Thoughts on the Impending Death of Information Architecture

In which I argue that the field of Information Architecture doesn’t fit anymore.

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

Christina Wodtke (who wrote the book on Information Architecture) is angry about its impending death:

“I recalled a recent blogpost by Adam Greenfield and I found a clue. I think he, and Peterme, and Lou and Peter Morville… well, we’re all outgrowing our favorite pair of jeans: IA. And the waistband is cutting in badly, but it’s our favorite pair, so of course we’re crabby. We’re all going to stay crabby unless we finally take them out of our “skinny” drawer and give them to goodwill.”

Yes, indeed. IA as it has lived will soon die. Not because it wasn’t valuable, not because IA’s didn’t do great work, but because the Web is moving on.

The problem is that IA models information, not relationships. Many of the artifacts that IAs create: site maps, navigation systems, taxonomies, are information models built on the assumption that a single way to organize things can suit all users…one IA to rule them all, so to speak.

Clay Shirky, in his talk Ontologies are Overrated, equates this type of categorization with organizing the world in advance. He uses the dichotomy of browse vs. search as a wedge:

“Browse versus search is a radical increase in the trust we put in link infrastructure, and in the degree of power derived from that link structure. Browse says the people making the ontology, the people doing the categorization, have the responsibility to organize the world in advance. Given this requirement, the views of the catalogers necessarily override the user’s needs and the user’s view of the world. If you want something that hasn’t been categorized in the way you think about it, you’re out of luck.”

Many IA’s won’t stand for this, however. Their response would be something along these lines: “unchanging taxonomies aren’t what IA is about…it’s about organizing information around the user’s needs, and practices such as card sorting help to do that”.

In addition, writers in information architecture have reacted strongly against ideas such as folksonomies, which are navigation structures built out of one’s own tags. Peter Morville, in his book Ambient Findability, states:

“when it comes to findability, their (folksonomies) inability to handle equivalence, hierarchy, and other semantic relationships causes them to fail miserably at any significant scale.”

This is a valid reply, of course, except that it’s completely wrong. Equivalence is handled by similar tags and tag clusters, hierarchy is handled by nested tags, and it’s pretty clear that both Flickr and (and many other sites using folksonomies) can scale.

Thomas Vander Wal, in a recent reply to Beneath the Metadata: Some Philosophical Problems with Folksonomy, an article critical of folksonomies (a term he coined), gets at the heart of the problem here:

“This assumption…that taxonomies are great and help people find things by providing the authoritative terms is wrong. Taxonomies are always less than perfect and most often far less than perfect for helping people find and refind information they need. But, we do need taxonomies to provide that foundation structure. We need solutions that can help the many people whose terms and vocabulary are left out of the taxonomy.”

This is, on some level, a platonic vs relative argument. Either you believe meaning is inherent in the natural structure of the universe, or you believe that meaning is relative, personal, and different for everyone.

The biggest cleavage along these lines, as Shirky alluded to, is Google Search (meaning is relative and can be modeled by links) vs. Yahoo Directory (meaning is inherent in the structure of information). We all know who won that battle, but did you know that the Yahoo Directory isn’t even on the Yahoo homepage anymore? Yahoo has all but demonstrated that the directory model, and not the folksonomy model, doesn’t scale.

In many ways, the success of Google’s Pagerank algorithm was the harbinger of all this. The simple idea that people’s actions model meaning better than a directory (even a flexible directory) is a critical step forward in thinking about the Web. The innovation we’re seeing with folksonomies, recommendation systems, social networking sites…all have their roots in the idea that modeling what people actually do on the Web is the best way to provide answers for them. And, perhaps more importantly, it is an admission that we simply can’t predict the future…we can’t design a perfect information architecture, and to attempt to implies that the world we’re modeling doesn’t change.

That said, I’m not claiming that information architecture is bad. In all probability an IA would assume that Search is part of IA, that flexible metadata is part of IA, and most of what I’m using as counter-examples are part of IA.

But the fact is that IA is a theory about the inherent structure of information…the architecture of information…and if we are moving away from that we should call it something else.

Relationship Architecture, perhaps?

In the end, Christina suggests that it is all about change, and that explains why she’s angry:

“Anger is almost always based on fear, and change fuels fear.”

Published: November 21st, 2006