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Who Should Be the Information Architect?
The information architect of a large, complex web site should be two things: someone who can think as an outsider and be sensitive to the needs of the site's users, and at the same time is enough of an insider to understand the site's sponsoring organization, its mission, goals, content, audiences, and inner workings. In terms of disciplinary background, the information architect should combine the generalist's ability to understand the perspectives of other disciplines with specialized skills in visualizing, organizing, and labeling information. As it's very difficult for someone to retain all of these characteristics, you'll have to make some compromises, but it's important to consider them as you search for that elusive information architect.
1. Thinking Like an Outsider
Because information architecture is largely about the big picture view of the organization, its goals, and its politics, a logical choice for the architect role is a senior person who knows the organization as a whole and who isn't involved exclusively within the activities of one department. A senior person can often think like an outsider even though being on the inside, and has enough clout to enlist other departments' resources when necessary. One drawback to choosing a senior level manager is that he or she may have so many other responsibilities that the work gets delegated out to staff, thereby negating the original goal of using a single, organizationally savvy person.
Another approach is bringing in a true outsider: a new hire or a consultant (we typically function in the latter role, but we are trying to avoid biasing our discussion too greatly). The great thing about outsiders is that they can get away with asking naive questions considered suicidal by insiders, such as "Why does your organization have two completely separate order fulfillment departments? The web site will confuse users if they can order products in two different, unresolved ways. Are there any politics going on here that we can get past to improve the site's design?"
Further, an outsider can ensure that the organization chart isn't the site's architecture, and challenge confusing orgspeak labels: "‘Total Quality Product Dissemination Systems'? Oh, you mean ‘Product Shipping Options.'" The drawbacks of bringing in a true outsider are that they can be expensive and can lack sufficient knowledge of the organization to do the job, thus delaying the project's progress.
2. Thinking Like an Insider
As many organizations can't afford to outsource information architecture services or move a head honcho into the role, the responsibility often goes to an insider who is not a senior level manager. Sometimes this is ideal; it's the people in the trenches who often know the most about an organization's processes, and how to get things done within that organization. For example, who knows an external web site's audiences better than a marketing specialist, sales rep, or product manager? Who knows an intranet's intended audiences better than a human resources specialist, corporate librarian, or switchboard operator? How many senior level managers can describe every step of their organization's fulfillment process, from product ordering to computing sales tax and shipping charges to warehouse picking to delivery? Someone needs this knowledge to mirror the process on the web site.
The problem with a lower-level person is that his or her knowledge may be too specific. Additionally, such a person often lacks the political base required to mobilize cooperation from others in the organization. A possible solution is to make information architecture this person's only job responsibility. This could allow him or her to step away from original duties and focus on the broader needs of the organization and the users of its site.
3. Disciplinary Background
Since information architecture is a relatively new field, you can't just post a job description and expect a flock of interested, competent, and experienced candidates to show up on your doorstep. Instead, you'll need to actively recruit, outsource, or perhaps become the information architect for your site. If you are looking for someone else, you might consider the disciplines listed below as potential sources. If you're on your own, it might be worthwhile to learn a little bit about each of these disciplines yourself. Or, if possible, find someone knowledgeable about them to work with you and complement your own expertise. In either case, remember that no single discipline is the obvious source for information architects; each presents its own strengths and weaknesses.
3.1 Graphic design
Most people who have written about and practice information architecture are graphic designers by training. This is not surprising; as mentioned, graphic design is much more than creating pretty pictures. It is geared more toward creating relationships between visual elements and determining their effective integration as a whole. On a page, printed or HTML, these elements include white space and typography as well as images. So graphic designers traditionally have been focused on the architectures of individual pages of information, which can be a weakness when building a web site.
3.2 Information and library science
We've found that our backgrounds in information science and librarianship have proven very useful in dealing with the relationships between pages and other elements that make up a whole site. By definition, librarians deal with organization of and access to information within information systems and are trained to work with searching, browsing, and indexing technologies. Forward-looking librarians (recently described as cybrarians) see that their expertise applies in new arenas unrelated to providing access to printed information stored in traditional libraries. So librarianship is an important discipline to turn to for information architecture expertise. Just remember that librarians are also prone to get lost in details, a weakness that can distract from determining the big picture of a web site.
Journalists, like librarians, are trained at organizing information, but in a different setting. If your web site delivers highly dynamic information, like a news wire or a push technology-based service, someone with a journalism background might have a great sense of how to best organize and deliver this information.
Because of their writing experience, journalists are also good candidates for architecting sites that will have high levels of edited content. Occasionally, journalists who move into information architecture find themselves intellectually constrained by their experience in organizing information for print and other traditional media.
3.4 Usability engineering
Usability engineers are experts at testing and evaluating how systems work. For information systems, they measure such criteria as how long it takes users to learn how to use a system, how long it takes them to find information in a system, and how many errors they make along the way. Of all the disciplines we list, usability engineering is probably the most scientific in its view of users and the quality of their experiences with information systems. Keep in mind that usability engineers concentrate on measuring a system's performance, not in designing or redesigning a system. (Of course, measurements of a site's performance can greatly determine how redesign should proceed.)
Marketing specialists are expert at understanding audiences and communicating a message effectively to different audiences. This skill is especially valuable not only in designing externally oriented web sites, but also for intranets, which often have multiple audiences with very different needs. Marketing expertise can ensure that the message is presented in a user-oriented manner and not buried in organizational jargon. If your site is geared especially toward selling products and building brand-awareness, someone from your organization's marketing department might do the trick. The drawback to marketing-based approaches is the danger that they are more geared toward selling rather than helping users, and so may not be appropriate for certain types of web sites and audiences.
3.6 Computer science
Programmers and computer specialists bring an important skill to information architecture, especially to architecting information from the bottom up. For example, often a site requires a database to serve the content; this minimizes maintenance and data integrity problems. Computer scientists have the best skills for modeling content for inclusion in a database. However, unlike librarians or usability engineers, computer scientists aren't necessarily trained in user-centered approaches to designing information systems.
So, an information architect might come from one of many different disciplines. He or she will certainly need to know at least a little about every type of expertise involved in the entire web site design and development process, because his or her work will affect every part of the process. The architect also needs to be the keeper of the big picture as this process unfolds and the details of design and production become the main focus of all involved.
Perhaps the most important quality in an information architect is the ability to think outside the lines, to come up with new approaches to designing information systems. The Web provides many opportunities to do things in ways that haven't been done before. Many sites are pushing the envelope of design, architecture, and technology. While it's tempting to create a site that mirrors the same old things that an organization already does in other media (e.g., product brochures, annual reports), this approach could severely damage your site's chances for success. If a site doesn't rise to the occasion for its users, it won't fare well in head-to-head competition with other sites. This medium is more competitive than any other. One click, and a site becomes one of thousands that the user visits once but never returns to. It's the responsibility of the architect more than anyone else to prevent this outcome and ensure that the user encounters a site designed to take best advantage of the medium.
4. Balance Your Perspective
Whomever you do use as an information architect, remember: everyone (including us) is biased by their disciplinary perspective. If possible, try to ensure that other disciplines are represented on your web site development team to guarantee a balanced architecture.
Also, no matter your perspective, the information architect ideally should be solely responsible for the site's architecture, and not for its other aspects. It can be distracting to be responsible for other, more tangible aspects of the site, such as its graphic identity. In this case, the site's architecture can easily, if unintentionally, get relegated to secondary status because the architect is concentrating, naturally, on the tangible stuff.
However, with smaller organizations, limited resources mean that all or most aspects of the site's development - design, editorial, technical, architecture, and production - are likely to be the responsibility of one person. Our best advice for someone in this position is obvious but worth mentioning: 1) find a group of friends and colleagues who are willing to be a sounding board for your ideas, and 2) practice a sort of controlled schizophrenia in which you make a point to look at your site from different perspectives; first from the architect's, then from the designer's, and so on.
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