Peter Morville's bi-weekly column on the evolving definition of information architecture

Educating the Information Architect

At least once a week, I get an email message from someone, somewhere in the world, who wants to become an information architect.

This week it was a technical writer in Australia who wants to make "an ambitious change in career direction, towards being an information architect." She asked "What are my chances, and what advice do you have for me to increase my skill set?"

Last week it was a library and information science student in Florida who is "committed to becoming an information architect, but finding that clear directions are hard to find."

The good news is that the job market for information architects is exploding. Searches on sites like regularly turn up 200 to 300 postings for "information architects." From consulting firms like Argus and Scient to e-businesses like LookSmart to Fortune 500's like Cisco, everyone is desperately seeking information architects.

The bad news is that there's no established educational degree program geared specifically to meet the needs of aspiring information architects.

Do You Need a Degree?

Now the honest truth is that you don't need a specialized degree to become an information architect these days. The situation is similar to the field of business administration about a hundred years ago. In a booming economy, if you had strong management skills, you were a valuable commodity. Nobody cared about or had relevant degrees.

However, in the course of time, business administration degrees have been developed by the world's major universities, and each year thousands of people use the MBA degree as their entrée into the professional world.

I expect a similar transition to occur as our field matures. The Master's in Information Architecture will become to information architects what the MBA is to business managers and administrators. The degree will not be essential to success, nor will it be a guarantee, but it will become an accepted credential, providing a valuable stepping stone on the path to a successful career.

Educate Me Now

But what if you want an education today? Where can you go to develop a rich understanding of the theory and practice of information architecture (IA) that will serve as a foundation for your career?

A graduate LIS (library and information science) or HCI (human-computer interaction) program may be your best bet.

Some excellent programs such as Stanford University's Program in Human-Computer Interaction have evolved from within the computer science department. These HCI programs are particularly strong in the area of software interaction design.

There are even a growing number of undergraduate programs such as the University of Washington's new undergraduate major in Informatics, designed to provide students with a broad education in information management and system design.

However, as a trained librarian myself, I'm biased towards the master's degree programs at the LIS schools (or the interdisciplinary programs with strong LIS roots). Top programs include:

These schools have integrated a traditional LIS curriculum (e.g., information retrieval, organization and classification, needs analysis, information seeking behavior of users) with a multi-disciplinary rainbow of courses, covering such topics as usability engineering, knowledge management, and information economics.

This blend fosters a perspective that goes beyond interface-level interaction considerations to the design of complex, multi-dimensional information spaces.

Ideally, students should have professional work experience before entering these programs, so they understand the broader business context within which information systems are designed and used.

IA at the U of M

To learn more about the current state of these graduate LIS programs, I talked with Professor Amy Warner about IA education at the University of Michigan.

As the architect of the first information architecture course at the School of Information, Amy has unique insight into the needs of students who are interested in this emerging field.

"Information architecture is an applied field that needs to draw from a variety of subject disciplines," she explained. "I envision students moving from my information architecture course to classes in database modeling and user interface design to classes in implementation, evaluation and usability."

Amy has integrated real information architecture projects for real clients into her course, providing hands-on experience for the students. She hopes that eventually students will have an opportunity to "experience the whole lifecycle of web site development" as they move through the school's program.

Student feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Said one student, "This is why I came to SI (the School of Information). This course allows me to take components and put them together to solve a problem." The course is already filled to capacity for the Fall 2000 semester.

Completing the Jigsaw Puzzle

While these LIS and HCI programs possess many of the components of a good IA education, none have put all the pieces together to form a coherent picture.

For aspiring information architects, the puzzle remains fragmented and confusing. In this new and complex field, these prospective students are looking for leadership, vision, and a real sense of direction. That's why I continue to get these email messages asking where to go and what to study.

Kent State University has demonstrated such leadership, proposing a Master of Science in Information Architecture and Knowledge Management.

The Kent proposal explains that the program will "provide graduates with a broad-based understanding of knowledge organization and access, information systems and networks and information management and research, and will "prepare Information Architects and Knowledge Managers to function as change agents in an organization." The proposal looks promising, but we'll have to wait to see how the program unfolds.

Hopefully, Kent State University's ambitious program will serve as a change agent itself, inspiring other schools to complete the jigsaw puzzle, and thereby providing rich educational opportunities for the next-generation of information architects.

Until then, I'll keep answering my email.

End Notes

What do you think about the education of information architects?

Please send your rants and raves to Peter Morville.

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