Everyday IA

A few days ago, Cennydd Bowles gently trolled many of us thusly:

As Cennydd has keynoted a past Information Architecture Summit, it’s hard to ignore his question. And Cennydd’s timing is quite interesting, given that tomorrow is World IA Day.

The theme of this year’s WIAD is “architecting happiness”. And in this adorable little video that the IA Institute created to promote WIAD 2015, Abby Covert says that this theme was chosen “because of the rising amount of information that everyone has to deal with” (my italics):

You’re an everyday IA

Cennydd, there’s your answer: if you’re a human in today’s developed world, where even physical objects and spaces are soaked in information, you are struggling to cope with and make sense of the stuff. Nearly all the time. And nearly everywhere. Information architecture problems are everyday human problems. So if you’re designing for humans today, you’ll need at least some information architecture skills in order to help them.

Information architecture literacy is required for anyone who designs anything.

So it’s not surprising that WIAD has exploded to 38 locations in 24 countries. It’s not surprising that Abby’s wonderful little book, How to Make Sense of Any Mess: Information Architecture for Everybody, has been such a hit. It’s not surprising to see the IA Summit entering its 16th year stronger than ever. It’s not surprising that the fourth edition of Information Architecture for the World Wide Web (due out later this year) is being recast as a book not for information architects, but for people who need to know something about information architecture. We’ve entered full-on mode of democratizing IA skills. Because…

Information architecture literacy is required for anyone who designs anything.

I’m an everyday IA

I’ll confess to having felt, like Cennydd, a bit disconnected from IA for the past few years. Partly because I’ve been investing almost every available moment of my waking hours into Rosenfeld Media. And partly because much of the IA community’s discussion has pushed far deeper into IA practice than my brain and attention span can manage. But I’m feeling better now, because I’m finding, in my own day-to-day work, that:

Information architecture literacy is required for anyone who designs anything.

For example, while I rarely work on web site IA much these days, I am absolutely absorbed in the information architecture of books.

Want to know what value publishers can provide to authors in this age of self-publishing? The list might be longer than you imagined, but I think most Rosenfeld Media authors would agree: Lou and team pull them out of the weeds, and help them to step back and make sense of their content as an information system. Information architecture skills are an absolute necessity when it comes to framing, structuring, and establishing a flow for a book. (And not just for non-fiction; just ask JK Rowling.)

I’m finding that IA literacy is also incredibly helpful in other areas, like event planning. I recently asked a couple dozen colleagues who produce events to provide share their advice on organizing a conference. Their responses were generous, useful, and wonderful. But the one I keep remembering most is Jeffrey Zeldman’s:

A great conference is like a great playlist or LP; every song should contribute, and the order in which they are heard should matter.

Yes, I’m biased, but I hear Jeffrey singing a song of event IA.

I’ve been singing it too. In putting together the first edition of the Enterprise UX conference (plug alert: San Antonio; May 13–15, 2015), I’ve been working with Dave Malouf and Uday Gajendar to create an information architecture for a conversation. In effect, we’re trying to structure the event’s program in a way that surfaces a latent conversation about enterprise UX that’s been happening in the UX community for quite some time. The event itself should simply serve as an opportunity to bring people together to sharpen and advance that conversation.

I’m oversimplifying a bit, but we spent months designing our event IA around four carefully-sequenced themes, each in effect a curated mini-conference: 1) Insight at Scale; 2) Craft amid Complexity; 3) Enterprise Experimentation; and 4) Designing Organizational Culture. We see these as the main facets of the community’s conversation on enterprise UX.

We’ll know we’ve been successful if, at the event, the conversation spills out of the auditorium and into the hallways and break areas, animating the words and faces of attendees. We’ll know we been really successful if these conversations riff off the themes already covered — meaning we got the sequence right. And we’ll know that we were really, really successful if these four themes keep the conversation moving forward — both after the event and as the IA for programs at future editions of the event.

Books have an information architecture. Events have an information architecture. Pretty much anything we design — consciously or not — has an information architecture. So pardon me as I repeat:

Information architecture literacy is required for anyone who designs anything.

Everyday IA cares not about your puny job title

When I got my masters in information and library studies in 1990, our professors were preaching about the oncoming information revolution. Since then, I‘ve been fortunate to observe and even participate a little in that revolution. In the blink of an eye, information architects emerged as professionals dedicated to making the pain of that revolution easier to bear. In the blink of an eye, others have proclaimed that information architecture, as a profession, was dead.

I’m not sure who’s right, nor do I care. Twenty-five years is nothing. The dust can settle after we’re all dead.

Let’s worry instead about people suffering from everyday IA problems. We, as designers of any stripe, have to help them. And we have to get better at helping them to help themselves.

Oh, and if you’re wondering why I won’t be at any of tomorrow’s 38 WIAD meetings: well, it’s Saturday, and I have a date with my six-year old. We’re going to organize his Legos.

(This piece originally ran in the Rosenfeld Review; sign up here for new ones.)