisciplinary nature of the field is recognized by Morville and Rosenfeld who, in the latest edition (2007) of Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, state that “no single discipline is the obvious source for information architects” (5, p. 19), and they list nine potential disciplinary backgrounds for an information architect, including graphic design, LIS, journalism, marketing and product management, among others. This diversity is also evident in their survey results, as just 48% of respondents said they received formal education in IA or a related field (with 19% of respondents holding a degree in library science, the highest percentage of any discipline). 

In summary, the LIS discipline helped to establish the practice of IA but there are an increasing number of professionals with non-LIS backgrounds who are doing IA work. This state of affairs gives rise to critical questions facing IA educators, researchers and practitioners: how do people learn to do IA? And, in turn, how do we (and should we) teach IA? 

Data Collection at World IA Day 2013
As one of the Information Architecture Institute’s signature events, World IA Day (WIAD) celebrates the practice of IA through a series of synchronous but independent events at various locations throughout the world. WIAD 2013 was held on Saturday, February 9, and consisted of 15 official events (one for each year since the 1998 publication of Morville and Rosenfeld’s work) and six unofficial “grassroots” events. In a sign that IA has global reach, events were held in 15 countries across six continents: North America (United States, Canada), South America (Argentina, Brazil, Colombia), Asia (Japan, United Arab Emirates), Europe (UK, France, Italy, Poland, Belgium, Hungary, Romania), Africa (South Africa) and Australia (Canberra). Although WIAD is a global event, each individual location is responsible for defining the scope and format of the local events, which typically include keynote presentations, panel discussions, interactive workshops and/or small group breakout sessions. 

Early in the planning process, the New York City production committee (of which the author was a member) was inspired by the high concentration of IA and IA-related courses offered in the New York City area (including New York University, Parsons the New School for Design, Pratt Institute and the School of Visual Arts) and decided to organize a session focused on IA education. Although the idea began as a traditional panel discussion, it soon became apparent that the WIAD event presented a unique opportunity to open a dialogue with the IA community about how and where people typically learn to do IA. The end result was the first-ever town hall meeting focused exclusively on IA education. In preparation for the meeting, an online survey was developed and distributed to all registered attendees for the New York City WIAD event. Due to a low initial response, the survey link was then more widely distributed to the IA community via Twitter and the IA Institute e-mail discussion list. Survey questions addressed demographic characteristics (age, gender), professional experience, educational background and perceptions/recollections about IA-related educational experiences. Results of the survey and town hall discussion are presented in the following sections and provide a snapshot of the current state of IA education.

Survey: Quantitative Results
The online survey received a total of 130 complete responses from 13 different countries, although a majority of respondents (68%) were located in the United States. Respondents were split fairly evenly between females (52.8%) and males (47.2%) and represented several different age brackets, with 40% under 35 years of age, 55% between 35 and 54 years of age, and 5% over 55 years of age. The vast majority of respondents (84%; 109) reported doing IA work in a professional capacity, including 26% (28 of 109) who reported being employed as an information architect, 61% (67 of 109) who worked in the UX profession and did IA as part of their job and 13% (14 of 109) who worked outside of the UX profession and did IA as part of their job. Of the respondents who were doing IA work in a professional capacity, 27% (29 of 109) had three years or less of IA experience, 25% (27 of 109) had between four and six years of experience, and 48% (52) had seven or more years of experience. Overall, the respondents were a diverse mix of age groups, experience levels and professional affiliations.

From an analysis of the respondents’ educational backgrounds, it is abundantly clear that people who do IA are generally well educated. Of the 126 respondents who answered this question, all but four indicated they had earned at least a bachelor’s degree and approximately 60% (75 of 126) indicated they had earned at least a master’s degree. However, just 33% of respondents (42 of 126) had educational backgrounds in IA-related disciplines (such LIS, HCI and interaction design), including nearly 20% of the respondents (25 of 126) who reported earning the MS LIS degree, the most common degree listed. 

To further examine respondents’ educational backgrounds, each respondent was placed into a broad disciplinary category based on his or her highest degree achieved (see Table 1). The results show that information/library science was the most frequent disciplinary background, but it was far from being a consensus, as just 23% of respondents had LIS-related degrees. The second most frequent discipline was social/behavioral science (17%), followed by design (12%) and the humanities (12%). No other academic background was shared by more than 10% of respondents, providing further evidence that IA is truly a multi-disciplinary profession.

Table 1
Table 1. Disciplinary backgrounds of survey respondents. Percentages are based on responses from 126 respondents.

Despite the variety in disciplinary backgrounds, a majority of respondents (52%; 68 of 130) reported taking a college or university course that was either partially or exclusively about IA. Disciplinary background seemed to be the strongest indicator of whether a respondent had taken a course about or related to IA: just 17% (7 of 42) of respondents with an IA-related academic background had not taken an IA course, compared to 63% (55 of 88) of respondents with a non-IA related background such as humanities or social/behavioral science. There seemed to be little connection between IA-related academic experiences and professional status, as 43% (12 of 28) of the professional “information architects” who responded to the survey had no academic exposure to IA at all (had a non-IA academic background and had never taken an IA-related course).

With a relatively large portion of the IA community seemingly receiving little or no academic training in IA, it is not particularly surprising that most IA/UX professionals learn IA from a variety of sources (see Figure 1), with a majority learning “on the job” (83%; 90 of 109) and/or “on their own” (73%; 80 of 109). Just 28% of IA/UX professionals (30 of 109) said “in school,” which is surprisingly low when compared to the percentage of respondents who took an IA-related course (52%). Even more surprising is that just 54% of UX/IA professionals who had taken an IA-related course (29 of 54) also said they learned how to do IA “in school,” suggesting that even those who do have academic IA training may not feel it is particularly effective.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Chart showing the percentage of IA professionals who learned how to do IA from specific sources. Percentages do not add to 100% because respondents (N = 130) could select multiple answers.

As further evidence that IA cannot be learned in school alone, all but one of the 30 respondents who said they learned how to do IA in school said they also learned it from at least one other source, with a majority (90%; 27 of 30) saying they also learned it “on the job.” Overall, 83% of respondents (90 of 109) said they learned IA from at least two sources, including 58% (63 of 109) who marked three or more sources. Looking at it another way, almost three-quarters of all IA/UX professionals (73%; 79 of 109) said they learned how to do IA outside of a traditional academic setting, which implies that there may be some barriers to learning IA in an academic setting. 

Survey: Qualitative Data
So far, the quantitative data have shown that 1) many IA professionals have not had any academic exposure to IA and 2) even those who did have academic IA training reported learning it from non-academic sources. To probe this issue further, the survey also included three open-ended questions regarding respondents’ perceptions of IA education. The first open-ended question asked respondents to reflect on their own academic experiences and whether there were any topics or concepts they wish they had learned in school before they started doing IA. A total of 73 respondents provided usable answers to this question (9 respondents indicated that there was nothing else they wish they had learned, and these responses were excluded from the analysis). As presented in Table 2, 64% (47 of 73) of those respondents listed concepts that were theoretical in nature and 40% (29 of 73) listed more practical concepts (note that the percentages in Table 2 do not add to 100% because respondents could list multiple concepts). Concepts from design and LIS were the most frequently cited, but no other topic was mentioned by more than 10 respondents. This lack of consensus is likely a byproduct of the diversity of academic experiences and perspectives among IA/UX professionals.

Table 2
Table 2. Theoretical and practical concepts IA professionals wish they had learned in school. Percentages do not add to 100% because respondents (N = 73) could list more than one topic.

The second open-ended question asked respondents to offer their advice on learning IA. From the 95 usable responses, the general consensus was that self-teaching was the preferred method: learning “by doing” was the most common advice, as 63% of respondents (60 of 95) mentioned learning IA directly through hands-on experience (for example, “Do it, do it again, do it again. Have empathy for users. Copy/learn/repeat” and “Design stuff, watch people use it and then fix it.”). Coming in a close second place was learning “by reading,” with 61% (58 of 95) of respondents mentioning studying popular IA texts, including books, blogs and other publications (for example, “Self-teach yourself, read books, blogs and follow UX people on twitter” and “Read blogs, study what you think is good/bad, grab some books!”). Not surprisingly, Morville and Rosenfeld’s Information Architecture for the World Wide Web was mentioned by six respondents and was the only publication mentioned multiple times. Other advice for learning IA included taking a class (29%; 27 of 95), finding a mentor (18%; 17 of 95) and attending professional networking events like conferences and meet-ups (17%; 16 of 95). Most respondents (65%; 62 of 95) suggested two or more approaches to learning IA, and those who offered a single approach overwhelmingly favored practical or self-directed learning approaches (just one respondent mentioned academics alone). In addition, it’s worth noting that the few respondents who mentioned academic options may have been referring to non-traditional educational organizations (such as General Assembly) or continuing education courses or workshops taught through professional organizations (such as the IA Institute). Just five respondents specifically mentioned traditional higher education (for example, “Get a good graduate degree” or “go to an information school for a master's”), but all of these respondents also noted the importance of getting hands-on experience (e.g., “I would suggest a combination of pedagogic education such as a graduate program at an information school, along with working as a junior IA on a very large web content management system integration”). The general sentiment – that learning IA requires a multi-faceted approach grounded in practical experience – is perhaps best encapsulated by the respondent who wrote, “[Learn] every way that you can. Read books and articles, set practical learning challenges, attend conference workshops, go to IA meet-ups, contact people through LinkedIn, join professional organizations and use every feature they offer. Volunteer at nonprofits, small business, friends and families. Create a portfolio, ask for advice.” 

In the absence of any formal connection to a sole academic discipline, it’s not particularly surprising that hands-on experience and self-directed study are the preferred methods for learning IA. But if, as these data suggest, formal education is not seen as an ideal way to learn IA, what role (if any) can it play in preparing IA professionals? The third – and final – open-ended question addressed this issue directly and received 84 usable responses. Although a content analysis of the responses did not yield a true consensus about the role of formal education, four themes emerged around what formal education can (and should) provide for aspiring IAs. A brief description of each theme is provided below (please note that percentages will not add to 100% because respondents could address multiple themes in their answers).

A dominant theme that emerged was the value of providing a broad base of knowledge about the field and its (many) related disciplines. Specifically, 29% respondents (24 of 84) stated that formal education provides an introduction to IA as a field, giving students “a foundation to have similar language” and “a base of knowledge that helps [them] be productive and smart on day 1 [sic].” Few respondents described exactly what that foundation would or should be, but the general sentiment was that education “both introduces and trains students to learn about this field, its benefits and needs, and trains them to operate in it successfully.” A related theme, mentioned by 19% of respondents (16 of 84), was that education should address the theories and concepts essential to good IA. Some respondents listed specific LIS concepts (e.g., “cataloging/classification [and] taxonomy” and “the basics of how people seek, browse, find and obtain information”), but theories/concepts from other disciplines were also mentioned, including design, cognitive psychology and statistics. This strong focus on foundational knowledge and concepts is likely a big reason why some respondents (8%; 7 of 84) felt that education can provide an entryway for beginners, teaching them “not to be scared of [IA]” and giving students “a big head start” when entering the field.

Despite a heavy focus on theoretical concepts, a second theme stressed the importance of connecting academic study with professional practice. Several respondents (16%; 13 of 84) felt that formal education should be “integrated with real world opportunities” because “real world experience is better than hypothetical situations (especially due to scale).” Although many respondents remarked that theory can be useful, they also noted that “[theoretical foundation] should be paired with real world experience – lots of it – [because] there’s no substitute for experience.” Others were more explicit about the practical value of academic study, with some respondents (6%; 5 of 84) describing formal education as an important credential for getting into or moving up in the profession.

Combining theoretical knowledge with practical experience is obviously critical to any formal IA education program, but a third theme was related to the advantages offered by classroom learning. In particular, 14% of respondents (12 of 84) noted that formal education gives students opportunities to develop a number of skills that are useful in practical settings, such as research, writing, speaking/presenting and “doing the ‘boring’ tasks that require structured analysis, like inventories.” Additionally, 11% of respondents (9 of 84) described the classroom as a “safe environment,” or a place that offers expert guidance and exposure to a variety of different contexts while also encouraging “freedom to play and learn” and allowing “early and frequent failure.” Finally, some respondents (14%; 12 of 84) extolled the virtues of formal education in general, noting how education “opens the mind” and teaches students to “learn to think outside the box” and “think both logically and creatively.” 

Finally, a fourth theme that emerged was that formal education cannot – and should not – be the only path into the profession. Many respondents (17%; 14 of 84) described formal education as just “one avenue to accumulating the knowledge necessary to work well in the field” because “not having a direct study of the subject doesn't preclude someone from excelling at a job as an IA.” Some respondents (6%; 5 of 84) highlighted the importance of learning on their own (“practical hands-on skills are often best learned on the job”), while others (5%; 4 of 84) argued that being good at IA requires innate talent that cannot be taught in school (“I think people are born with the ability to practice IA. You either have the mindset and characteristics or you don't.”). A few respondents (5%; 4 of 84) also mentioned the importance of non-traditional options such as courses through General Assembly or training through professional organizations like the IA Institute such as conferences, workshops, seminars and mini-courses. In other words, these respondents felt that formal education can play a prominent role in preparing people to do IA, but other pathways are equally valuable and are important for maintaining the multidisciplinary perspective that is integral to growing and shaping the profession. 

Town Hall: Results
While exact participation numbers for the town hall session are not available, nearly all of the over 130 people who attended New York City’s 2013 World IA Day (WIAD) event were present for the town hall session. The session was organized around two main themes, learning IA and teaching IA, with a 45-minute moderated discussion around each theme. Four IA educators – Abby Covert, Carl Collins, Alex Wright and Katie Koch (from Parsons The New School for Design, New York University School of Continuing and Professional Studies, and the School of Visual Arts, respectively) – acted as co-moderators for the session. For each theme, the co-moderators began with brief opening statements and then opened up the floor to the audience for discussion. Student volunteers passed around microphones to anyone wishing to speak and audience members also had the option of writing comments or questions on index cards that were passed along to the moderators. To track and provide a record of the discussion, two student volunteers took notes on large flip-boards located on either side of the room and Amanda Lyons from Visuals for Change took “sketchnotes” of the conversation and shared them over Twitter in real-time.

The first half of the session focused on learning IA and included the following discussion prompts: “If I were hiring someone to do IA, I would want them to know…” and “For a newcomer, the best way to learn IA is by…” Echoing the themes that emerged from the survey responses, town hall participants noted that while a master’s degree can be useful, nothing can trump practical experience. Thus, this portion of the town hall session featured a long discussion about the IA/UX portfolio, which is increasingly seen as a prerequisite for any professional IA/UX position and is thought by many to be the best learning and preparation tool for aspiring IAs. A “good” IA/UX portfolio was described primarily as a mechanism to showcase a candidate’s communication skills through 1) displaying his/her understanding of the jargon/language of the profession and 2) highlighting his/her ability to adapt and respond to constructive feedback throughout the entire end-to-end product development process. Participants acknowledged the natural tension between requiring practical experience before getting a professional position and offered several potential solutions, such as mentoring (through the IA Institute), enrolling in continuing education courses (through General Assembly) and/or doing volunteer/freelance work (independently or with a mentor). In addition to building a portfolio, participants also explained that practical experience is the only way to hone many of the skills necessary to do daily IA work, such as working in multidisciplinary teams, selling and defending your ideas, communicating with stakeholders and understanding the business impact of IA/UX decisions. In general, the first half of the town hall discussion reinforced the notion that practical experience is the most effective way to prepare for a career in IA. Interestingly, the only mention of formal IA education was when a representative of the IA Institute shared information about the Institute’s list of academic courses and programs specializing in IA.

The second half of the session focused on teaching IA and included the following discussion prompts: “If I were teaching a college course in IA, I would teach students how to…” and “If I were teaching a college course in IA, the required topics or readings would be…” Consistent with the survey results, the general consensus from the participants was that hands-on experience must be integrated into IA courses and programs in order for the degree to be a meaningful and useful credential. Participants believed that theoretical concepts were important but that it’s even more important to apply theory to solve real-world problems and practice important skills. In particular, participants felt IA education programs should cover theories/concepts, but that building and critiquing portfolios should also be an important focus, as should how to evangelize or teach IA within organizations (the impact of IA on business goals, how IA fits into the software development cycle and so forth). There was little discussion about the specifics of how to actually teach IA, with participants listing broad topic areas (ethnography, accessibility, architecture and software development) and only a few recommended readings (Universal Principles of Design and 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School). To summarize, the second half of the town hall session again highlighted the importance of practical experience in learning to do IA, with participants favoring a blend of theory and practice but with strong emphasis on hands-on experience.

Conclusion
Survey respondents and town hall participants expressed a general belief that practical experience is the best way to learn IA and, therefore, formal education cannot (and should not) be the only pathway into the profession. Academic study can offer many benefits as long as it covers foundational theories and concepts and creates a flexible but safe learning environment for students, but it can only provide value if it offers hands-on learning experiences. The survey data also showed that while most IA professionals are highly educated, they come from a wide variety of academic backgrounds (many of which are unrelated to IA) and even those who do have an IA-related academic background were more likely to learn IA independently (on the job or on their own) than in the classroom. The end result is that the responsibility of educating new and aspiring IAs invariably falls to the senior members of the field, creating an unbalanced relationship between the academy and industry. Senior IAs are more than qualified for the job, but educating new IA professionals in addition to performing regular day-to-day duties is an unnecessary burden and has the danger of creating a professional community whose members lack a shared identity. With the field becoming increasingly diverse and its challenges increasingly complex, the academic community must take action to strengthen IA educational options and reduce the burden placed on practitioners. 

The first and most important step is eliminating the disconnect between what IA education is and what it should be. The exact cause of this disconnect is unclear, but a strong hypothesis is the lack of consensus about the “core” of IA as a profession, which likely stems from the fact that IA professionals come to the field with a variety of disciplinary perspectives and experiences. In other words, the problem is not just that IA education courses struggle to blend practice with theory (although that does present a considerable challenge) but rather that it is unclear what constitutes IA “theory” and IA “practice” in the first place. For instance, when town hall participants stressed the importance of “practical experience,” they provided few details about the specific tasks and skills that should be learned. And, when survey respondents described the value of learning the “theoretical foundations” of IA, they offered only vague or general descriptions of what that foundation should be. In other words, there is little discussion and, presumably, little consensus about what constitutes the core of IA: the concepts, topics and skills that provide the theoretical and practical foundation of the profession. Without a clear definition of IA’s core concepts, topics and skills, IA academic programs will struggle to meet the needs of the professional community, and the professional community will again be forced to adopt informal, ad hoc approaches to teaching its members how to do IA, which runs the danger of fracturing the field into small, specialized subgroups with competing agendas.

Some of IA’s brightest minds are already tackling this challenge, looking beyond IA’s traditional roots in LIS. For instance, some such as Davis [6] are looking to the field of architecture to explore the concept of “structure” in information spaces or how IA can be re-framed as a process of understanding and meaning-making rather than structuring and organizing (Royce & Klyn [7]). These efforts show promise, but many survey respondents and town hall participants described IA as a multidisciplinary profession that draws knowledge and expertise from a variety of topic areas. Thus, it’s possible that the theoretical and practical foundations of the field lie outside of traditional disciplinary boundaries and cannot (and should not) be limited to a single area. The answers will not come from academia or industry alone, or even one discipline alone, but will instead require an interdisciplinary collaboration among universities, professional organizations and even non-traditional educational organizations. In a world where complex multi-channel interactive experiences are the norm, it is imperative that professionals and educators grapple with these questions as we shape IA education for the future and prepare IA practitioners for the unknown professional challenges that lie ahead. 

Resources Mentioned in the Article
[1] Rosenfeld, L., & Morville, P. (1998). Information architecture for the World Wide Web (1st Edition). O’Reilly.

[2] Dillon, A. (2001). IAs in search of an identity? Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 27(5), 28-29.

[3] Dade-Robertson, M. (2012). The architecture of information. Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 39(1), 14-16.

[4] Resmini, A., & Rosati, L. (2012). A brief history of information architecture. Journal of Information Architecture, 3(2). 

[5] Rosenfeld, L. & Morville, P. (2007). Information architecture for the World Wide Web (3rd Edition). O’Reilly.

[6] Davis, N. (2013). Transforming our conversation of information architecture with structure. Bulletin of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 39(5), 45-47.

[7] Royce, B., & Klyn, D. (2013). What before how: Making a home for information architecture. Presentation from the 2013 IA Summit. Slides available at www.slideshare.net/The_Understanding_Group/what-before-how-making-a-home-for-information-architecture 


Craig M. MacDonald is an assistant professor in the School of Information and Library Science, Pratt Institute. He can be reached at cmacdona<at>pratt.edu.