“The Rise and Fall...and Rise Again of Information Architecture” - Bob Royce at EuroIA 2011

 by Martin Belam, 27 September 2011

I’ve been gradually working through the remaining notes I made on my trip to Prague to speak at this year’s EuroIA. One of my favourite talks was more heavily focussed on software engineering than anything else on the conference programme, which put a big smile on my face.

Download all of my EuroIA 2011 blog posts as one printable PDF or for iBooks

Bob Royce - “The Rise and Fall...and Rise Again of Information Architecture”

I absolutely loved Bob Royce’s talk, which took us IAs through the computer science heritage that has got us where we are today.

He believed that a lot of the early uses of the term IA in the 60s were in terms of “meaningless data” - i.e. just storing bits and bytes for retrieval rather than thinking of the human context of use. There were, he said, other streams of computer science work doing what we would now recognise as IA, but they didn’t call it that.

Bob cited Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s view that “ours is a world about which we pretend to have more and more information but which seems to us increasingly devoid of meaning” but said he loves the idea of helping people “navigate through all the information out there to get meaning out of it. We take raw material and use it to create structure.”

Having recently co-founded a business - The Understanding Group - Bob said he was worried when he went to the IA Summit earlier this year and heard people suggesting it should change name to the UX Summit. Had he started the wrong business? He saw a clear distinction between them.

Both IA and UX are working towards the same task, he said, to build relationships between two sets of users: the people behind the website, and the people they are trying to communicate with. UX, Bob argued, is focused on the point where the people meet, and the IA, he believes, is focused on helping the people behind the scenes gather their thoughts, and structure what they want to say in order to develop the relationship with the user.

Bob’s view was that the most significant development to come out of the Xerox Labs for IAs was not the GUI, but the concept of Object-oriented programming. The idea of modelling all of the actors in a system, including the people, the computers, and the data structures, is very powerful. IAs have readily adopted OOP language like “use case”, and produce deliverables very much like class diagrams.

In Bob’s view, it was regrettable that the early HTML palette of the web was so limited. It meant that we spent years not being able to use all the learnings from graphic design about presenting information to users, exacerbated by the early idea of separating presentation from content, and giving users control of things like font sizes and colours in their browser. He argued that during the development of the web, the IA role should have had a stronger voice in defiing the visual presentation of information, as well as the structure.

He reminded us that a reference librarian is taught “Don’t present data, present answers” - we should be aiming for the UX to recede into the background. It isn’t about the device or the design, it is about getting the right information to the right user at the right time in the right context.

I do worry, as I’ve said before, that a lot of IAs don’t appreciate their computer science heritage as much as their library science background. Bob put up a picture of the Vannevar Bush concept of the Memex from 1945, and asked how many people knew it. Only a couple of hands went up.

And I’ll never understand people who want to design digital products but who are not curious about programming or even getting to grips with the bare bones basics of HTML & CSS - a bit like wanting to design amazing cars without ever having driven.


I’m nearly at the end of my epic bloggage of the EuroIA conference, with just my notes from Mag Hanley’s closing plenary to go.

This is one of a series of blog posts about EuroIA 2011 in Prague. You can download all of the blog posts as one printable PDF or for iBooks.

All your EuroIA 2011 slides are belong to us
“Designing today’s web” - Luke Wroblewski
“The IA of /Culture” - Martin Belam
“Navigating the Digital Spice Route” - Terry Ma
“Extending the Storytelling - Blending IA and Content Strategy” - Boon Sheridan
“Pervasive IA for the Sentient City” - Andrea Resmini and Luca Rosati
iPads, kids and design lessons for adults - Wouter Sluis-Thiescheffer & Brian Pagán
“Understanding the Nature of Resistance” - Alla Zollers
“Does a Rich GUI Make the Bank Richer?” - Haakon Halvorsen & Kjetil Hansen
“Designing for Everyone, Anywhere, at Any Time” - Anna Dahlström
“Truth and Dare – Out of the Echo-Chamber, into the Fire” - My critique of Jason Mesut at EuroIA 2011
“The Rise and Fall...and Rise Again of Information Architecture” - Bob Royce
“Fill in the IA gap” - Mags Hanley

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All your IA Summit 2011 slides are belong to us
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Agree with your final couple of paragraphs in a big way, but the analogy is wrong.

People want to design websites without having to understand the properties of the materials that will ultimately be used. That is more like people want to design cars without knowing how the spontaneous combustion engine works, or how carbon fibre is made. I reckon that happens all the time.

It is progress, I reckon. We are moving away from an auteur model through to specialisation and soon we will have algorithms controlling the user experience. IN many cases we already do...

I absolutely agree - As a software engineer by education, I think it is vital to understand *something* of the development of a site if you are designing the UX. The software engineering community has a lot to offer the different communities as well, as you say in terms of design (use cases etc).

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