Last night was the inaugural event for IxDA (Interaction Design Association) Lansing, and information architect Dan Klyn presented “The Nature of Information Architecture.”
Dan’s presentation was both informative and controversial. He provided some nice background on the naming of the field of information architecture, citing Richard Saul Wurman phrasings at the 1976 AIA convention in Philadelphia and then Wurman’s book “Information Architects.”
Dan also proposed a way of considering what information architecture is through a target diagram, from core to outside as:
- Ontology (the study of being)
- Taxonomy (the science of order or arrangement)
- Choreography (writing/describing circular dance)
I like this description of IA. I do feel it gets to the heart of the work, and I can immediately consider certain areas of my own job in this light. Of course there are plenty of other descriptions of IA from Wurman, Rosenfeld, Morville, and others, but as I bring them to mind, they seem to be more focused on describing IA to outsiders whereas this one speaks to those of us already in the field.
I wouldn’t, for instance, walk up to a client and say, “I’m concerned with the ontology of your system.” But I can talk with other information architects about questions of ontology, and they will likely bring their own experiences to bear.
After discussing this model for IA and how it circles the concept of understanding, Dan shared two ways to answer the question “How do we know when IA is good?”
- performance (need to measure change in performance from a benchmark)
- propriety (how appropriate to the context is the IA solution)
When discussing this question of quality of IA, the point was made that a functional, adequate solution is artless. It is insufficient. We’ve all used a website or service that we end up getting irritated with, and could comment afterward “Well at least it worked.” Good IA goes beyond sheer performance to fulfill propriety as well.
Isn’t naming always controversial?
The controversial part of Dan’s presentation is in the naming of things. The gist of my issue is that I felt Dan was saying that strategic-level IA work—the work that involves not just end-users but is concerned with larger business concerns—is beyond the scope of user experience work. (I really hope I’m not misrepresenting Dan’s meaning.)
My experience as a UX professional (note that I used to refer to myself as an information architect) says that UX begins with understanding both user and business needs, and is best done when exploring the strategic-level in order to frame the tactical work.
That said, I will say that with all the work demanded of UX in my job, I regret that I haven’t had the time to devote to a more traditional strategic IA-based analysis of our systems.
Dan made the point that this strategic work, though done by a smaller group, has greater leverage than choosing which style of form field to use. He is right, of course. I just think that that work is still to be done under the UX umbrella.
Thanks Dan for the talk, and Chris Bachelder for bringing it together
All-in-all, I’m really glad I had this opportunity to take part in Dan Klyn’s presentation. It was well-done and thought-provoking. Dan has shared his slides for “The Nature of Information Architecture.”
IxDA Lansing is the first Michigan group of the Interaction Design Association, and was initiated by Chris Bachelder of Techsmith Corp. I, for one, am grateful to have a Lansing-based group to advance UX events. Thanks Chris!