“Information architecture”

So it looks like I’m going to be keynoting the EuroIA conference in Amsterdam in September, and therefore (and not without some irony) re-engaging with the information architecture community I so vocally left behind in the fall of 2006.

Since I’m doing this literally the day after a talk at Picnic ’08, there had been some concern regarding overlap and/or overexposure on the part of the organizers. Which is not entirely unreasonable: while the audiences are separate and distinct, this is after all going to be the third time this year I will have spoken in that fairest of cities, and at some point it’s hard to argue that you’re offering people something truly worth their investment of time.

So I think it’s only fair of me to bring the IA’s some entirely new material – something that builds on the Everyware and The City Is Here work I’ve been doing for the last four years, that is also engineered from the ground up for that specific audience.

I thought I might start with a comment from last September’s LIFT event in Seoul that kind of caught me by surprise: Bruce’s characterization of the person orchestrating a fabject‘s transition into the actual as an “information architect.” I laughed at the time – I daresay that upward of 90% of the people who think of themselves as information architects have never heard the word “fabject” – but I’d also be willing to grant that those two words actually constitute an apposite term for the task and mindset any such endeavor would involve.

I was reminded of this again this morning, as I was sipping Kona and reading Archinect‘s wonderful roundup of “Design and the Elastic Mind” reviews, in which Fred Scharmen makes the astute and very timely observation that

to organize and present information on a sufficiently large and complex scale is to perform a task commensurate with the orchestration and coordination necessary to construct a built space.

And lo! he drops the unutterable words, arguing that they point at

…the existence of another, more all-encompassing way of working and making: a yet-un-named field that comprises the kind of systems-level thinking that architecture itself might be a subset of.

And I find myself kind of nodding my head, y’know? I’m in broad agreement with Fred that this is a very natural way to understand and communicate what’s bound up in this critical twenty-first century domain of practice, and everything involved in shepherding (spatial, experiential and social) artifacts between their virtual and actual manifestations.

The challenge, of course, is that this is information architecture as virtually none of the people practicing that endeavor today understand it.

Now the very last thing I want to do is reactivate any of the dull, passionate, and ultimately pointless nomenclatural debates that roiled IA circa 1999-2000. I do think it would be of interest, though, to present the idea to the people currently practicing something they think of as information architecture that a phase transition may be about to unfold across their field of practice, success in which will demand the exercise of skills and orientations that are currently external to their worldview. I dunno: what do you think?

17 responses to ““Information architecture””

  1. Enrique Ramirez says :

    On the design of a system … from a 1955 HMSO report concerning the design and development of the British Aerospace Corporation TSR2:

    “An aircraft must be treated not merely as a flying machine but as a complete ‘weapons system’. This phrase means the combination of airframe and engine, the armament needed to enable the aircraft to strike at its target, the radio by which the pilot is guided to action or home to base, the radar with which he locates his target and aims his weapons, and all the oxygen, cooling and other equipment which ensure the safety and efficiency of the crew. Since the failure of any one link could make a weapons system ineffective, the ideal would be that complete responsibility for coordinating the various components of the system should rest with one individual, the designer of the aircraft. Experience has shown that this is not completely attainable, but it is the intention to move in this direction as far as practical considerations allow

  2. Chris says :

    Something I’ve been wrangling with: is what we do design at all? I mean, is it possible in interaction design or IA to create, maintain and evolve a personal style? Can I tell who designed a website from using it? Does our basis in usability and library science mean we’re closer to engineering designers (software architects, system designers) than aesthetic designers? I’m not saying the starchitect model is one to aim for, but I can only think of one or two practices with a house style (that do design, not art).

    Questions, questions…

  3. Stefan Constantinescu says :

    Basic UNIX philosophy of compartmentalizing. Making one application (or in this case object) that does its intended task perfectly and efficiently.

    The hard part is getting the small pieces of the puzzle talking to each other in which case you would need a systems architect, but at that point you would be putting a constrain, a set of limitations, on that object.

    Maybe limits are needed, maybe it’s foolish to compare data to real world physical objects, all I know is the harder you try to imagine how something will work somewhere during sometime of the day, the less and less you see the real picture of how everyone interacts with it, not how it is supposed to and should react to everything.

  4. AG says :

    Chris, as someone who aspires to a personal aesthetic, you know I wonder similar things all the time. And the conclusion I keep coming up with – maybe it’s a copout? – is that clutter is a lot easy to configure in a way that suggests the presence of an individual than austerity.

    OTOH, one can tell an Ando from a Pawson in a heartbeat, so maybe that’s not such a strong argument.

    Maybe it has more to do with the extreme instability of the medium, an instability that has both technical and institutional antecedents. After a solid six years (1999-2005) in which most of my professional efforts were directed toward the structural design of some forty large-scale Web sites, there’s not a single trace of those efforts left extant – nothing I can even point to and say, yeah, that was my contribution.

    (I like to think interventions like natural-language navitorial, clear informational hierarchies, and generously-sized click targets are signatures of my designs, but there’s hardly much that’s distinctive in that.)

    I think it only gets worse for the conscious designer of seams. Nevertheless, that’s where I feel like I need to go, humane and resonant experiences being still more important to me than star-power acclaim.

  5. Christopher Fahey says :

    Ah, yes, the imperative to claim that one’s area of interest entirely encompasses the interests of one’s peers. Please do continue to investigate new bounded areas of study, but please also listen to your good instinct to avoid positioning said new inquiries into a hierarchical relationship with others.

    The prevailing theme of almost all information architecture conference presentations is, not surprisingly, to take a topic and then subdivide it, classify it, and sort it (via diagrams and neologisms), without providing any insight or theory or advocacy except that which coincidentally emerges from talking about connections and structures. The urge to create pedagogical relationships in this way is IA meat and potatos.

    In defense of IA, however, let me take exception to your claim that most IAs don’t understand fabjects. Maybe they do understand it perfectly well but just happen to talk about and focus on other stuff professionally (and for purely practical reasons — few clients are asking for a “Download this teacop” button just yet).

    What’s more, are the skills and passions that drive information architects really relevant to the problems implicit in fabjecture? Your own migration along this trajectory may not necessarily map to many other IAs trajectories.

    Will the future masters (and future mastery) of fabjectural experience instead emerge from a wholly surprising field of study, such as (my own background) sculpture (to understand space and form)? Dance (to understand bodies and space)? Fashion/clothing design (ditto)? Neurology (to understand how humans mentally grasp objects)?

  6. AG says :

    Ah, yes, the imperative to claim that one’s area of interest entirely encompasses the interests of one’s peers.

    I don’t think that’s a fair construction on what Fred’s saying, and it certainly doesn’t reflect my understanding.

    If I can put words in his mouth: what he was getting at (and what I was applauding) was the idea that we’re now in a position to glimpse some of the deeper logics of structuration that underlie the creation of large-scale containers for human activity, in such a way that at least some insights might be transferable between the community primarily focused on the actual (“architecture”) and that focused on the virtual (“information architecture”).

    I wouldn’t get hung up on the “fabject” part, either. : . )

  7. Fred Scharmen says :

    Yeah, what Adam said, basically.

    To subdivide and classify for a second: there’s a way of working that all these fields are converging on, and it has to do with the design and implementation of large scale systems in general. This has been called, variously and incompletely, Cybernetics, Ecology, Infrastructure, Informatics, even Branding – none of these names have been encompassing or successful.

    These types of systems have as as much to with emotional impact and cultural imaginings as they have to with engineering. There are many ‘architectures’, and I’d say that the defining characteristic of an ‘architecture’ in general is that it does more than just satisfy the brief. It adds surplus, and this surplus is somehow part of a greater, lasting cultural conversation.

    What these systems need, sometimes desperately, is a way of working that acknowledges these bigger contexts right from the start. This is, like Surrealism and Jazz, not a style but a method. It’s a method that is, for the current lack of a better word, architectural. Think ‘architect’ like Karl Rove, but on the side of the good guys.

    As far as using the terms of one field to describe another goes, wasn’t it y’all who started calling it ‘Information Architecture’ in the first place? ;D

  8. Christopher Fahey says :

    Fred’s use of “subset” seemed pretty clear to me — the new study encompasses the old. It may not be perjorative at all, but it is certainly hierarchical. FWIW, I think he’s right and you’re right to want to try to define what the emerging study/practice might be.

    I also understand the point that there may be some similar thinking involved in designing virtual and physical experiences and information structures. I’m just saying that there are also enough dissimilarities that the overlap *may* not be that large, especially if you focus on information architecture and not interaction design. For example, I’ve never really observed any substantial relationship between information architecture, as it is currently practiced, and physical architecture. For one thing, the former emphatically (and largely successfully) eschews artistry and style while the latter loves style and art (except when it falsely denies it with mythological modernist gravity). They *sound* similar in theory — minds and bodies navigating multiple dimensions — and of course this is why they share the word “architecture” in the first place… but they share so little in the real IA world, IMHO. Which, I suppose, is why you’ve turned away from the practice.

  9. AG says :

    [Just to drop in some thinking from the other side of that invidious divide. I myself tend to think, these days, of events rippling through a field transected by a membrane, and we call that membrane the threshold of the actual. But maybe that’s not helpful.]

  10. Andrew Hinton says :

    Hi, Adam. Some of us have been talking about these things for a while. Granted, the garden-variety attendee of the IA Summit might not talk about these things in the same terms you and others use here, but it does go on. It’s come a long way since 1999-2000.
    My closing talk at this year’s conference tried to re-frame the understanding of what we’re doing when we “do IA” in a similar direction. Namely, that what we’ve been doing all along is shaping context and connection in digital spaces. I’d be curious to see what you think. http://www.inkblurt.com/2008/04/15/linkosophy/

  11. AG says :

    I dunno, man. I read through all 102 slides, and while I’m bound to applaud your attempt to broaden the parameters of the IA “conversation,” at the end I still wasn’t sure just how your construction of “infospace” was meaningfully spatial.

    What made Gibson’s imaginal cyberspace just that was that it extended in three (virtual) dimensions, affording distribution of resources, and navigation between them, along x, y, and z axes (and t as well). Your infospace, that I can tell, is just another word for the one-D space of the Web. (How many direction buttons does your browser have?)

    Relying on the metaphor of informational “spaces” to describe anything that happens on the Web gets us into trouble pretty quickly, because the interaction modes offered by the Web have very little to do with the way things work out in the actual – the latter has physics, you know? Or latent power dynamics, valuations inscribed into the world by our experience of the situated body (up/sacred:down/profane, forward/future:back/past, “dexter” and “sinister,” and so on). And to be blunt, I don’t see anything emerging from the IA community of practice, in the near term anyway, that even pretends to offer an account of that.

    To my mind, what happens when the informational layer is folded back into the physical pretty quickly escapes the conceptual vocabulary that community has available to it. In fairness, though, the challenge involved escapes the conceptual vocabulary of every extant professional community, which is precisely what I’m trying to argue: there’s a new domain of practice aborning here, and it’s absolutely voracious for relevant insights. For my own reasons, I’d like to see at least some people who now think of themselves as information architects take this challenge on. I’m willing to bet you’d be sympathetic to such a turn as well.

    I also have one or two quibbles with your characterization of the reasons for the AK47’s popularity – I think the far wider global availability of 7.62mm ammunition has a lot to do with that – but I get the point you’re trying to make.

    At the end of the day, what I don’t want to see happen is for IAs to define themselves so narrowly as being about content semantics, or taxonomy, or “findability” (whatever that means), that they miss the epochal opportunity to escape the backwater Web. Call me sentimental, but that would sadden me.

  12. Larry Irons says :

    Adam said:

    “I think it only gets worse for the conscious designer of seams. Nevertheless, that’s where I feel like I need to go, humane and resonant experiences being still more important to me than star-power acclaim.”

    Where does IA stand on the design question of seamlessness in ubiquitous computing? I wrote an entry some time back that indirectly addresses the issue noting, “Those who contend the goal of a seamless interface is a well-intentioned effort to relieve those using ubiquitous mobile devices from information overload often fail to mention up front that all connected devices provide seams of control. You might say that proponents of seamful design are the Libertarians of experience design, contending that control over the agency of any device belongs with the person who uses it, especially if they own it.”


  13. Andrew Hinton says :

    Adam: thanks for taking the time to give such thoughtful feedback.
    I agree that *nobody* has the vocabulary you mention — hence my push in that presentation to try moving that community (and anybody else wanting to join) in that direction. I just happen to think that what sparked the current IA community’s coalescence was precisely that question: that ‘new domain’ you mention. But the conceptual frame the bulk of the IA community brought to it (the Lib Sci-ish POV) was a victim of its own success to an extent, and runs the risk of making a lot of people stay nibbling at the edges of that domain, missing the bigger picture. How many will join in that conversation remains to be seen … but I know quite a few who are itching for it.

    My simplistic take on ‘space,’ while hopefully adequate for a rushed hour-long presentation, is definitely only a pointer toward a more complicated idea. I’d love to see more people engaged in the conversation to figure that out. I suspect that understanding ‘context’ is somehow at the heart of it: that much of the challenge ahead is understanding how things that the contextual divisions the physical world afforded us by default (and that helped form so much of our language, ethics, culture) are being effaced or at least shifted and merged in various ways through digital connection (and ubiquity). Facebook’s Beacon, for example, felt like such a violation because it exposed private contexts within a public context; RFID usage is scary in part because the context for which one might agree to use it (tracking my luggage while it’s at the airport) could be used for all sorts of other things (government, industry, whoever). And that’s just the ethical question … besides that, there’s just the issue of how to shape and connect contexts so they’re useful to begin with.
    I’m hoping that’s a start toward a conceptual vocabulary? I’m sure one will emerge eventually. These things take time. But I’m impatient :-)

  14. Joe Lamantia says :

    Phase transition ahead? Definitely. But to what?


    Looking beyond the immediate focus of potential changes to any single field (IA or otherwise), there may be a Prigogenic Leap of sorts on the way for everyone:


    And it seems more apparent every day that our current predominantly spatial frames are already insufficient/inadequate. The problem is, we seem to have some strong inbuilt tendencies towards spatial frames. [Apologies in advance, but I’m not an evolutionary neuropsychobiologist, and it’s too late at night to dig up supporting citations…]

    Let me bring in something you said in a comment:

    “I myself tend to think, these days, of events rippling through a field transected by a membrane, and we call that membrane the threshold of the actual.”

    That’s outstanding. But what’s notable about this frame in terms of the discussion at hand is that it is still relying heavily on spatial constructs. I don’t mean to nitpick, I point this out because it’s a good example of how deeply spatial frames are ‘built in’ to the way humans interpret and frame most (though not all, and often not exclusively) of reality. This means that we perhaps are now – and possibly always will be – trying to apply inaccurate or inadequate spatial frames of reference to things that are fundamentally non-spatial, or spatial *and more than spatial*.

    Even when we use other kinds of frames in addition to or beyond the spatial on a regular basis, we often distill them down to or apply spatial interprations post-hoc, or as a kind of common reference framing of last resort. We might discuss cultural conceptions of the flow of time as linear, cyclical, or non-polar, but these are all spatial at heart. And we often frame kinship and affinity in terms of relationship networks. But we resort to a spatial reference to qualify both when we say ‘close friends’, or ‘the distant future’.

    My point is that it may be the case that we won’t be able to properly frame this phase transition, or the future state of reality that will arrive once the transition is complete, from this side [to be spatial again] of the membrane. With some few exceptions – genuine savants, artists, mystics, maybe the partially clairvoyant – those people who grasp the nature of the coming state of things will likely do so without being able to effectively describe it to the rest of their fellow humans. Even if the people who grasp it intuitively can create an internally meaningful language and coherent framing for themselves, without shared experience and a common frame of reference, it will be exceeding hard to know that anyone else ‘gets it’.

    For example, even though we’re in the midst of what seems to be a broad cultural shift toward networks as a framing metaphor for fundamental structures and processes (social, cultural, technical, monetary, genetic, etc.), I haven’t seen much movement to non-spatial frames. Gladwell readers aside, I don’t hear people talking about the relative topologies of their Facebook networks. And even those who are doing so are relying on essentially spatial metrics such as density, centrality, closeness – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_network.

    Which leaves lots of us groping in the fog, but doesn’t rule out the possibility that we’re moving in the right direction, and maybe we can mark a path for others to follow. [How I could convey this non-spatially, I have difficulty imagining – but maybe that just shows my own limitations!]

  15. AG says :

    Those are really good points, Joe, if a little scary.

    It honestly hadn’t occurred to me that we may be in the midst of something that only some of us would be able to wrap our heads around, ever. But the more I consider it, the more that makes sense to me.

    There are metaphors and symbols I use, privately and internally, to capture the substance of what I think is going on in n-dimensional dataspaces, and they tend to be only partially commensurate with those that other folks use.

    Ben Cerveny, for example, points out that what you see on the screen in games like SimCity or Civ IV or GTA or WoW is a flattened but still rich representation of a profoundly multivariate possibility space, and being able to grasp the state of that space from such representations strikes me as being a part of why he enjoys gaming. In other words, the “game” is nothing other than a particularly ornate data visualization.

    And part of why that’s interesting to me is because those just aren’t the terms and symbols I tend to deploy when I discuss similar things. Maybe this is so because our language (and cognitive apparatus?) isn’t quite geared to realtime descriptions of state vector in n-dimensional phase space…I mean, math is a pretty crisp way of characterizing things like this, but I simply don’t have the math.

    Only the intuition.

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