The Present and Future of Information Architecture

Interview with Peter Morville, ‘founding father’ of Information Architecture about where the field is headed


When I first learned about Information Architecture, I was working as a front-end developer at an NYC startup in 2008. I met the first ‘Information Architect’ I had ever encountered there; I was fascinated with what she was working on — a combination of product and business analysis, site maps, user flows, and interaction guides. I thought — ‘I can do that too’, and started to make the transition to this new discipline.

Fast forward 6 years later — User Experience Designer has replaced Information Architect in many job postings. The job of an Information Architect has been problematized in many respects — or has it?

Information Architecture for the World Wide Web

I decided to ask Peter Morville, President at Semantic Studios, who c0-authored the now seminal book Information Architecture for the World Wide Web about where the discipline is at today — and where it might be headed in the future.

This interview was conducted on May 4, 2014 over email.

Peter Morville, (copyright Peter Morville)

Tim: In the era of Mobile Apps, especially those with more defined platform guidelines (unlike the World Wild Web of the ‘90s), is Information Architecture still as relevant as a discipline? In what ways has it evolved?

Peter: The term “app” tends to focus our attention on the technology. We think of a software application on a mobile device. But if we look through the lens of user experience, many “apps” are better described as “places made of information.” For instance, I recently worked with the online real estate firm, Trulia. Since their users often research homes while visiting neighborhoods, the mobile experience is mission-critical. Trulia must structure and organize a complex array of content and features. Given the unique opportunities and constraints of mobile devices, “apps” can make information architecture more difficult and important than ever before.

“We’re in an era of service ecosystems. This means we must wrangle with the challenges of digital strategy and cross-channel user experience.”

That said, I’m not sure I’d agree we’re in the “era of Mobile Apps.” Clearly, mobile is an exciting, powerful force for change, and apps are a vital part of the picture. But it’s a mistake to focus on the parts without understanding the whole. We’re in an era of service ecosystems. This means we must wrangle with the challenges of digital strategy and cross-channel user experience. In this context, information architecture has never been more relevant.

More and more people, especially recruiters, are using User Experience / User Experience Design (among variations) to describe a new sort of role, one that might include Information Architecture as a skillset. How do you see this compared to someone calling themselves an Information Architect today?

Information Architect (Blue) vs UX Designer (Red) Interest over time (source: Google Trends — http://www.google.com/trends/explore#q=%22information%20architect%22%2C%20%22ux%20designer%22&cmpt=q)

I know a lot of user experience designers with very uneven skillsets. Some are excellent visual designers who don’t know the first thing about user research, while others are experienced information architects who are terrible at interaction design. But I’m also seeing recent graduates with surprising breadth and depth, and the demand for these generalists is significant and growing. The unicorns are coming. And that’s okay. We need both generalists and specialists.

I set a goal, a long time ago, to never have a real job again. So, when I call myself an “information architect” it’s not a job title but a mindset, and in my mind, everyone’s an information architect.

“The unicorns are coming. And that’s okay. We need both generalists and specialists.”

How do you see Information Architecture evolving in the next 5 — 10 years? Will site maps still be relevant in an age of drones and Google Glass, and how will the discipline continue to evolve?

At a deep level, information architecture is medium-independent. A domain can be defined by words, categories, objects, and relationships. But to be useful in the world, an IA must bridge the gap between ontology and interface. We must design systems for navigation, interaction, and engagement. These pace layers are changing at different rates, so while it’s clear information architecture will remain relevant, what it will look like isn’t clear at all.

Sample Experience Map — credit Flickr: https://flic.kr/p/6H86SD

I do expect we’ll be working on experience maps that describe information flows and feedback loops for ecosystems in which the touchpoints include websites and wearables.

But I’m not so sure about drones. I find the vision of Amazon Prime Air highly disturbing. In light of our current problems — rising inequality, climate change, terrorism, imperialism, singularitarianism, and distracted drivers — is it wise to unleash flocks of unmanned aerial vehicles above our heads?


Amazon Prime Air (photo: http://www.amazon.com/b?node=8037720011)

This brings me to my final point. Our companies, communities, and societies are struggling to manage complexity. Unfortunately, when faced with too much information, people often panic. They cling to old ways, engage in divisive politics, and rely on the sure-to-fail quick fix. To break this cycle, we need to encourage systems thinking. That’s why I’m writing a new book, Intertwingled, to help more people see how everything is connected from code to culture.

“…while it’s clear information architecture will remain relevant, what it will look like isn’t clear at all.”

In short, I view the challenge for our discipline as “the architecture of understanding.” We are still responsible for helping our users to understand where they are, what they’ve found, what to expect, and what’s around. But we can’t afford to focus solely on users. We must also use our skills and knowledge to help our clients and colleagues understand what’s possible and desirable. Our expertise with categories and connections will come in handy, but we must also dig deep into culture and cognition. As I stated in my IA Summit keynote, this work is “dangerous, but not bad.” The new IA takes courage but makes a difference. It’s an exciting time. Change can be a lot of fun. IA is so much more interesting than it used to be.


Thanks, Peter, for the insights. For more information about Peter:

http://semanticstudios.com/
http://findability.org/

15th Annual IA Summit Keynote:

https://medium.com/information-architecture/7ddf2ad4bc3