Info.Design, Washington, DC
As a teacher of both information architecture and information design, I’ve had many opportunities to reflect on the differences between these labels (and among the other zillion terms we use to categorize people who structure information).
As we know, labels matter. I recall my own label-searching seven years ago. At the time, I was a technical writer/instructional designer with an interest in cognitive science/visual communication. By the early nineties, I’d spent ten years in professional communication, working as a “research associate,” “senior scientist,” “corporate communicator” and “documentation specialist.”
“Perhaps I’m a data stylist,” I recall thinking about the time I discovered Richard Saul Wurman and reclassified myself as an information architect. I believed, like Wurman, we could learn strategies for making information more understandable. I believed we could re-educate others to see the “hidden” value in information for improving organizational performance. Did my belief in structure, process, and performance make me an information architect? I intended to find out.
Before too long, I had an opportunity to teach a course in “Document and Information Design.” Armed with Karen Schriver’s Dynamics in Document Design and Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things, my university students explored ways we could envision the reader as an active participant and major stakeholder in the design/development of documents. Did they care if they were document designers or information designers? Not really. Did they consider themselves budding information architects? Probably not.
Six months later, my colleague and I launched a course, “Information Architecture,” to adult learners. Although we found the label interesting, it didn’t matter as much as the necessity to deal with the increasing onslaught of online information.
By the time we developed the course structure for a 2-day IA class, we were able to use Rosenfeld/Morville’s text Information Architecture for the World Wide Web to complement the class. Their perspectives were useful, as my students had shifted once more – from communication/information professionals to web site builders.
These students had a job to do. They were captivated by the research only to the extent that it helped them build communication products in which their users could find information, use it, and appreciate the experience. As web-builders, they wanted strategies for “real world” IA – developing communication products in the context of people, politics, pitfalls, and possibilities.
This remains true today. Not surprisingly, my information design students want this context as well. Few care if they are called information designers. But all want to find ways to present information with the user in mind.
So do these labels matter? I offer a resounding, “sort of.” A new label supported me as I began to differentiate my work from that of a traditional “writer.” But labels can thwart us as well. For example, I’ve worked with web writers who were not willing to think visually (after all, they were “writers” – they believed they should attend to words only). Will they be able to help their users? Probably not.
The label Information Architect carries with it real-world implications. As information architects we must help users see the untapped potential of information structure. We must strategize, plan, render, manage, build, and measure so we can help organizations improve performance, boost productivity, and increase profitability. Users need results, not labels. #
Editor, Information Design
Experience Design takes us to the next quantum level of design: information design is only a subset, and a razor-thin one at that, of experience design. Wurman’s definition of information architecture isn’t non-scalable, as Lou contends. It’s passe. Experience design paradigmatically trumps information architecture.
Information design, of course, was invented by form designers to give their profession a unique disciplinary edge. It pertains to the organization of information generally, in any medium, to achieve the information’s efficient and effective dissemination. In its original form, information design only roughly accommodated interactionist methodologies.
Information design vied with information architecture – a term lifted from computer science, where it still means the structure of information processed by a CPU or database – for supremacy as a way of describing the new professional activities associated with interactive technologies. Information architecture, largely through Wurman’s influence (and press engine), triumphed.
But information architecture did not become enlarged in the process. It remained a limited and inadequate framework for analyzing the design of experience.
There was a time when information architecture may have referred in a general way to the structuring of learning environments. Its use subsequently shrunk to signify only interactive informational environments; and then it shrank once more, to mean only interactive informational environments represented by Web artifacts (like web pages). At this point, IA became irrelevant to everyone except web designers/IAs and heavy users of the web. This may not sit well with Lou, but in fact I believe that what Argus does is bigger than IA, more like ED as I define it.
ED is about the systematic design and construction of multidimensional learning environments which, on a timeline, make possible the catalyzing of experiences. Experiences so designed are intended to change the participants’ beliefs, understanding, actions, or all four. They are multi-platform, in the broadest sense: the physical, haptic experience is as important – some would say, more important – than ephemeral, virtual experience. The former, in many cases, is irresistible: a taste, a scent, a blow to the head; bright lights, darkness, motion, stasis. The virtual experience, as my healer partner likes to say, is “all in the head.” This may not be true in an immersive 3D environment in a virtual-reality Cave, but it certainly is sitting in front of my computer (even a powerful one) with a tiny monitor that subtends only 40 degrees of the visual field, inadequate support of streaming video, and sound quality on a par with my Radio Shack portable radio.
Then there are experiences which are unintentional as well as non-digital, powerful nonetheless. These are the synergetic result of participants interacting with designs in unanticipated ways due to personal histories, psychical and physiological idiosyncrasies, and so forth. Not surprisingly, these constitute the majority of experiences since no design can encompass all possible variations in terms of participant perceptions and reactions. Gradually we may winnow down the possibilities, more accurately prescribing what produces experiences and gaining great power in the process. Jeremy Rifkin, in The Age of Access (Tarcher/Putnam, 2000), fears our power will become Promethean, dooming free choice and turning every human experience into a managed affair. I hope not. #
User-Centered Information/Interaction/Usability Architect/Designer
Cognetics Corporation, Princeton, NJ
What’s in a name, indeed? User Experience v. User Interaction v. User Interface v. Information Architecture v. Information Design v. Human Factors v. User-Centered Design v. Performance Centered Design v. … As far as I can tell, a choice of title says more about “where you got on the bus” than any real distinction of goals or often even of results (assuming two equally good designers are being compared). In other words, it says something about your background, and perhaps your skill set. It might also say something about your approach to design.
Perhaps we can all agree on this: To create a successful web site, application or virtually any product you must know something about your users – who they are, what they are trying to accomplish, and they way they think about the task.
But, perhaps not. Definitions of an information architect as “the individual who organizes patterns in data, making the complex clear” focus on the person and their design process. Contrast this with the definition of usability in ISO 9241 – “The extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use” – and its focus on the results of the design work. Does information architecture start from the information, while usability or user-centered design starts from the person and the context of use?
After that, specific skills solve different problems: indexing and information retrieval organize large collections of information; ergonomics informs the design of physical interaction; ethnography and psychology provide research techniques; usability and user-centered design help people work effectively.
In defining a field, each person seems to look at the world and place themselves in the center of the circle, giving their specialty top billing as the summation of all the others. What exactly is gained by this political one-upmanship? In the face of this inflation, I find myself pulling back to the simplest craft title I can find. Or avoiding titles altogether. Sometimes it’s easier to simply say that for any project I take on, I start from the people who will use the product and try to figure out what I need to do to make it usable for them.
Efficient, effective, satisfying.
Let’s concentrate on doing the work. #