More Thoughts on the Impending Death of Information Architecture

How “information architecture” is defined much too broadly, frames design in the wrong way, and suffers from infoprefixation.

One of the more insightful social design books of the last decade is John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid’s The Social Life of Information (ch. 1), in which the authors suggest that we suffer from “tunnel vision” caused by an over-focus on technology. Certainly, the technological explosion of the Web has brought about huge changes, as Brown and Duguid should know: Brown works at Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and Duguid works at UC Berkeley, two of the most distinguished technology havens on Earth.

Infoprefixation

One emergent problem Brown and Duguid describe is called “infoprefixation”, or being over-fixated on information instead of focusing on the people who use it to enrich their lives. Here’s how they explain it:

“…you don’t need to look far these days to find much that is familiar in the world redefined as information. Books are portrayed as information containers, libraries as information warehouses, universities as information providers, and learning as information absorption. Organizations are depicted as information coordinators, meetings as information consolidators, talk as information exchange, markets as information-driven stimulus and response”

This tendency to reframe things in terms of information echoes my frustrations with “information architecture”…

Editor’s Note: (This is a follow-up to Thoughts on the Impending Death of Information Architecture. Since I wrote that in November, I’ve had many conversations with information architects and designers alike, and in this piece I’ve tried to really outline the problem: IA at its most basic is the wrong frame with which to approach Design…)

How “information architecture” is defined much too broadly, frames design in the wrong way, and suffers from infoprefixation.

One of the more insightful social design books of the last decade is John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid’s The Social Life of Information (ch. 1), in which the authors suggest that we suffer from “tunnel vision” caused by an over-focus on technology. Certainly, the technological explosion of the Web has brought about huge changes, as Brown and Duguid should know: Brown works at Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and Duguid works at UC Berkeley, two of the most distinguished technology havens on Earth.

Infoprefixation

One emergent problem Brown and Duguid describe is called “infoprefixation”, or being over-fixated on information instead of focusing on the people who use it to enrich their lives. Here’s how they explain it:

“…you don’t need to look far these days to find much that is familiar in the world redefined as information. Books are portrayed as information containers, libraries as information warehouses, universities as information providers, and learning as information absorption. Organizations are depicted as information coordinators, meetings as information consolidators, talk as information exchange, markets as information-driven stimulus and response”

This tendency to reframe things in terms of information echoes my frustrations with “information architecture”. Whereas “architecture” started off in the physical world, we now have to imagine (after merely placing “information” in front of it) what it means in the conceptual world. The once solid word “architecture” is now unclear.

The ever-expanding definition of IA

Worse, the term “information architecture” has over time come to encompass, as suggested by its principal promoters, nearly every facet of not just web design, but Design itself. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the latest update of Rosenfeld and Morville’s O’Reilly title, where the definition has become so expansive that there is now little left that isn’t information architecture. One definition in particular sounds exactly like a plausible definition of Design: “The art and science of shaping information products and experiences to support usability…” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

In addition, the authors can’t seem to make up their minds about what IA actually is as the above definition is only one of 4 definitions in the book! (a similar affliction pervades the SIGIA mailing list, which has become infamous for never-ending definition battles) This is not just academic waffling, but evidence of a term too broadly defined. Many disciplines often reach out beyond their initial borders, after catching on and gaining converts, but IA is going to the extreme. One technologist and designer I know even referred to this ever-growing set of definitions as the “IA land-grab”, referring to the tendency that all things Design are being redefined as IA.

Time for clarity and a return to design

Normally all of this wouldn’t be a problem and we could continue to live while this confusion reigns. But at this point on the Web, when most people are comfortable with it becoming a real and lasting part of our lives, we need solid practices and clear direction. But the more I read anything about information architecture, the more confused I become. I continually ask myself: Aren’t we just talking about design here? And, if so, why aren’t we trying to find a common ground rather than trying to redefine everything?

Brown and Duguid continue:

This desire to see things in information’s light no doubt drives what we think of as “infoprefixation.” Info gives new life to a lot of old words in compounds such as infotainment, infomatics, infomating, and infomediary….Adding info or something similar to your name doesn’t simply add to but multiplies your market value.

Undoubtedly, information is critical to every part of life. Nevertheless, some of the attempts to squeeze everything into an information perspective recall the work of the Greek mythological bandit Procrustes. He stretched travelers who were too short and cut off the legs of those who were too long until all fitted his bed. And we suspect that the stretching and cutting done to meet the requirements of the infobed distorts much that is critically human.”

The Procrustes analogy is apt. When we begin to view human beings through a single lens (information), then the other rich threads of our existence are cut off. If we begin to see people as simply information finders, as the term information architecture inevitably leads us to, then we begin to cut people off when they don’t fit the architecture we’ve created for finding. Joel Spolsky, in his piece Architecture Astronauts, warns against viewing human activities in this way:

“When great thinkers think about problems, they start to see patterns. They look at the problem of people sending each other word-processor files, and then they look at the problem of people sending each other spreadsheets, and they realize that there’s a general pattern: sending files. That’s one level of abstraction already. Then they go up one more level: people send files, but web browsers also “send” requests for web pages. And when you think about it, calling a method on an object is like sending a message to an object! It’s the same thing again! Those are all sending operations, so our clever thinker invents a new, higher, broader abstraction called messaging, but now it’s getting really vague and nobody really knows what they’re talking about any more.

When you go too far up, abstraction-wise, you run out of oxygen. Sometimes smart thinkers just don’t know when to stop, and they create these absurd, all-encompassing, high-level pictures of the universe that are all good and fine, but don’t actually mean anything at all.”

Focus on people’s problems, not information

The danger of infoprefixation is that it recasts human problems in terms of information. It’s a subtle, but detrimental, shift because we risk losing sight of the reasons why people wanted or needed the information in the first place. If we see the world as a whole lot of information that needs to be catalogued, shared, and organized, then the problem becomes one of organization, not one that is based on the lives of the people we design for. It also moves us away from the rigor of design, which is to continually ask: Why do people do what they do?

While it’s fun and academically interesting to talk about the millions of ways to structure information, the entire value proposition of design rests on whether or not the person we’re designing for is successful. Success means that they achieve what they want to achieve. Therefore, we must move away from an information-centric view of the world, as Brown and Duguid argue, and move toward an activity-centric view. This would alleviate the problem of focusing on the information and not the person. When we focus on activities, we are forced to continually consider: “what is the user trying to achieve?” instead of “how do we organize this information we think the user needs?”.

Web applications and the shift toward experience

This is already happening in the form of web applications. Web applications don’t fit into the world of information architecture very well, because they don’t take an information-centric view of the world. They take an activity-centric view instead. And, to that end, web applications look a lot different from much of the early Web. As Richard MacManus and I wrote two years ago “the web of documents is becoming a web of data”. And that data only has meaning when attached to the activities for which it is used.

In addition, this shift is already happening to information architects, who, recognizing that information is only a byproduct of activity, increasingly adopt a different job title. Most are moving toward something in the realm of “user experience”, which is probably a good thing because it has the rigor of focusing on the user’s actual experience. Also, this as an inevitable move, given that most IAs are concerned about designing great things.

IA Scott Weisbrod, in the comments to David Armano’s reply to my earlier piece, sees this happening too:

“People who once identified themselves as Information Architects are now looking for more meaningful expressions to describe what they do – whether it’s interaction architect or experience designer”

Scott’s examples are curious in that they don’t suffer from infoprefixation. This is not an aberration, but yet another signal that IA as it has lived is dying.

Published: March 1st, 2007

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