Job Description: Information Architect (At An “Integrated” Agency)

A friend of mine who works in a traditional advertising and PR agency that’s evolving toward “integration” asked me about job descriptions for information architects – he was looking for a way to talk about a position called “IA” or “digital planner” that would make sense to the principals at his firm. I didn’t come up with anything good after Googling for two minutes so I decided to roll my own:

The role of the information architect is to help discover and articulate the “why” of the project, and to work directly with the client and horizontally across vertically-oriented disciplines within the agency to ensure consistency and continuity of meaning in the processes, products and success metrics the team uses, creates and measures its outcomes with.

In the early stages of the project, the information architect assists in the formulation of strategy, and uses simple pictures and complex linguistic structures to assist the team and the client in explaining and understanding the nature of the experiences that consumers will have with the client’s brand, products and collateral.

In the middle stages of the project, the information architect assists the project team in identifying the “how” of the project, and in prioritizing, selecting and arraying specific tactics in ways that protect the continuity, consistency and purposefulness of the resulting user experiences.

During the implementation stage of the project, the information architect listens to and collaborates with the people who build, test and deploy the solution in order to capitalize on the unique insights which emerge during implementation, maximizing opportunities to enhance the solution as it’s being built.

Once a solution is deployed, the information architect assists in the measurement of user experience and in the collection of insights to improve the performance and maintainability of the solution.

How’d I do?

22. April 2010 by dan
Categories: Information Architecture Design, Information Architecture Strategy, Teaching Information Architecture | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Before We Resume Our Series

Before I finish my analysis of what JJG said at last year”s Information Architecture Summit, I”d like to interject with a ponderous bit of this-year”s

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Summit attendee feedback on the question “how to improve the IA Summit”:

Focus on creating a vision for the profession

This feedback was written on a post-it note. And then it became a burnt offering. It”s a harbinger.

18. April 2010 by dan
Categories: IA Summit | Tags: | Leave a comment

Leonard Cohen Vs. Jesse James Garrett

This blog entry is part two of an I’m-not-yet-sure-how-many-entries-long series examining eleven of the arguments and assertions Jesse James Garrett made approximately one year ago in his closing plenary address at the 10th annual IA Summit in Memphis, TN.

In my previous entry, I addressed the first and ninth bullets in an un-ordered list of points from JJG’s Memphis talk, as well as a related point he made eight months later at the Service Design Network conference. Going forward, I’m going to use numbers instead of bullets for the aforementioned list. When numbered, the list looks like this:

  1. There are no such things as information architects
  2. Schools of thought within and about information architecture have not yet emerged.
  3. To the extent that we’ve had controversy, it’s not been about the sites and experiences we’ve produced
  4. There is no language of critique for information architecture
  5. An adequate body of IA knowledge has yet to have been published by information architects
  6. Nobody takes the ethical dimension of IA work seriously
  7. IAs covet a seat at the table with CEOs but lack the respect as a discipline to sit there
  8. It’s easier for those outside of our field to understand “user experience designer” than “information architect”
  9. with human experience as an explicit outcome and human engagement as an explicit goal is different from the kinds of design that have gone before
  10. In the marketplace, Information Architect job title vs. Interaction Designer job title is a zero sum game
  11. Any other title than User Experience Design will only hold back the progress of the field by marginalizing an important dimension of our work and misleading those outside our field about what is most important and valuable about what we do

The present discussion focuses on assertion number 8 in the list:

It’s easier for those outside of our field to understand “user experience designer” than “information architect”

I should point out this is not a direct quote from Mr. Garrett’s talk, but rather my characterization of a piece of his argument. Here’s part of what he actually said and part of what I’d like to respond to:

…I’m ready to give up fighting against this word [“designer”], if only because it’s easily understood by those outside our field. And anything that enables us to be more easily understood is something we desperately need.

Jesse argues that for those outside our profession, “design” is more easily understood than “architecture” Which may be the case. But maybe not. Many of my clients read the WSJ and in a recent story about our industry they said the following:

User-experience design—a sort of architecture for information that Web viewers see—is another emerging field. Jobs there include experience specialists and product designers at firms ranging from computer-game companies to e-commerce Web sites.
Diana Middleton, Wall Street Journal 12/28/2009

This “user experience” thing … as you’d explain it to the readership of the WSJ: it’s a sort of architecture

One of my favorite famous architect quotes comes from Le Corbusier, who observed: “Revolution, or Architecture. Revolution is avoidable.” From my hugely biased perspective, “architecture” is a clearer point of reference for talking about our work with people outside of our field than the word “design.” I think pretty much everybody understands what architecture is – Corbu gets at this point in the quip above and it’s a big thing thing he’s positing there: architecture is more ubiquitous than socio-political entropy? Have you seen C-SPAN? The ways in which the folks who pay our invoices are conversant with the construct of user experience design, I wager, pale in comparison to the ways in which they are conversant with some of the key concepts of architecture.

A Kind Of Dangerous Description

I think we should be called information architects and that it’s easier to talk about IA with people outside our field in terms of A than to talk with them about UXD in terms of X or D. Mr. Garrett thinks we are now and have always been user experience designers, that UXD is easier for muggles to understand, and that those of us who specialize in and choose the titles of IA or IxD are either “fools or liars.”

Rigid dichotomies: IA vs. IxD. Fool vs. liar. A “Zero sum game?” That’s the topic of a future entry in this series…

I am continually blessed by (read: exploitative of…) the contacts I maintain with my former students from the School of Information. Example: Mr. Clint Newsom, Esq., who after reading the first piece in this series referred me to something Leonard Cohen said about what we call ourselves, and who should be making that designation:

I never thought of myself as a poet, to tell you the truth. I always thought that poetry is the verdict that others give to a certain kind of writing. So to call yourself a poet is a kind of dangerous description. It’s for others; it’s for others to use.

I simultaneously love and hate this quote. I admire the reverence LC pays to his craft by refusing to take or use its name in vain, and I love the high regard the statement has for both the craft of poetry and for its “users.” The seeming-sincerity is disarming, and as a result it makes us all the more eager to allow or even insist that the designation Poet appear on Mr. Cohen’s business card. And that’s part of why I hate this quote – the problems I have with it are similar to those I describe in a piece I wrote last year called The Problem With Famous Architects. When Mr. Cohen spoke the words I’ve excerpted above, he spoke them with the voice of an internationally-renowned and widely revered recording artist and as the published author of no fewer than ten books of poetry. Leonard Cohen doesn’t need to be called “poet” because he’s got a whole shelf at the library full of the books of verse he’s penned, and he needs that designation even less because unlike most “poets,” he’s a household name. Leonard Cohen doesn’t need to be called anything other than his own proper name.

Andrew Hinton published a blog entry today on these very same topics of professional and personal identity, and I’d like to include one of the anecdotes from his piece for your consideration in the current context:

Later that year [after JJG’s Memphis talk about how there’s no such thing as information architects] I met some terrific practitioners in Brazil who call themselves information architects and were genuinely concerned, because the term had already become accepted among government and professional organizations — and that if the Americans decide to stop using the term, what will they be called?

Wherever we Americans land on this so-deep-it-goes-beyond-the-frontal-cortex-and-into-our-lizard-brain-when-we-think-about-it question of our professional identity, with regard to the specific issue of what the global community of IA’s and IxD’s should be calling themselves, I don’t find the rationale JJG provided around his call for all of us to replatform our identities on top of User Experience Design to be compelling. I don’t think rebranding myself as UXD is as good for me as what I’m using now, which is IA. The specific piece of his argument about how UXD is easier for folks outside of our profession to understand is un-evidenced, and I think it’s wrong. But don’t take it from me: let’s do the work to measure the ways that people… “others” … let’s measure others’ perceptions of these dangerous descriptions, and their comprehension of concepts around the IA and IxD and UX work that we do. Perhaps the IAI could commission a study.

If like Leonard Cohen we allow those outside of our trade to evaluate the fitness of our offerings to our craft, and to name us and what we’ve done on the basis of their assessment of how good we are and how good our work is… what words will these people use to name us and what we do? Do we (and/or they) really lack a language of critique for information architecture? That’s #4 on the list and I’ll address it and #10 in the next installment.

26. March 2010 by dan
Categories: Information Architecture Design | Tags: , , , , , | 3 comments

There Is No Such Thing As Jesse James Garrett

I was wrong. The discipline of information architecture and the role of the information architect will always be defined in conjunction with one another. As long as you have information architects, what they do will always be information architecture. Seems pretty obvious, right? Only took me seven years to figure out.

But that’s okay, because what is clear to me now is that there is no such thing as an information architect.

Information architecture does not exist as a profession. As an area of interest and inquiry? Sure. As your favorite part of your job? Absolutely. But it’s not a profession… There are no information architects. There are no interaction designers. There are only, and only ever have been, user experience designers.

Jesse James Garrett, transcript of the closing plenary address delivered March 22, 2009 at ASIS&T IA Summit 2009 in Memphis, Tenn.

Jesse James Garrett’s closing plenary address in Memphis last year is one of the finest pieces of persuasion I’ve ever witnessed. None of the artifacts from the talk (transcriptaudiovideo) do it justice. Reading from his iPhone while stalking up and down the center aisle of the ballroom at the Peabody Hotel, Mr. Garrett managed to, rhetorically speaking, step or stomp on almost every toe in the room; and to great rhetorical effect. There were moments such as the one excerpted above when the simultaneous chain reactions of cognitive dissonance in the skulls of the attendees were almost audible in-between Garrett’s precisely sequenced salvos.

At the start of his talk last Spring, JJG preempted audience questions (clearly he understood what he was about to do), and said my preference would be that if you have questions, don’t pose them to me. Pose them to each other. Publicly, if you can. Next week marks a year since Mr. Garrett’s closing plenary at the 10th annual IA Summit in Memphis. In a few weeks, the 11th annual IA Summit convenes in Phoenix. And while there have been several public responses to and questionings of JJG’s erasure of the job title “Information Architect” during the past twelve months (Andrea Resmini’s is a stand-out, and there was lively discussion on the IxDA list), I’m surprised by how little outrage I’ve observed in the wake of Mr. Garrett’s outrageous oration.

Manditory Viewing

There is irony here if you love the A in IA. In the delivery of this incisively-argued call for getting rid of the “I” right along with the “A” when we talk about the job that more than half of us in that room in Memphis claimed as our profession, Mr. Garrett perhaps-inadvertently honored the rich tradition of critique and of provocation within the practice of architecture and in architectural pedagogy. So while I ardently disagree with almost everything he said, I’ve made the video of JJG’s closing plenary speech mandatory viewing in the information architecture course I teach at the School of Information.

This past Fall semester was the inaugural opportunity for me to talk about Garrett’s speech with my students and I’ll be using some of the material generated in the thoughtful discussion we (and a distinguished visitor) had in class that morning to inform the points I intend to make in this series.

And so, without too much further ado, this is the first in a series of I’m-not-yet-sure-how-many blog postings that respond to Mr. Garrett’s arguments from last year in a point-by-point fashion. The assertions from JJG’s Memphis plenary that I’d like to challenge in this series include:

  • There are no such things as information architects
  • Schools of thought within and about information architecture have not yet emerged.
  • To the extent that we’ve had controversy, it’s not been about the sites and experiences we’ve produced
  • There is no language of critique for information architecture
  • An adequate body of IA knowledge has yet to have been published by information architects
  • Nobody takes the ethical dimension of IA work seriously
  • IAs covet a seat at the table with CEOs but lack the respect as a discipline to sit there
  • It’s easier for those outside of our field to understand “user experience designer” than “information architect”
  • Designing with human experience as an explicit outcome and human engagement as an explicit goal is different from the kinds of design that have gone before
  • In the marketplace, Information Architect job title vs. Interaction Designer job title is a zero sum game
  • Any other title than User Experience Design will only hold back the progress of the field by marginalizing an important dimension of our work and misleading those outside our field about what is most important and valuable about what we do

We’ll start out slowly by addressing only the first item in the list above. But before doing so, It would be good if you’d take a few minutes to go and view Mr. Garrett’s talk at the 2009 Service Design conference – a talk called Design For Engagement which he gave some months after the Memphis plenary. Click on the image to view the video:

The bit I’d like to call your particular attention to is the part where he says this:

[Adaptive Path] creates what we call multichannel experiences that include a multiplicity of touchpoints. The trouble for us has been that none of the existing knowledge about design really helps us in doing this kind of work. We’ve really felt like we’re on our own and have to make this stuff up as we go along.

Jesse James Garrett, Design For EngagementService Design Network annual conference 2009

So here’s the thing. When you look at these three statements, and admittedly, these things were said at two different times in two different contexts:

  • There is no such thing as an information architect. IA does not exist as a profession.
  • None of the existing knowledge about design really helps us in doing UX work.
  • Designing with human experience as an explicit outcome and human engagement as an explicit goal is different from the kinds of design that have gone before

In spite of their having been said in different contexts, these assertions would seem to flow from a common stream, fed by a deep well of arrogance and ahistoricism. Which is difficult for me to reconcile with my admiration for Mr. Garrett’s abilities as an author and presenter. As I’ve used and admired Mr. Garrett’s work in the context of my IA course over the years it’s occurred to me on more than one occasion that JJG must be unconscious of the work of the original three-lettered agent provocateur, Mr. RSW. In fact, Garrett’s talk at the summit last year and my ardent disagreement with most of the things he said is what inspired my behind-the-scenes participation in helping to bring Richard Saul Wurman to the Summit this year. To say something like “there’s no such thing as an information architect” in order to score rhetorical points is one thing, but is it possible to score those points without also incurring a penalty for being on the opposite side of fact? When JJG shakes hands with RSW in Phoenix this April, will he be enacting the antithesis of this preposterous assertion?

He’s A Real Nowhere (Sales)Man

Lou Kahn is reported to have said: “everything that people say about me is true. all of it. some of it just may not be factual.”

You know… probably all three of these assertions of Jesse’s were put forward hyperbolically. It’s highly improbable that he literally meant what he said because what he said is so at odds with the facts, right?

If these statements were crafted as hyperbole to assist in creating persuasion – a time-honored and effective technique in selling against an embedded assumption among one’s target consumers – then yet another thing he said in this talk isn’t true. In acknowledging the honor of having been invited to give the closing plenary talk, Mr. Garrett said “I do not intend to repay that kindness by giving you a product demo.” From where I was sitting and as I’ve re-examined the content from the Memphis plenary speech and from his Design For Engagement talk in Portugal, I find it increasingly difficult to see Mr. Garrett’s performance as anything other than a product demo. The president of a firm that’s synonymous with User Experience and who literally “wrote the book” on the elements of User Experience making an impassioned call for everybody who’s called information architect or interaction designer to change their business cards to omit mention of these competing paradigms, and then insisting that the way your firm does its work is different than every other kind of design approach that’s come before it? It’s a sell job, if not a sales pitch. I think he doth protest too much.

In October of 2008, Mr. Garrett wrote:

Being right doesn’t count for much if you can’t persuade anyone of that fact.

Does being wrong matter at all if you’ve persuaded at least some of your audience members that you’re right?

In the next installment in this series, I’ll address Mr. Garrett’s assertion that it’s easier for those outside of our field to understand “user experience designer” than “information architect.”

19. March 2010 by dan
Categories: Information Architecture Design, User Experience Design | Tags: , , , , | 16 comments

No Such Thing As Information Architects: Responding To JJG 11 Months Later

I’m about to embark on a point-by-point rebuttal to Jesse James Garrett’s provocative closing plenary at last year’s Information Architecture Summit. Before I get down to business I’d like your help. I’m an ALA-certified librarian, so perhaps it is not surprising for you to learn that I’m not great at finding stuff on the Internet. I’ve done a lot of Googling since last April and I do not believe that I’ve found evidence that anybody’s yet taken up the gauntlet that Jessie threw down in Memphis last year. There were a lot of glad hands and OMG’s right after the event, but I’ve not been able to locate a systematic reply or rebuttal.

So, before I dig in, if you’ve written or seen a reply to Garrett’s plenary talk that a would-be raconteur should know about before climbing up on his soapbox… please send me your links.


19. February 2010 by dan
Categories: Information Architecture Design | Tags: , , , , | 4 comments

On to Ontology and Taxing Tax Taxonomy

On my way in to the office today I heard a radio advertisement for tax preparation software. I’ve been hearing this ad everywhere, all across the radio dial, and it’s pretty memorable. For a couple of reasons, but primarily because its subject matter seems to have so little to do with tax preparation software. We hear a woman’s voice coming from what sounds like the interior of a moving automobile, and she’s talking about the way that GPS has totally solved her stubborn husband’s (cue his grunting noises here) navigational deficiencies and refusal to ask for directions. She invokes the acronym GPS seven or eight times over the thirty seconds that the ad runs, talks about turn-by-turn directions, and doesn’t make the pivot from GPS in your car to GPS for your taxes until well beyond the mid-way point. When she finally does make the pivot, she just goes ahead and says “this tax software is like GPS for your taxes” and the ad is done.

It strikes me that this ad is a great example of the malleability of ontology. In my entry in the “Explain IA” contest last week I shared an idea that I’ve been working on for a few years now, a pet theory of information architecture which posits ontology, taxonomy and choreography as its primary concerns. I like to think about the ways that information architects shape ontology and taxonomy as being meaningfully similar to how architects shape place and space. The tax software marketers who’re mixing these metaphors and breaking the standard retail ontologies and labeling systems of consumer electronics and desktop software are doing information architecture.

Are they doing it wrong? If you did a survey in the Grand Rapids, Michigan radio market and measured consumer awareness of the GPS ad for tax software, it’s probably an impressive number. And the craftiness of these marketers’ manipulation of ontology and taxonomy in the ad would have a lot to do with its success on the radio I’d reckon. What these marketers seem to have missed though while designing the information architecture for this campaign is choreography. The ad closes with a voiceover read-thru of the tax software provider’s web address, but when it comes to extending these novel ontologies and taxonomies from the radio campaign to the web, there’s some key bits of choreography that’re missing. I did a Google search for “taxes GPS” a few minutes ago, and here’s the results page. Same story over at Bing. Even if you give them a softball query and include the keyword “software” the connectivity between the radio ad and internet content just isnt there.

Nevertheless, I say hooray for the marketers who write copy for radio and the way they’ve done the IA for TurboTax on the radio. This crisp and effective ad grabbed my attention because it made the complex clear. It took something I understand as being easy and a game-changer and then applied it as a frame to something I understand as being hard and in need of game change. And they provide what I think is a helpful illustration of my pet theory of IA.

27. January 2010 by dan
Categories: Information Architecture Design, Information Architecture Strategy | Tags: , , , | 2 comments

Explaining Information Architecture


explaining information architecture from Dan Klyn on Vimeo.

Pictures And Words

Download a PDF of the words and images from the video by clicking here.

20. January 2010 by dan
Categories: Librarianship, Regular Old Architecture, Teaching Information Architecture | Tags: , | 1 comment

DTDT Circlejerk

This morning on the Twitter I saw Joshua Porter retweeting a link to a piece by Thomas Memmel which includes this prediction for Information Architecture in the new year (and beyond):

… I have the impression that in 2010 and in the subsequent years, too, there will be a consolidation of terms. I believe that information architecture (IA) will disappear from the scene, because the web becomes increasingly interactive. IA was especially associated with an expertise in building content and navigation structures that rather had a static form. Today, technologies like Silverlight, AJAX and Flash turn the web into a highly interactive media. Because the design of interactive systems is headlined with the term interaction design (IxD), it will absorb IA as a discipline.

I know what you’re thinking, but wait up – I don’t think Dr. Memmel’s observations can be dismissed as simply another prediction (or promotion of) of the death of IA. What he’s predicting is a functional consolidation of concepts – a roll-up of IA into what he thinks is a more appropriate construct. What I find particularly noteworthy in Dr. Memmel’s prognostication is the way he rationalizes this impending subsumption of IA into User Experience and/or Interaction Design on the basis IA’s aboutness being antithetical to interactivity(!). I believe he’s also arguing for rolling IA up into some other acronym or construct because, in his words “I think it is always difficult to convince a client of investing into your profession, if you are unable to explain your discipline in a few words.”


Many of my clients read and respect the reporting in the Wall Street Journal. Check out how WSJ explains UX:

User-experience design—a sort of architecture for information that Web viewers see—is another emerging field. Jobs there include experience specialists and product designers at firms ranging from computer-game companies to e-commerce Web sites.
Diana Middleton, Wall Street Journal 12/28/2009

Architecture is something that everybody understands at least a little. In the WSJ context above and I think in the rest of the “real world,” User Experience (and even more so IxD) is an over-broad, oddball concept that needs explaining by pinning it to something everybody already understands (eg Architecture).

I find Dr. Memmel’s observation about IA being an outdated idea now that the web is “interactive” to be preposterous. In many ways (and I believe Christina Wodtke agrees), the advent of the social web and the endless interactions it enables makes Architecture an even more compelling frame for how we approach and do this work than ever before.

I think Information Architecture is or can be a very crisp, graspable “thing.” The simplest way to define it is still the best: Making The Complex Clear. The problem isn’t with IA or with the words Information and Architecture. The problem, I think, is that people with non- or anti- IA agendas have had a free hand for taking pot-shots at and re-re-re-defining their disciplines as being more/better than IA in the vacuum created by DTDT fatigue within the IA community. Andrew Hinton said it very well: “[IA] is an entirely too convenient whipping-boy of late and needs to fight the hell back.”

I took a look at a 2003 survey by the IAI asking people to talk about the future of the profession 5 years out, and among the many ponderous notions in the list, this one stabbed me in the heart:

A practical compelling awareness among decisionmakers of what IA actually is
2003 IA Institute Future Of Information Architecture Survey Responses

As part of the prep for a class called “What’s Wrong With Information Architecture” that I teach toward the end of the term, I asked Twitter for ideas about what’s “wrong” with IA. Sadly the tweetstream for the hashtag #whatswrongwithIA has disappeared, but I screenshotted Peter Morville’s answer. It, along with Hinton’s, was the best of the bunch:

30. December 2009 by dan
Categories: Information Architecture Design | Tags: | 3 comments

Take My Gradschool IA Course's Final Exam

This is the first time that I”ve had a final exam in SI658, which is the information architecture course that I teach at the University of Michigan School of Information. I”m just now starting to grade my students” work on this exam and wow – some of the stuff they came up with is magic. Maybe they”ll let me share some of what they”ve turned in. In the meantime here”s the 2-part, course-spanningly ponderous final exam question that I grabbed from the Twitter:

Is Information Architecture a physical artifact or a skillset? How can you tell if it”s done online pokie game right? #IA

Tomas Breen, Tweeting on behalf of Duckarto Web Apps

I think it”s a brilliant question. I hope Mr. Breen doesn”t mind my having appropriated it. If you”d like to take this exam, please provide your answers in the comments. For ultra realism, you can adhere to the guidelines my students were asked to follow.

15. December 2009 by dan
Categories: Teaching Information Architecture | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Engineer's Quote On What Constitutes "Design" And Who's A "Designer"

“Engineers are not the only professional designers. Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. The intellectual activity that produces material artefacts is no different fundamentally from the one that prescribes remedies for a sick patient or the one that devises a new sales plan for a company or a social welfare policy for bet online casinos a state.”

Herbert A. Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial, 1969 (p.129 of 1981 MIT press 2nd edition)

I”m thinking about this quote in the context of JJG”s plenary talk from the IA Summit this past spring. Everybody can be a designer. Can everybody be an architect? Does what architects do constitute something different/more than devising a course of action to create or foster change? Discuss.

08. December 2009 by dan
Categories: Information Architecture Design | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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