|On the weekend of February 2-4, 360 people gathered in San Francisco
for the second annual ASIS&T (American Society for Information Science
and Technology) Summit. Last year's meeting was reportedly an intense,
high-energy experience where people from different worlds met (or by some
accounts, collided) and sought to define the emerging discipline of information
architecture (IA). This year's event had a more practical focus—indeed,
the title was "Practicing Information Architecture"—but there was still
plenty of energy going around.
The definition of information architecture is still up for grabs—sometimes
the discipline seems to have as many definitions as practitioners. According
to Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville's Information Architecture for
the World Wide Web (the bible of the profession) the information architect
"clarifies the mission and vision for the site, balancing the needs of
its sponsoring organization and the needs of its audiences; determines
what content and functionality the site will contain; specifies how users
will find information in the site by defining its organization, navigation,
labeling, and searching systems; [and] maps out how the site will accommodate
change and growth over time." Since IA is a relatively new and wide-open
field, it attracts professionals with backgrounds in Web design, usability,
library and information science, human/computer interaction, journalism,
and other areas.
In recent years, ASIS&T (formerly ASIS) has been reinvigorated by
reaching out to emerging disciplines such as information architecture,
and the audience at this meeting was very different from the crowd one
would see at past ASIS events. After some brief remarks by ASIS&T officials,
Rosenfeld, who is with Argus Associates, set the tone for the conference.
He noted evidence of the increasing growth and maturity of the field, such
as advances in tools and metrics;a professional salary survey; the debut
of the listserv SIGIA-L, which now has over 1,700 subscribers; and the
growth of IA communities on the local level. He was also very upbeat about
the state of the industry. Despite the slowing economy there were numerous
postings for information architects at sites such as Monster.com and HotJobs.com.
In Rosenfeld's view, the field is "countercyclical," with the amount of
information growing exponentially and the number of information architects
growing in a linear fashion.
It's the Content, Stupid
Jared Spool's keynote address was entitled "It's All About Content."
Spool is a well-known usability consultant and the principal of User Interface
Engineering. If you have never seen him, he's an extremely entertaining
and thought-provoking speaker. Amidst a collection of Web site examples
that were mostly amusing and occasionally shocking (users of the Disney.com
site can quite easily go astray and have been known to appear in Anaheim
carrying reservations for Orlando and vice versa), Spool pondered the paramount
importance of content and the challenges it poses to information architects.
He called for information architects to develop an in-depth understanding
of the content users are looking for and showed examples of how they can
be led toward their goal by following "scent." Scent, an idea originally
developed at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), is a way of describing
information-seeking cues and behavior that Spool's company is now exploring.
He also detailed the dismal state ofWeb interactions, which have been frozen
at a 42-percent success rate for several years now, and called for better
tools to measure user success at Web sites, manage content, and plan information
Nuts and Bolts
In keeping with the "practical" approach of the conference, many presentations
were of a pragmatic nature, such as case studies or nuts-and-bolts discussions
of development topics, including tools and metrics. The talks were short,
with presenters limited to 20 minutes to allow time for questions, and
the extremely engaged audience members took full advantage of their question-and-answer
There were seven of these brief presentations during the course of the
day. I won't go through all of them here, but will briefly describe two
examples. First, Phil Oye of Sapient walked the audience through a complete
redesign of the United.com Web site, which included interviews and exercises
with real customers and a period of prototyping using paper and Post-it
notes. He mentioned the benefits of a modular approach and urged the audience
to begin collaborating with graphic designers as early as possible in the
process. Next, Adam Polansky, a senior information architect at rareMEDIUM,
demonstrated the close relationship between information architecture and
content management by detailing how his company handles the planning process
from content-requirement gathering to organizing information to interface
Vendors, Where Are You?
One striking difference about this conference was the lack of a vendor
exhibit area. In fact, the cry, "Vendors where are you?" literally went
up from the attendees. Although there are tools available for site development
and content management, for the most part information architects are doing
their jobs with homegrown or poorly adapted software tools, and a heartfelt
cry for better tools went up more than once. No one seemed to feel that
an all-encompassing IA-in-a-box application was warranted, but some areas
that could be addressed better are site mapping, site diagramming, thesaurus
management, and content management. A killer app would dynamically update
site maps and navigation paths as changes were made in the architecture.
The meeting took a reflective turn at the end of the first day with
a "reflections and projections" panel that tried to take a look at what
had happened since last year's meeting and where the field was headed.
Some issues raised included the controversial question of IA's relation
to usability, whether there was really a need for separate professional
credentials, and the need to agree on problems and methods. One panelist
mentioned the upcoming challenge of portable devices and Internet appliances,
which were brought up elsewhere at the conference several times.
Usability expert Alison Head observed that IA is a large part of her
work and decried the lack of practical hands-on solutions. She also said
that this is a time when information architects have the ear of the Web
community and that they'll have to learn to talk to people outside their
own IA world (which is difficult, as this is a complex field that overlaps
many others). She encouraged information architects to reach out to other
Peter Merholz noted that the concept of modularity in development was
coming up more and more. He expressed some disappointment that there were
no discussions of business at the conference, and challenged the community
to do a better job of addressing business needs and explaining how IA is
relevant to the business world. To a certain extent this is making a virtue
of necessity, as he also observed that "money isn't flowing the way it
used to." After thesefairly brief observations by the panelists, the floor
was opened up to the audience members, and they had quite a lot to say.
Among other things, they were concerned about how to sell IA, and the friction
or resistance that IA is meeting from other disciplines. There was a certain
amount of intellectual jousting, mixed with a lot of laughter.
There were four concurrent topical presentations after dinner. The best-attended
seemed to be a session entitled "What Do You Do All Day?" led by Jesse
James Garrett and Christina Wodtke. There was a very lively discussion
about the IA's role in various companies, the gap between the published
job description, and how the information architect actually spends his
or her day. I didn't catch enough of the other presentations to do them
justice, but there was certainly enough variety to provide something for
We were right back at it early the next morning, with a session on criteria
and metrics for evaluating architectures. MartiHearst ofthe University
of CaliforniaBerkeley detailed an attempt to develop an empirical
and automated approach to evaluating Web site usability on a basic level.
This might be used as the basis for a development tool analogous to the
Microsoft Word Grammar Checker, which could aid the many people creating
or managing Web sites who are not professional Web developers. Judy Cantor
of Giant Step presented some work that she and her colleagues had done
at AT&T on an automated approach to gathering data about what users
were actually doing on a site. This data could be used for evaluating usability
among other purposes. Right now, usability testing tends to be very labor-intensive
and expensive, and both of these talks pointed toward ways to streamline
and automate expensive parts of the development process in the future.
Perhaps as a reaction to all the practicality going around, Peter Morville
(a founder of Argus Associates and a "big thinker" on information architecture
topics) apparently scrapped his intended speech and instead gave a pep
talk to the troops, urging them to avoid relying on metrics as a magic
bullet in a time of uncertainty or succumbing to the sins of simplification
that might result in dumbing down the profession. Instead, he gave examples
of successful sites, such as REI and Wine.com, that show an excellent understanding
of what the user might be looking for, and then point him or her toward
the needed information. In a sense, this brought the conference full circle
to Spool's keynote address, since he was calling on information architects
to develop this type of in-depth understanding of content and how to lead
the user to it.
There were yet more case studies that morning, and after lunch, two
more talks. Professional search engine consultant Avi Rappoport spoke about
the consequences—both intended and otherwise—of adding local search to
a site, and Amy Warner of Argus Associates discussed the linguistic foundation
of labeling. These were both very good, substantive talks, and I was a
bit disappointed on the speakers' behalf that they were left for the end
of the meeting, as the audience was starting to thin out by that point.
This conference had a very high energy level—both the presenters and
the audience cared passionately about their profession and where it was
headed. The industry is growing up quickly, and there were some signs of
growing pains. Due to the economic slowdown and the dot-com shakeout, some
information architects were looking for work when in the past they had
been pursued by employers. There was also some uncertainty about where
the field is headed, especially whether information architects will become
more specialized, how they will relate to other disciplines, and whether
excessive attention to pragmatic concerns will lead to lower-quality work.
All of this debate seemed thoughtful and healthy. I did have one minor
quibble, which was that very few presentations were available as handouts.
If the organizers do get them put up later at the conference Web site,
that would certainly help.
Overall, this conference was a breath of fresh air. After attending
many larger conferences and trade shows over the years, one becomes a bit
jaded and begins to wonder glumly if the talk with the enticing title is
really a thinly veiled sales pitch, or whether the exhibit area will hold
anything new or different. At the ASIS&T Summit, however, the passion
and intelligence of the participants were the main exhibit, and the talks
were generally very worthwhile. And while ASIS&T conferences are sometimes
accused of being too theoretical for some tastes, the practical focus of
this meeting made it into an unusual mix of intellectual excitement and
useful career information. Several attendees came away saying that this
was one of the most productive conferences they had ever been to, and that
they had come away with a language for discussing what they were trying
to do with their companies.
Given the speed at which this field is evolving, it's too soon to predict
what next year's meeting will cover. Based on current evidence, one thing
seems certain: It won't be dull.
Alice Klingener is a freelance writer and information consultant.
Her e-mail address is email@example.com.