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Reflections on IA

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06:27 PM ET (US)
I am looking for a talented information architect for full time employment in minneapolis, Minnesota. If anyone knows someone that is sharp in this marketplace please email me at mkretsinger@atomicplaypen.com.
12:06 PM ET (US)

Agree with most that's been said here AND....

1. I personally view IA is a separate skill to "design" (where design = graphics or experiences) because it relates to understanding users, content, and *writing*. How many graphics people do you know that can really spell (arf!) Ditto how many IAs do you know that can really make arresting visual concepts and treatments?

2. We (at our company) have split IA into 2 parts:
> understanding the audience and client (in other words, contextual and ethnographical studies plus a bit of technical and business understanding of the organisation)
> building the "thing" (in other words, design prototyping and testing)
The reason we have done this is because these tasks are not covered by other roles in our organisation. Does this make our version of IA not IA anymore???

3. The difficulty as most say here is integrating all the skills. The problem in our industry (perhaps) is that talent moves around so much and devt teams are rarely stable. Is there are crossover from direct marketing where you always have a stable partnership between the art director and the copywriter?

Just some more for the mincer...

Cheers, d
Olivier Travers
08:41 AM ET (US)
IA vs. marketing

From my experience it's a lot easier to justify IA to business people (aka decision makers) if you show them how it enables their business model. Start from understanding their marketing objectives, define success metrics, and explain how IA will help reach these goals.

Since acquisition costs are usually quite high, it's paramount to the profitability of most sites to retain users. This translates into metrics such as visits / period / unique user (ie. is the visitor coming back, if yes, how often). To use a rant familiar to Peter, adaptive sites increase the value they deliver to users each time they come back (through recommendations, wish lists, ...). So your IA loops back into your business model (more visits and sales per user, lower acquisition costs when balanced against the lifetime value of each customer).

The idea is to relate IA to what business types are trying to do:

- start from business strategy
- then define its tactical marketing implementation
- then flesh it out with adapted IA

At the very least, once you explain, most people understand they don't want to shoot themselves in the foot and undermine their grand strategic plans with a lousy site (which leads to IA but also quality control, user tests, ...). User scenarios seem a lot less like fancy methodology to "outsiders" once you demonstrate how they enable cross-sell, upsell, user recommending the site to their friends, etc.

IMHO The main value proposition should be supported by best practices. I think the industry has been playing a little bit too much on fear and failure. I like what Mark Hurst does, but is goodexperience.com the proper name, considering how much finger pointing he's done? Jakob Nielsen didn't help either to cast IA and usability in a positive light, however true it is that there are many crappy sites out there.

I wonder how you can be an information architect if you can't relate to marketing (unless you want to work for academic or non-profit sites, but even these have a some kind of "sales pitch" that should translate into the IA). From my POV, an information architect should be able to drill down into an business model spreadsheet, point to some underlying hypotheses (eg. transformation, retention, churn rates), and relate all IA work to them. Ideally, one should be able to point inconsistencies or unrealistic numbers (ie. "from my experience, this number of visits per month is too high, here's a more realistic goal we can set and here's how the site organization will support that goal".)

That doesn't mean everyone should be an proclaimed expert in everything, but site owners are not in the information architecture business. If they're in the widget industry, they want support from vendors and service providers to helps them sell more. IA, or for that matter IT or advertising, are means to doing business, not ends by themselves.

Olivier Travers
08:57 PM ET (US)
Anybody know of a place using a PM and IA? I am still intrigued by the Director notion.
08:44 AM ET (US)
Eric - I think the director analogy is rather apt.

Matt - I like a lot of what you posted. I agree that the IA needs to be part of the formal process and not just a person, as the people are hard to find. Those individuals that have a good breadth of understanding for IA (through my tinted lenses) all have at least 4 years experience. These individuals have also worn many hats in the development/design process so to have an understanding and appreciation of how everything meshes and how every component impacts the user's experience.

In watching information applications over time, they definitely respond like buildings as they age. As users find functionality that helps them get to the information they want, they share their experience with others and the application becomes used more often. This requires the application to scale and possibly add functionality to better accommodate some of the new users, while not disturbing what the initial user-base found worthy.

Jeffery Zeldman states in his Daily Report(http://www.zeldman.com/daily/com0501c.html#samerantdifferentday): "Yesterday we spent three and a half hours making the case for standards compliance to the web developers and coordinators of the New York Public Library's website. Standards advocacy is not about crying into one's beer. It's about working to promote a web that works for everyone."

I think this approach of "making a case" is a good reflection of Peter's marketing stance that IA folks may consider adopting.
Eric Scheid
07:29 AM ET (US)
just to riff on the concept of "producer", would an IA be like a "director"?

The producer balances the demand and supply tensions, while the director provides the execution. Who says there must be only one top dog in a project?
06:41 AM ET (US)

I'd kind of like to take on some of the points made here in this forum, and also peter's observation that 'real' physical architecture emerged from a basic human need for shelter.

In 'real' architecture, there is very often a tension bewteen the 'demand' side (client, project manager, special interest group [usability engineer?]*) and the supply side (general and specialist contractors, engineers) - the architect (in a traditional project model [say, JCT80 contract model here in the UK]) does a number of different things: asnwers the brief of the demand side, inject his/her own parti/vision/style to the realisation of it, and mediates and shapes the overall process in order to produce something as near as possible to that orginal vision so they don't get their arse sued off by the 'demand side'.

(* real architects are notoriously bad for not designing for end-user's needs...)

'real' architects attend college for 5-7 years, and usually aren't acknowledged as 'hitting their stride' until at least 4-5 years into a professional career.

I just spent a couple of months at metrius, which is the 'experience'-focussed arm of KPMG's e-business consulting operations. One of the exciting things about that was that the SCALE of KPMG's warmachine kinda opened up the SCOPE of what we could feasibly affect with human-centred design. Through alliance partners and the like we could feasibly reach every e-enabled part of a business, right down to the guys in the white vans installing the 10base-T.

That was scary.

As Mies said: God was in the details, and suddenly they could all be part of our resposniblity. True arhcitectural responsibility. We discussed this notion as something that EVERYONE in the team had to feel (a little like peters riff on user-centrednes being everyone's responsibility) - that the information or experience architecture was a THING, a PROCESS, a layer of GLUE rather than a person or a role, and that EVERY SINGLE PERSON representing the realisation of the clients needs, and the vision and value we could professionally inject to both meet and EXCEED those needs had to be able to express it, hold it in their heads, and understand their place in making it happen.

This is not to say that those who specialise in producing structure for information retrieval, for creating interaction design, for organising content or any other of the hats that 'IA's wear aren't part of that - they absolutley are - but making the IA a thing and not a person just seems to make for a more fruitful process, leapfrogs a load of navel gazing, and makes an easier 'sell' to prospective clients.

IA is all around us, it binds us and penetrates us, holds everything together - it is what gives a Jedi his power...

Right - my other point was about the orgins of REAL architecture and parallels that might be drawn to information architecture... I guess a fair few people here may have read 'how building learn' so some themes may be familiar.

As nice a defn. of architecture as I have ever heard was from my old prof. at architecture college who said 'architecture is the elegant and satisfying arrangement of expended resource' - kind of colliding his own pragmatic views of arhcitects as process engineers as well as product designers if you like with Le Corbusiers more poetic/heroic view of architecture as the 'masterly arrangement of forms in light'.

Peter states that architecture emerges from the human need for shelter - and vernacular building styles produce powerful robust solutions - they also give rise to more poetic form - the identification of place, and the acknowledgement /amplification of nature are two themes often seen (more on vernacular architecture in another old prof of mine, simon unwin's fabulous book: http://www.cf.ac.uk/archi/unwins/aawebs/analarch.html)

In that book, simon's root definition of architecture as its "conceptual organization, its intellectual structures" interplays with this being something ALWAYS there, in parallel with the basic maslow-ian need for shelter. Organisation, defination and poetic connection to something bigger are ALSO emergenet properties of archiecture - which are now seen as the defining qualities of GREAT architecture.

In information spaces, one can see an emergence in the vernacular (geocities, blogs etc?) in answer to higher human needs of expression, communication, social identification AND the basic organisation, usubility, cognition - This is often not address by the bloodless intellectual arguements about information architecture grounded in other media, other professions, other domains - it shouldn't be ignored, as neither should this nascent domain's connections to more established bodies of thought.

just a spur to thought...

cheers all

Edited 05-09-2001 06:49 AM
10:25 PM ET (US)
Socrates - I agree that the PM is the hub, but often the PM is client focussed and usability is not always the forefront. I don't agree that IA is design only. IA reaches in to database design and data modelling for efficiency reasons. IA learns how the users want and can use the data/information, this puts the IA not only in the database realm by the application/coding/programming realm. It is more than design. I come at this from a business analyst/developer and communication theory/efficiency studies and not the design world. Granted design helps greatly, but design can also get in the way too. IA can help bring to light the need for better metadata, but also know that XML may or may not be the answer that will help. The IA know how the flow of information through the process works, from how it is stored in a database, to what is the best tool for pulling it into a application/program for computation, and how it is best displayed. All this is based with the focus on the user. The PMs focus is often on the client and what they would like to have produced and what a budget is, the client may demand JSP, but not need it and the user has to wade through some of the latency issues that can come from that approach. The converse is true also. If an organization already has a lot of Enterprise Java Bean built and in use, that can easily be leverage to build a better experience for the user, but the cost may be higher than developing in PHP, Perl or some other scripting language that is quick and dirty, but will get the job done for the short term.
Socrates M.
06:55 PM ET (US)
Forelock tugging. That's all this is.

IA's may make an experience better for customers on the web, but they are not project managers, nor are they evangelists, nor are they marketeers (I might buy salespeople, but not marketeers).

IA is not the hub. Project management (what, because of the origins of multimedia houses, is often called Producing) is the hub. IA is part of design, which includes information, visual and experience design.
11:48 AM ET (US)
Hi peter - Coming from the Erik you challenged, I think we are both right. Ideally, everyone puts the users' needs at the top of their list. In my experience, though, it's the IA's responsibility to carry that philosphy throughout the life-time of a project. People say the right things at the beginning, but as soon as the coding begins, their attention shifts from "how is this going to help users?" to "how can we make it fit on the page?" OR "how is this going to make the client happy?"

The IA has to be unwaivering. With the additional responsibilities of being the project manager, technologist or visual designer, a person frequently becomes bi-polar because they have to concentrate on the client or technological boundaries. Healthy disagreement with a champion from each camp has the highest likelihood of satisfying these often conflicting needs.
10:41 AM ET (US)
Re: IAs as marketers - I have referred to myself as a "closet marketer" for some years. In profiling the audience, working to understand their goals and needs, and configuring the website for them, we are only lacking the overt application of persuasion to be marketers.
10:33 AM ET (US)
hello, Peter. I like your reflections on IA, and especially the idea of the IA as a hub. IMHO we are a fragmented discipline that is arising from a need as people quest after what the "essence" is of a good site, and how "good site" is defined. Today we hear that graphic designers are "IAs", creative producers are the project hub, and usability engineers are flying the "user" flag high. They all remind me of the blind men and the elephant - each has hold of a valid piece, but none see the whole.
08:40 AM ET (US)
Socrates M. - I disagree that we are just designers. Some of us are not hands-on designers. We come from diverse backgrounds, but we bring in a multitude of skills and research. We have to be focussed on the user, heck everybody on the team should be focussed on the user, but in reality the team is not. The team members do what they do best. The IA role can meld in to other positions, but from personal experience the IA role is best as an overseer/coordinator and to some degree a manager. The IA is the on team consultant for usability and an advocate for the user.

I agree (but with some foot dragging as I don't really want another hat to wear) with PeterMe that we need to assimilate the marketers. We have seen the impact the skills of a good IA can make on a project/application/product and how this in turn helps the client/sponsor/company as well as the user. By wearing the marketing hat and (dot.com.ese coming) evangelizing the trade and the role in regard to the impact an IA can have on a task helps others understand the impact the IA can make.

If a product is not usable is it a product? IAs help ensure the usability.
Edited 05-08-2001 08:43 AM
Socrates M.
11:38 PM ET (US)
Yes, you are full of shit.

Information architects are designers. Designers are production workers. They are not marketers any more than garbage men are marketers. Not everyone is everything.

It reminds me of the hack going around last year that "everything communicates brand."
Michael A.
03:27 PM ET (US)
Not full of shite, Peter. Some thoughts on the topic of users, however. As content engineers, interface designers, whatever, we SHOULD be obsessed with users. Indeed, as you say, EVERYONE on the team should be obsessed with the audience. As we probably have all experienced, often this isn't the case. So as part of a group that typically IS obsessed with the audience we sometimes become the audience evangelists trumpetting "usability this" and "user centered that" to the people who aren't. That is an often sad, but true reality. So when it comes to marketing... I think I often feel like the marketer marketing user needs to the team. Just a thought from everyday living as an Information Whateverchitect.
Peter (not M.)
04:11 AM ET (US)
I like the idea. petermeme: "IA must assimilate the marketeers." Resistance is futile!
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