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Archive for September, 2011

Back to Information Architecture

In Sense-Making theory, identity is a central priority. It assumes that who people think they are shapes their behaviors (how they enact and interpret events). I am an information architect; I have always identified myself this way professionally because it describes information architecture as my core practice, which I simply think of as making the complex clear (Wurman). It defines my professional and personal ethos – and it does so to an extent I was not even aware of until recently.

I, like many of my peers, went through various crisis as I matured professionally. First existential, wondering what my purpose and value were. Doing that while a discipline is starting to established itself is both a privilege and a curse. A privilege because you are both defining yourself and your broader collective without the shackles of traditions and ingrained habits, making progress easy and fast; a curse because when the vast majority of people “like you” are questioning what you are at the same time, it is hard to find the comfort and support that gives you the confidence to advance.

Peter Morville and Lou Rosenfeld wrote a book that described what the IA practice meant for a particular context. That provided enough confidence for five or six years of truly amazing development in the practice of information architecture. I am happy I was around. However, I have not been happy about my community of practice in the past several years. The level of energy, enthusiasm and possibility I felt and experienced in the first half of the 2000′s became marred by attempts to find a solution to a problem that was not ever really articulated.

Known as “defining the damn thing”, we talked ourselves into a circle trying to describe information architecture and its place in the world. In that process, I watched information architecture erode as a discipline. The forward momento became stagnant. When DTDT is described as naval-gazing, it’s because it accurately portrays information architecture’s adolescence. Our struggle with DTDT is because we were in effect, telling IA to grow up, “be a man”, when it was still a child verging on adolescence. That’s the second crisis, a crisis of identity. Unlike the existential crisis, value was not the core question: we learned our worth and felt (mostly) confident about it.

Identity crisis is the failure to achieve ego identity during adolescence. Psychology research (Erikson) has found that peers have a strong impact on the development of ego identity during adolescence. I, in retrospect unfortunately, spent most of my energy trying to figure out my identity and grow professionally while our collective identity crisis was taking place. I would have been a really happy diplomat. Or engineer. Or software developer. All of which I considered seriously at different points, but because I pursued this path, I needed to push myself in ways I could have never imagined and watched others do the same – and I spent several years frustrated with the lack of progress.

Information Architecture’s crisis of identity reflects our inability to change our self-image. I find it funny that the stage of psychosocial development in which identity crisis occurs, according to psych theory, is called the Identity Cohesion versus Role Confusion stage. Defining Information Architecture and being an Information Architect are different things. We spent years conflating the two. Since our daily reality is the work we do, this work exists in a setting that requires role definition. We thought that role was “information architect” and in trying to make progress figuring that out, we stopped making progress on what information architecture was becoming.

Many smart people have repeated over and over that these are separate issues, but to this day I see people not making the distinction. This is when User Experience Design won the battle. At the same time all this was progressing, User Experience emerged as a term to describe the intent of these efforts we were trying to figure out. User Experience seemed to me like a way to refocus from the dogma of User-Centered Design to a more meaningful overarching understanding that imbues various disciplines with meaning and purpose. I feel this has been wildly successful. But what of the IA discipline?

That’s when our poor framing of the question came back to haunt us. “What is information architecture and where does it belong” was now being asked in this larger User Experience context. And Peter and Lou’s definition for the context in which it was defined was not enough. Also, the same question was being asked of other disciplines. This is where Design with its deep and rich traditions emerged as a great foundation – as a practice – to form the identity that could deliver on this promise.

By declaring and accepting we are all User Experience Designers we embraced User Experience and left Information Architecture behind. Apples and Oranges. But – I hope it’s obvious now – taking the identity of user experience designers could/should have simply broadened the identity of information architect, not dismiss information architecture as a practice. Unfortunately for information architects, this amazing progress of the field (UX) happened while we were having a major identity crisis and extremely ill equipped to distinguish the two.

There is no conclusion to this. I see seedlings of the right sentiment starting to re-emerge in information architecture from people who are not interested in what we call ourselves. That problem will always get in the way and I have come to terms with it. I am an information architect because that’s a meaningful descriptor of my identity – TO ME. I don’t care if I need to describe that meaning as User Experience Designer so I can be understood, but I no longer struggle with the identity. The label is just a translation of meaning into different contexts. I absolutely embrace User Experience as the field in which I practice my work and I draw from a few different disciplines to achieve what I need to achieve. But information architecture is still the principal discipline that guides me. It took me a long time to realize I didn’t have to move away from information architecture to get to where I wanted to go. It is nice to know this instead of wondering about it.

Explaining our discipline succinctly in a context-agnostic fashion seems to be the holy grail for most – I feel ‘making the complex clear’ already did that over 30 years ago. Explaining the discipline in context-sensitive terms, well, that I can’t do and I don’t feel I need to. Describing information architecture (as in DTDT) is the top down way to answer our identity question. As an information architecture practitioner I know damn well that the most meaningful structures emerge from the content, so my base assumption is to continue expanding the boundaries of our practice by DOING THINGS and then calling them something when we need a name for them. That name may be information architecture. Or not. I don’t care – as long as we don’t conflate the practice development and our identity we can start growing again.