Listen to the show
- The Informed Life episode 17: Rachel Price on Improvisation
- The Informed Life episode 65: Sarah Barrett on Architectural Scale
- A brief history of information architecture (pdf) by Peter Morville
- Information Architects by Richard Saul Wurman
- David Macaulay
- Alexander Tsiaras
- Why Software is Eating the World by Marc Andreessen (WSJ paywall)
- Dave Gray
- The Information Architecture Institute
- How to Make Sense of Any Mess by Abby Covert
- Information Architecture: For the Web and Beyond by Louis Rosenfeld, Peter Morville, and Jorge Arango
- The Information Architecture Conference
- World IA Day
- Information Architects Facebook group
- UX Design Information Architecture LinkedIn group
- Mags Hanley’s Information Architecture Masterclasses
- Jorge Arango’s Information Architecture Essentials workshop
Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links.
Read the transcript
A question from Vinish Garg
The first question comes from Vinish Garg. And I apologize if I have mispronounced that. Vinish is based in Chandigarh, and he writes, “the design agencies with around a hundred plus headcount have big and experienced teams and use of research, interaction, design, and UX design. But many of them don’t have an information archive. How do they see the need of a specialist IA and make space for this role?” And he adds a postscript, he says “those who have an IA, I spoke to many of them, but they are doing wireframes or card sorting without really understanding anything of taxonomy or findability. This is misplaced IA.”
All right. So, let me take the question first. Information architecture in general has withered as a job title. In the last 20 years, we’ve seen fewer and fewer people signing up to become information architects in organizations, not just in internal design teams, but also in agencies. In fact, I don’t know many organizations that still have internal information architects.
One notable exception — and I’m just calling it out because we’ve had two of their folks in the show — is Microsoft. Rachel Price and Sarah Barrett, both former guests of The Informed Life, are information architects within Microsoft. So, that’s an example of an organization that still has the role internally.
But I think that the more common scenario is that there is someone with another job title. It might be a UX designer or interaction designer or something like that, is tasked with structuring the system somehow.
Sadly. I think that the even more common scenario is that no one does this explicitly at all, and they’re just basically painting screens. I suspect that is the more common scenario. And it’s a shame, because information architecture is very important, especially if you’re dealing with a large complex system that presents a lot of information to end users.
I want to comment a bit on the postscript. I think that it may be the case that there are people who, as Vinish points out, are practicing what they call information architecture, but they’re doing it very superficially. And I encounter this most often in the confusion that people have between site maps and information architecture. I’ve seen folks draw up an outline in the form of a site map and basically call it a day.
A site map is a useful artifact for communicating structural intent, but there’s much more to information architecture than making a site map. And for many interactive systems, a site map might not even be the most appropriate artifact to communicate intent. Site maps tend to be very hierarchical, which is something that is more appropriate for some systems than others.
I expect that, given the waning of information architecture, as I was saying earlier, much of what is practiced today under the rubric of information architecture is kind of cargo cult IA, where folks go through the motions of doing something like putting together a site map without understanding the reasoning behind the decisions they’re making or why they’re even making the artifact at all.
And this is not something that’s unique to IA. There are a lot of other areas of practice, other disciplines, where folks adopt the superficial trappings of the practice without really understanding the foundations. And in the case of information architecture, the foundations have to do with making meaningful distinctions. So, setting things aside in categories that are recognizable to the users of the system, that allow them to relate to the information in the system in meaningful ways, with the goal of ultimately making the system easier to use by making information easier to find and understand.
Now, Vinish asked specifically about the context of agencies. I don’t know much about the Indian market, but here in the U.S., the role of agencies in the design process has also waned as compared to 20 years ago. A lot of the work is happening internally in organizations, and that might be part of the reason why the role has waned as well.
Because I think that people think about information architecture — if they think about it at all — when there’s a major system change, when there’s a redesign or a new product is being built and not so much during the day-to-day operations of the system. Again, there are exceptions. I called out Rachel and Sarah, who are part of a team that has ongoing responsibilities, because it’s such a large system where so much content is produced.
But in many cases, folks only need to do this sort of thing when they’re making a major change, when they’re implementing a new system or redesigning a system, as I said before. Which would lead me to expect that it is a role that would be more appropriate for design agencies, if, for no other reason, because design agencies do deal with more projects at the beginning their life, as opposed to the operational phase of the project.
But alas, as Vinish points out, the role has also been waning in agencies as well. I don’t know how they see the need for IA specialists. I don’t know that they’d see the need for IA specialists. I believe that more likely they are experiencing the pain of not having an information architect in the team.
Peter Morville has written of the “pain with no name” in reference to information architecture, this idea that people in the team might know that there’s a problem, but they don’t know how to name it. And they don’t know that I’m more careful distinction making our structuring of the information in the environment might be part of the solution.
And the net result is that frankly, information architecture isn’t as popular as it used to be. And that may be a failing on the part of us who practice IA. We simply haven’t been very good at explaining why it’s important, why it’s needed and why teams should consider having folks look after this stuff. That said, I know that there are people doing it out there. They just don’t have the job title information architect — or at least that’s what I would like to be the case.
A question from Jose Gutierrez
The next question comes from Jose Gutierrez; I think Jose is writing from Costa Rica. He writes, “I’m curious about what subjects does IA impact, but people normally don’t associate with.”
These days, most people who think about information architecture — at least the few that do — think of it in relation to user experience design or digital design. But when I first learned about information architecture, I did so through Richard’s Saul Wurman’s 1996 book Information Architects. The impression that I got from that book was that IA was much, much broader.
The very cover of the book has three definitions of what information architects are, and the first one says, “the individual who organizes the patterns inherent in data, making the complex clear.” There’s nothing in there about digital anything. We encounter patterns inherent in data and complexity in many different parts of reality, not just in digital systems.
In fact, while the book touches on digital design, it’s remit as much broader. It profiles folks like author David Macaulay, who has produced a series of wonderful books that explain how things work, or Alexander Tsiaras who works in medical imaging. And there’s also cartography and illustration and yep, also some digital design, like structuring websites and that sort of thing, which is what we today, mostly associate with information architecture.
And this isn’t surprising because as software has eaten more of the world — to use Marc Andreessen’s memorable phrase — more and more of our information is digital, and we experience more of the information that we deal with in digital environments. But structuring information to ease findability and understandability is much older than computers.
I remember seeing a presentation many years ago by Dave Gray on the history of the book as an artifact, which really opened my eyes to this. Before there were books, we would write down information in things like scrolls. And what we know of as books — the form of a book, what is called a codex — was an innovation. It allowed for greater portability and random access to the information in the book, because you didn’t have to unroll the whole thing to get to a particular section. Those were all innovations, right?
But the very first codexes didn’t have things like page numbers or tables of contents or indices or any of those things, and those were all innovations that allowed readers to find information more easily in books. I think that those are examples of information architecture, and they are many centuries old.
So, any time that you’re trying to make things easier to find and understand — whether it be in a book or a built environment or a medical image, or an app — Information architecture can help.
As I said, in response to Vinish’s question, I consider the essence of information architecture to be about making more meaningful distinctions. And this is something that applies to all sorts of aspects of reality. In fact, part of the intent for launching this podcast was precisely because I think that information architecture manifests in so many different fields. And I’m very interested in hearing from folks about how structuring, categorizing, organizing information more mindfully helps them get things done.
A question from Elijah Claude
Finally, here’s a question from Elijah Claude. And again, I hope that I am pronouncing your name properly. I believe that Elijah is writing from Atlanta. He writes, ” what are some of the best ways to learn good information architecture outside of school and work. In other words, how do you do personal projects where you can practice real information architecture? Great resources for IA books, podcasts, videos, et cetera.”
This question has two parts. So, there’s a part that has to do with learning IA. And there’s another part that has to do with practicing IA in our everyday lives. I must note upfront that I personally don’t like to draw hard lines between life, work, school and all these things. I think that you can practice information architecture at any time.
Information architecture is as much a mindset as it is a practice. And it’s a mindset that has to do with looking beneath the surface of things to the way that things are organized and structured, and the ways in which we create shared meaning in how we organize and structure things in our world.
That sounds a little abstract, so I’ll give you an example. When we moved into the house that we’re currently living in, my wife and I had a conversation about where we were going to store the various objects in our kitchen. So, we had boxes with things like plates and cutlery and food items, spices, and such. There are many categories of food items. There are dry foods, and there are big bulky foods that take up a lot of space, things like sacks of flour, rice and stuff like that.
And here we are in this new house with a different layout than the one that we’re used to, and many places in which to put things. And we had to coordinate where we were going to store things. Because if not, we would make it very difficult for each other to find things when we need them. And that’s something that happened somewhat organically. We had an informal conversation saying, “Hey, maybe the cutlery can go in this drawer. And maybe this cabinet close to the stove would be perfect for things like spices and so on.”
Some things were obvious where they should go, others less so — and the arrangement has evolved over time. Over the time that we’ve been living here, we’ve occasionally moved things and found better ways to organize our kitchen. So, it’s an ongoing thing and we talk about it.
I think that it would be different if either one of us was organizing the kitchen for ourselves as individuals. When you must consider that at least one other person is going to be sharing the place with you, then you must take into consideration how they are going to be able to navigate the environment to find the stuff that they need. And I consider that to be an information architecture challenge.
I’ll give you another example. And funny enough, this one also has to do with our kitchen. Recently, we discovered that we have a minor problem. This is something that has emerged in the pandemic. It used to be that before the pandemic, I would often work outside of the house. And of course, with the arrival of the pandemic, more of us have been working from home. And as I’ve started working from home — and I tend to wake up very early — I would find that some days I would feed Bumpkin, our dog. I would feed Bumpkin. And then, later in the morning, my wife, who normally feeds Bumpkin, would come along and would feed him not knowing that that I had already fed him.
Bumpkin can be very insistent if he’s hungry. So, if he comes knocking on my home office door, I will feed him because that’s what gets him to stop knocking. And my wife and I have been prototyping a system to let each other know if Bumpkin has eaten or not. I wrote two sticky notes, one that said, “Bumpkin has eaten breakfast” and the other one said, “Bumpkin has eaten dinner.” And we put it up on the cabinet where we keep his food. And the idea was that every time that she or I fed him a meal, we would place the appropriate sticky on the outside of the cabinet door.
And that kind of worked for a while. But the glue the sticky started wearing out after switching them around so many times. So, we tried something else. We tried another sticky, this one on the refrigerator door with a checkbox. And one checkbox says, “Bumpkin has eaten breakfast” and the other checkbox says, “Bumpkin has eaten dinner.” And we have a little magnet that we move between them.
And what we discovered with that new prototype is that the sticky is much more resilient, because we’re not moving it around, but it’s in the wrong part of the environment because we’re normally not looking in the refrigerator when we’re feeding Bumpkin. So, we often forget to move the magnet. And I’m now thinking about the third rev of this thing, which would combine the two. And this will probably involve putting some kind of magnetic board on the door where we keep the dog food.
And I consider all of these to be information architecture problems. On the one hand, clarifying the distinction between what was the last meal that Bumpkin had eaten, that’s information architecture. And another is the location of this marker in the environment. Like I said, we were having a lot more traction when we had the sticky on the door that had the dog food in it than when we put it on the refrigerator door. And the only reason why we did it, there was a completely technical reason, which is that the fridge is already magnetized.
So, these are examples of information architecture or architectural thinking at play in real-world problems — admittedly a very simple one. But it’s not unusual. It’s not unusual for us to apply that kind of mindset to organizing the real world. It’s how we make sense of things. It’s how we structure our environments so that we can get things done. And it doesn’t just happen in information environments, it happens in physical environments as well.
So, that’s with regards to the practice question. The learning question is a bit tougher, because as I have said in the previous questions in this episode, interest in information architecture has waned over the last 20 years. So, resources are less plentiful than they used to be.
The Information Architecture Institute, which was the preeminent place that I would point people to who wanted to learn about IA has seized operations. It feels to me like the discipline is in something of a state of transition. I am sure that there is a robust future for information architecture, but it’s hard for me right now to point to any one definitive resource and say, this is what you should check out.
There are books. That is the first thing that I recommend that folks check out. And Elijah, given the fact that you asked about non-work or school related contexts, the number one book that I would recommend for you, if you haven’t seen it already, is Abby Covert’s How to Make Sense of Any Mess, which is a primer on information architecture. It’s a beautiful book in that it really articulates the core issues that transcend digital in a very useful way.
Another book — and this one is, alas, a bit self-serving — is the fourth edition of the polar bear book, Information Architecture: For the Web and Beyond. And I say it’s self-serving because I had the great privilege of having been invited to coauthor the fourth edition alongside the original authors, Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville. And that book is more specific to digital information environments, but I still think that it’s one of the best places to learn about IA.
There are also conferences. The two most prominent are the Information Architecture Conference and World IA Day. Both of those happen in the spring. The IA Conference is global. It usually happens in one city and folks fly from all over the world — or at least they did in the before times. The last two years, it’s been virtual because of COVID. But it’s more global, and it’s a central gathering for IAS and the IA-curious. If you are interested in learning more about IA, I would recommend that you participate in the IA Conference.
World IA Day is more of a localized initiative. It’s a single day event and many cities participate around the world. It’s driven by the communities in those cities. So again, super local. And it’s a great way to meet people who are interested in information architecture in your own community. So, those are two events that I recommend: the IA Conference and World IA Day.
There’s also social media. There is at least one group on Facebook that is dedicated to information architecture. I know that there are also groups in LinkedIn. I haven’t participated much in either of those, but I know that they exist. If that’s what you prefer, you have those options.
And then there are also courses. I know that Mags Hanley has a course on information architecture and by the way, a little bit of a spoiler: Mags is an upcoming guest of the show. We don’t get in depth into her course, we talk about other subjects, but I know that Mags has a course that she does online and that may be worthwhile checking out.
And then I have a workshop that I’ve done several times called Information Architecture Essentials, which is designed to introduce folks to the discipline. And I’m in the process of turning that into an online course as well. And by the way, if you are interested in that, I would love to hear from you, because I’m in the process of crafting that now.
I’m also interested. If you have suggestions for folks like Elijah who want to find out more about information architecture. I would love to learn about other resources I might’ve missed, so please do get in touch.
So, there you have it, the first listener question episode of the show. I have other questions that folks sent in, but we didn’t get a chance to get to them. So, I might do this again. Please do reach out if you enjoyed this episode, if you think I should do another one, and most especially, if you have a question yourself that you would like me to answer on the show. You can find contact information on the show’s website at theinformed.life. That’s also where you can find show notes and a transcript for this episode.
For now, I want to thank Vinish, Jose, and Elijah for their questions. And thank you for listening. As a reminder, please rate or review the show in the Apple Podcasts app or in the Apple podcast directory. This helps other folks find it. Thanks!