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

Richard Saul Wurman at BIF-4

Also, please don’t miss Walt Mossbeg’s interview with RSW

10. October 2009 by dan
Categories: Information Architecture Design | Tags: | Leave a comment

Wurmanisms from DRC 09

Former student of mine has a great write-up of her experience attending the Design Research Conference. She includes some classic quotes from Richard online pokie machines Saul Wurman – go to her blog and read them.

Update: Katie McCurdy follows up with audio from RSW”s talk:

@danklyn thanks! just added RSW talk audio to the blog – you should definitely listen. direct link to the file: http://bit.ly/19BRuP

09. October 2009 by dan
Categories: Information Architecture Design | Tags: , , , | 1 comment

The Problem With Famous Architects

Since this is my own private soapbox, I”m going to feel free to make a sweeping and weakly substantiated observation. Which is this: I think there”s maybe starrrrting to be an uptick of interest in architecture from within the IA community. The fact that I”m an information architect who”s been hyperfocused on architecture for the past year or so probably has a lot to do with my observation. And yes, there”s the nomination and election of classically-trained architect and amazingly awesome guy Andrea Resmini to the IA Institute Board which happened on the 15th. But the reason I”m writing about it right now is because yesterday I saw that Christina Wodtke”s talk at IDEA 09 earlier this week was titled Lessons From Radical Architects. From the looks of it with the slides she posted to Slideshare, she gave an awesome talk and made some fresh and ponderous observations about what these radical architects did and how we can learn from “em.

Let Us Now Praise Famous (Wo)Men

I”ll admit it – I get a little swoony around internet-famous people. Every once and a while I”ll get retweeted by somebody internet famous and I interpret this as a sign that this person also read my blog and looked at my Facebook and as a result has tacitly affirmed and agreed with all the stuff I do and say on the Internets. So you can imagine the joy I experienced when Ms. Wodtke tweeted something approving about my Now That I See It bookproject when I was pimping it on the Twitter several months ago. She”s a leader in the IA community and I love the idea of being noted by and aligned with such a person. I”m saying all this because I want to make sure that what I”m about to say doesn”t come across as being disrespectful. So with alllll that being said, here”s the thing: I have a problem with famous architects. And even while I admire them, and study their work, and learn alot from them, their practice and experience is only useful to the rest of us up to a point. But maybe no further than that point. Because famous architects get pandered to by their clients and co-workers. Their work isn”t scrutinized in the same ways that an unknown or garden-variety architect”s work is scrutinized. So looking to how they”re doing and talking about the practice of architecture … when we look to them, and learn from them, do we need to be selective with what we”re borrowing and internalizing? Case in point: Christina noted in her talk that Frank Lloyd Wright”s “Usonian” houses sometimes didn”t include closets. And that perhaps sometimes in our designs we could or should or might choose beauty over usability, just like FLW. Usonian or not, these homes were dwellings for people who wear clothes, right? I contend that if you or I were the architect, we”d have been required to include the closets.

So… when we”re tuning our practice with new tactics and approaches, and when we”re convening within our organizations, maybe we should be looking more or even first to our peers for advice and inspiration. The people who work on the sites and products we”ve never heard of. When Jesse James Garrett did his rant at IAS09 last spring, he posed some pointed and incredibly important questions about famous information architects. He noted that while many of us can rattle-off a list of famous IA”s, few of us could point to or name examples of these peoples” work. That”s one crucial difference between famous architects and famous information architects.

Regular-old Architects

But don”t get me wrong – I”m all about borrowing from and being inspired by all kinds of architecture and architects in the work we do as information architects. The other day I tweeted something that I believe is worth noting:

An unfathomable ocean of ideas, tactics and know-how from the world of architecture has been hiding from information architects in plain sight – due perhaps to the then-largely-inapropriate use of the A-word by the cybrarian taxonomists of web 1.0

On Monday I”m teaching a class about how the librarianship-flavored Polar Bear paradigm for and the very idea of “information architecture” became the foundational metaphor for the early, up-front organizational and structural work of web design. Those pioneering librarians and information scientists approached the early web as librarians … but they called what they were doing “architecture.” In their writings and in their practice they would perhaps make an occasional broad gesture toward concepts from architecture. And occasionally, a specific borrowing from famous and controversial architects like Stewart Brand or Christopher Alexander. But the nitty-gritty of architecture … the nomenclature of everyday architecture … concepts like parti and program … when information architecture was becoming the foundational metaphor for the structuring and organizing of information spaces and websites, none of the foundational elements of architecture were included in the mix! Somebody, possibly me, might do a modest service to the IA community by doing some work with and talking about regular old architects. And regular-old architecture.

18. September 2009 by dan
Categories: Duh About Architecture, Information Architecture Design, Regular Old Architecture | Tags: , , | 11 comments

Kai Turner on The Future Of Information Architecture

I’m still working my way through Mr. Turner’s broadside on the future of IA, which presents some very well-crafted observations about the obsolescence of the standard compliment of IA / HCI tools and approaches (wireframes, personas etc.) for a web that’s about to increment its version number upward any moment now… And what I’ve read so-far seems pertinent to the work I’ve begun on my book.

I was curious to see Mr. Turner invoking our regular-old-architect friend Christopher Alexander and Alexander’s Pattern Language early on in the article, only to say the following several paragraphs later with regards to the coming convergence of yesterday’s 2-D web with geo-tagging in meatspace to form an “internet of things”

we will need a new language and set of tools to model environmental interactive behaviours

It may be true that we will need a different language and set of tools to better design for and understand an Internet of Things … but I’m not convinced that what we need is new. I suspect that the tools and vocabulary we currently lack – the tools and practices and processes that will better ensure the success of our designs both with our clients and with their constituents – are to be found in the missing mappings between regular-old architecture and the work we do on the web as information architects.

Just sayin’, not sprayin’

26. January 2009 by dan
Categories: Book In Progress, Information Architecture Design, Regular Old Architecture, User Experience Design | Tags: , , , , | 1 comment

Nothing Is Higher Than Architect II

Obama wanted to be an architect back in the day… before he pursued “plan B” of becoming the president of ?????? ????????? the United States

19. January 2009 by dan
Categories: Regular Old Architecture | Tags: | Leave a comment

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