March 31, 2011
By Nathaniel Davis
At the close of the 20th century, the emerging field of interest we now call information architecture (IA) was solving new and urgent business challenges in a volatile commercial market driven by the Web. The IA industry matured straight to walking before it had the ability to appreciate the value of a good crawl.
When the “dot.com” boom dust settled, the business function of information architecture emerged as a respected commodity in the domain of Internet technology—standing with legs that were bootstrapped by the methods and perspectives of existing fields such as library and information science. Now, still busy with the historic integration of business and Internet technology, we find ourselves in the midst of a constant birthing of new paradigms—so frequent that they are happening simultaneously. Social overload, mobile exuberance and the looming cloud of computing are the most notable concurrent trends pushing the requirements of how we view, manage and present information that flows through business and personal networks of varying platforms and devices.
An infant in the eyes of human history, information architecture is off and running and facilitating the innovations that have engaged society and technology in an inseparable grip of co-evolution. Despite its gradual rise to legitimacy, the maturity of information architecture as a professional field is best compared to a child taking his or her first steps across a large room to everyone’s surprise. And, like this child, who falls back to his or her knees after those first steps, information architecture must return to the ground.
In our temporary position, we have more than a decade’s worth of stumbles and wobbles to consider. We had gracefully balanced ourselves on the ideals of best practice and myriad alternative processes that left many to ask how we did it. For the most part, it was achieved through the incredible talent and skill of early pioneers who have mostly grown silent. Newcomers have continued the efforts left by those who blazed trails in the thick, entangled forest of business and user experience design. However, they face an overgrowth of legacy methods and confusion about the underlying scope of information architecture. Our inheritance is running low.
After ten years, only 15% of workshops and presentations, in this year's 2011 IA Summit, will discuss our current knowledge and understanding of information architecture and its impact on business and society. There is no broad forum for the presentation of IA research or successful IA case studies at the industry's only conference, and there appears to be little continuity or evolution in IA discussions year-over-year.
While the basic methods of information architecture—as they are widely understood—are being used to bridge gaps in UX design and IT solutions, important formal discussions around information architecture have stumbled.
It is my hope that more practitioners will choose to move beyond hanging their hats on process and borrowed methods and push our debate to more critical and original thought. Jesse James Garrett—an early contributor to the field—took a similar stance on this idea. In his 2009 IA Summit plenary, he stated:
|“We have lots of ways of talking about our processes. In fact, if you look back at these ten years of the IA Summit, the talks are almost all about process. And to the extent that we've had controversy, it's been over questions of process: Is documentation necessary? If so, how much? Which deliverables are the right ones? Personas, absolutely essential, or big waste of time?
What we don't have are ways of talking about the product of our work. We don't have a language of critique. Until we have ways to describe the qualities of an information architecture, we won't be able to tell good IA from bad IA. All we'll ever be able to do is judge processes.”
The gap that we must seek to fill, in the interest of information architecture, is an actionable theoretical understanding of our current processes and methods to which we have ascribed through empirical brute force. So I would agree with Garrett: The field of information architecture can never walk without constantly stumbling to the ground unless we desire more than knowledge. We must seek to understand, and then press for wisdom—even if it means embracing a humbling four-point position.
As matters of practice, discipline, research and theory have slowly surfaced within recent memory, their discussion depicts a field of information architecture that is crawling—probing ideas that might give it legs upon which to stand and walk firmly amongst the ivory columns of academia and the marbled atriums of business and government institutions. I have only recently contributed my share to this discussion and shall take another opportunity to reinforce my position by offering additional rationale of the important relationship between practice and discipline.
It is my estimation that the future success of information architecture will not come by a focus on tactical best practices around information organization and retrieval, but by practice, period. As part of the discipline of information architecture, we must embrace a rigor that guides how we organize and cultivate talent around the activities of information architecture. For, if we build a foundation for IA discipline, which I argue is possible by adopting a formal practice model, we will enable opportunities for discipline, theory and research, and more constructive relationships with academic institutions. This is our foundation. This is our crawl.
Returning to a crawl is natural and can be constructive. However, while in this position, the field of information architecture must expect others to question, criticize and speculate—and they have. The committed IA practitioner must not get distracted by the sometimes discouraging tone of blog exchanges between highly visible personalities within the broad domain of user experience design. The question placed before us is: do we choose to jump to our feet in haste to do things the same way—only to quickly fall back down? Or do we take advantage of a good crawl by snatching up additional foundational insights along the way that will ensure progress of our future attempts to raise a discipline that can stand on its own? I say, let us embrace the crawl.
My research in developing a practice model for information architecture is an attempt to advance IA discipline from a foundational crawl. It's not as exciting as the thrill that comes from walking or running—the "doing" of information architecture. However, it represents a return to basic ideas that can provide the field of information architecture an experience that was never fully realized—one that can fill voids and contribute to sustainable maturity, particularly in how we transfer knowledge and backfill our industry with competent junior professionals through traditional academic or specialized training.
It is my estimation that practice modeling should be a pillar of the collective reasoning of information architecture because it can help information architecture professionals and their managers prepare for a productive and enriching work environment.
The practice modeling section of the DSIA Portal highlights my work for creating a comprehensive model for practicing information architecture. I look forward to future research in this area and its potential adoption in the field.
Visit the official DSIA Portal page for Practice Model Research
Nathaniel Davis is founder of DSIA Research Initiative and principle owner of Methodbrain.
 Garret, J. (2009) The Memphis Plenary
© 2011 DSIA Initiative | Methodbrain
About DSIA Research Initiative
DSIA Research Initiative is a private think tank dedicated to advancing a formalized discipline of information architecture based on IA theory, research and practice. DSIA Research Initiative makes a large part of its knowledge available through the DSIA Portal of IA as a way to improve awareness of information architecture. The Initiative is also committed to facilitating a collaborative bridge between the professional field of information architecture and academic institutions as a way to offer students a solid perspective of information architecture and its relationship to user experience design.
Methodbrain is a private practice that specializes in information architecture research and strategy.
Methodbrain established and currently curates the DSIA Research Initiative as a way to foster a formal dialogue around information architecture.