Information Architecture Then, Now and Next

The emergence of AI has brought new opportunity for information architecture to take on a critical role in the design and development of artificially intelligent applications. The dissolution of the Information Architecture Institute (IAI) has left no professional resource to educate IAs interested in seizing this opportunity or for business that need uniquely skilled IAs.

Enter Next IA, a consortium of professionals who combine information organization tools (ontology, taxonomy, knowledge graphs, structured data, etc.) with system-thinking and soft system methodology for a cross-discipline approach to addressing AI development issues.

Next, Not New

Information architecture was around long before the Polar Bear book applied library science concepts in the late 1990’s. As early as the 1960’s database architects, also known as enterprise architects, focused on information organization, relationship models and information structures for system and software applications. The Polar Bear book and founding IAI leadership chose a narrow Web focus of IA. Most IAs followed along but not all of them.

“We must open the dialogue to include non-specialists to contribute to the development of our own body of knowledge requiring us to acknowledge that discipline and role are separated and that the discipline can be practiced by those in a wide variety of roles” JJG 2002

In his prescient 2002 IA/Recon The Discipline and the Role post, Jesse James Garrett (JJG) addresses the importance of system focus. He dismisses the Polar Bear concept of Big IA/Little IA as insufficient to realize information architecture’s full potential. The narrow Web focus came at the expense of developing additional information structures equally important to communication. JJG called upon the IA community to turn away from the short-term Web strategies to embrace long term growth available with systems.

JJG built on his 2002 call to action with his provocative 2009 IA Summit Plenary where he observed that IA had stagnated over the years with too much focus on tools and too little on the product or the work. He declared that IA no longer existed as a separate entity from UX. This is clearly evident when IA-focused talks and workshops are a minority at the “the world’s leading gathering for information architecture” IA Summit program.

The need for a system-focused IA was further defended by Bob Royce, co-founder of The Understanding Group in his EuroIA 2011 Keynote “The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of IA,” Bob reiterated JJG’s observation that Web-focused IA was insufficient in the emerging system-focused AI landscape. He dismissed the notion that IAs can build online information spaces without consideration for the underlying systems that power those spaces.

Bob observed that the narrow, UX-Web focus misses an opportunity for meaningful alliance with the programming world. He recalls the Polar Bear authors adamance that information architecture is not software programming that is in direct contrast to how Alan Cooper defines architecture in his seminal work, The Inmates are running the Asylum:

“Architecture – the human design part of programming in which users are studied, user scenarios are described, interaction is designed, form is determined, and behavior is described…”

Ironically, Bob mentioned that a 2010 IA Summit planning session considered changing the name of the conference to UX Summit. That would have been a wise decision as the IA Summit programs reflect this as the true nature of that conference and its successor, the IA Conference. The insistence of IA thought leadership to stay within the confines of their comfort zone mislead the once vibrant discipline into the shadows of user experience. System-focused IA suffered as a result. And now, when information architecture needs strong leadership to be part of the growing intelligent landscape that surrounds us, there is none to be found.

The Information Architecture Institute as Collateral Damage

In his essay, The Future of IA Jason Hobbs observes that IA should be a practice that benefits by expanding from its current framing. The IAI was unable to mature the practice at a pace set by other human-factor fields, although not for lack of trying. Misguided direction from founders, reliance on board leadership that lacked requisite skills to manage finances and growth, a misguided platform migration and more left the IAI susceptible to palace intrigue.

Jason presents his future for IA in the form of three cultures

  1. 1st Culture: Library and Information Science (LIS)
  2. 2nd Culture: Interest in other discipline framings and alternative conceptualization of what constitutes IA.
  3. 3rd Culture: True cross discipline work and capability to affect broader influence over the human condition.

The UX-centric IA ground to a stop with the first culture. Next IA is focused on the second and third.

“A profession is defined by three interdependent components: practice, education and research.”

A new age has developed, one that requires exploring concepts that are challenging, embracing system-thinking along core concepts and reaching across disciplines to learn as well as teach.

Now What

Werner Herzog observed that America has learned that 10% of the population would willingly kill the other 10% and the remaining 80% would watch possibly.

That certainly describes my experience with the 2018 slow motion demise of the Information Architecture Institute (IAI). Ten percent of the IA Institute worked hard revive its initial mission to make the complex clear. Especially the newly elected Board that step into an administrative quagmire and worked with diligence and grace to set things right and chart a new direction. The other 10% used the IA Institute as a tool to offset legal liability from an weak process and poor decision to publicly punish a 2018 IA conference attendee without due process. The remaining 80% of membership watched this online bullying and socialization disinformation and lies without protest, odd behavior from those who consider themselves information professionals. It came as no surprise that IA Institute, buckling under the weight of the onslaught and lacking the support of the community it served, was dissolved in 2019.

20 years ago, a core group of IAs formed the Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture (AIfIA) that became the IA Institute. These founding fathers and mothers have since abandoned the community leaving it without leadership or cohesive representation to allied disciplines. The intervening years have seen the information architecture that they nurtured absorbed into what we know as user experience.

Today there is a need for information architects that are willing to embrace Jesse James and Bob Royce system view and bring their valuable tools, along with insights gained from boots-on-the-ground information organization practice in the field, to ensure that artificially intelligent applications represent the broadest spectrum of human behavior.

This is not a New IA. It is Next IA because next is now.