“Fill in the IA gap” - Mags Hanley at EuroIA 2011

 by Martin Belam, 28 September 2011

This is my final set of notes from last week’s EuroIA conference in Prague - covering Margaret Hanley’s closing plenary session.

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

Mags Hanley - “Fill in the IA gap”

Mags admitted that she was worried for our profession as IAs. She had been helping Lou Rosenfeld run a workshop, and he confessed to her that he was using some of the same material from when they had previously worked together ten years earlier. It then transpired that much of that content was still necessary and brand new to the people in the room. Mags explained that she now often sees people who call themselves IAs, who have made great looking prototypes with software tools, but who can’t name or articulate why they’ve chosen things like “supplementary navigation”, or opted not to employ “facets”. She worries that as much as we are encouraged to be “t-shape” people, with broad knowledge but in-depth skill in a specific area, there is, as Leisa Reichelt put it during our predux evening, “an IA-shaped hole in our t-shape”.

To illustrate her point, Mags gave a brief history of IA in books - starting with Richard Saul Wurman and “the polar bear”. These books were pretty much self-contained, and covered the whole IA domain space. We’ve now got publications that have a focus on just one aspect of the discipline, like those published by A List Apart and Rosenfeld Media. Mags explained that our publications and discussions about IA have gone from being broad, to being narrow, to being narrower still. “And that’s OK”, she said, “because I don’t mind us being a field of practice. But what I really don’t like is when we don’t know our practice.”

Mags put us through our paces with a little bingo card test, to identify the IA structures on the screen in a series of screengrabs from websites. I must say that I was incredibly nervous about failing a public test set by someone who used to be my boss - especially when it transpired that quite a few of the examples she used were from the Guardian website. But I think I did ok.

Mags talked a little about her experience when she first worked at the BBC, on a content-modelling project for the BBC’s local and regional sites. She explained that they had got so deep into the content modelling, that at times they had lost the bigger picture of how the users would interact with the system. Being the Australian in a team of women, Mags got assigned the sport models - and so come up with intricate representation of speedway and wrestling and horse racing.

Of course, once the system was in production, the journalists and web producers on the ground quickly realised that they could produce a sports report not by using the intricate model, but by using the “generic article” object, and shoving a fact-box into it with all the juicy sporting details. It is a classic example of how, if you fail to sell the benefits of production tasks, users will find ways to avoid them. Eventually, the local journalists only started using the correct sports report model when they realised that it meant there was a chance that their content would be picked up and included in the main national BBC Sport site. Carrots and sticks - often the secret of getting things done at the BBC.

At the Guardian we could now face a similar situation with the extensive tagging of our content, which is done by hand, and is, let’s be honest, a little bit tedious to do. However, it is absolutely crucial to the way we structure or site, our apps, and the content presentation of our API. For that reason we have presentations and articles like “Tags are magic!” trying to explain the benefits of a system that might otherwise look like yet another bloody obstacle to getting an article published.

I thought one of the ideas that Mags neatly encapsulated was the difference between IA then - ten years ago - and IA now. IA then, she said, was about the fact that we understood what was in the boxes, and then we drew the arrows to connect the boxes together. And that was about it.

Now there is a significant difference in that so much of our role is about the context in which people encounter this information - on different devices, with different social sign-ins and persistent identities, and with time and location known.

One constant though, Mags argued, is that we still must be “the glue between the editorial, the business stakeholders and the developers - nobody else is that glue. We understand the users, we should understand the technology, and we understand what the design of the product should be.”

Mags identified some areas where she thought IAs should be concentrating their research and learning - sense making, information seeking, and cognitive science. She also urged us to continue to look at databases, APIs, modelling processes and the semantic web. “We don’t just model and work with unstructured information anymore”, she said. “Don’t let the developer community be the only ones having a say on standards and how this works.”

Finally, Mags implored us to “find our voice” as a community - to make sure we treat ourselves as the equals of disciplines like IxD and Content Strategy, and to continue to practice pure IA, talk about it, and be proud of it.

A personal thank you

I must say that if Matt Jones, Tom Dolan, Lee Harker, Jem Stone and Tom Coates were the reasons that I first started blogging, then Margaret Hanley is without a doubt the reason that this blog ended up being about IA. If I hadn’t met her, I don’t know that I would have become one. I nearly joined her BBC IA team when it was formed, but subsequently got the chance of working directly for her when she was Executive Producer on the core group of products within the BBC’s New Media department in 2004 and 2005. In her closing plenary talk at EuroIA she said that she was proud to be an information architect. I’m proud to have become an information architect because of Mags. Thank you.


And that just about wraps up my notes from EuroIA - except to say that as soon as I get the chance, I shall be compiling all of them together into a handy printable PDF and an eBook.

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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