The unhappy isolation of the information architect

 by Martin Belam, 7 October 2010

No, not a blog post complaining that I missed out on the Friday night partying at EuroIA this year because I was too tired, but a thought about some of the isolationism in our discipline. There was no overall theme to the EuroIA programme, but you always hope that the confluence of talks will help you join some dots and spark some connections.

At times I almost got a feeling of being in the 'The Quiz Broadcast' on That Mitchell and Webb Look, as if the information architect of today emerged stumbling from a mysterious vacuum.

So for example, when we start to worry about how UX people are going to transition to develop the interfaces for these amazing new connected electronic device without screens, it seems to be ignoring our already existing vast catalogue of industrial design, as if we are the first people ever trying to wrestle with the problem of showing the status of a device when it isn't attached to a traditional computer screen.

Or, when we think how complicated it is to design for mobile, we forget that the people at handset manufacturers have been making complex mobile UIs with lots of functionality and features for a couple of decades already.

It is almost as if the development of the web browser has become some kind of sacred 'year zero', and every new permutation of digital product is treated as a completely new frontier to explore. To borrow a phrase, all our work in the IA and UX field is a case of 'standing on the shoulders of giants' - but, as Harry Brignull pointed out earlier this week, I sometimes think we've lost the art of looking down to acknowledge and understand the sources of our design understanding.

And it isn't just ignoring lessons from the past that can leave us isolated - we sometimes don't function well within our own businesses.

Friday closed with a panel devoted to the relationship between information architecture and 'marketing and advertising'. The composition was made up, Harry Potter style, via a sorting hat, and the panel were generally quite aggressive in their outlook, seeing the marketing and advertising people within businesses as an obstacle to getting things done properly. It always strikes me as odd that, given that one of our specialisms is meant to be empathy with the user, we sometimes struggle to have any empathy with people working in the same organisations as us. Perhaps in a parallel universe there is an advertising conference that finished with a panel that lumped techies, graphic designers, information architects, user experience people and interaction designers into one big group and had a session "Urgh, web designers, how annoying eh?".

Which all sounds a bit bleak and negative, which isn't how I feel about the conference at all. I suppose it was just an underlying nag in the back of my mind during an otherwise upbeat and really intriguing couple of days.

And of course, there were people who didn't fall into this pattern at all. I've seen Claire Rowland talk before passionately about the influences that reading about psychology has had on her working practice, and Koen Claes gave a fantastic talk about the impact the way people remember things has on their perception of how good an experience is. He was borrowing from Daniel Kahneman, and there were fleeting appearances on screen throughout the talks from other wise historical figures like Abraham Lincoln, C.P. Scott, and Albert Einstein, showing that IAs can and do look backwards and outside the discipline for guidance.

So, one of my key resolutions to myself after the conference is to avoid falling into disciplinary isolationism - and my three main ground rules are:

  • Don't be afraid to read books about the design and human understanding of information written before the web browser was developed.
  • Keep reading books in fields tangentially related to your discipline to foster the cross-fertilisation of ideas.
  • Remember that it took centuries for print publishing and design conventions (and the business models that go with them) to mature. Don't believe anyone who thinks that digital publishing will be 'solved' in the next six months.

1 Comment

Yep. Totally! The print industry has already solved many interface issues - eye-tracking - and other relevant info. Print layouts are also much more creative and challenging than the web - web2.0 is so boring. It is great if you are running classified ads.

There is much brain trust that got sort of trampled on by young and eager web startups.

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