-----Original Message-----
From: Augustine, Liz Augustine@Rational.COM]
Sent: Friday, November 10, 2000 4:01 PM
To: [Internal list at Rational]
Subject: Trip report: Information Architecture conference

Trip Report: Information Architecture Conference

Several weeks ago, I attended the Information Architecture (IA) 2000 conference, the first in a series of IA conferences put on by Argus Center for Information Architecture. This message is a trip report about that experience.

What is IA?

Information Architecture is a relatively new discipline, though many people have been practicing aspects of it for a long time. One definition says that IA is "the art and science of structuring and organizing information systems to help people achieve their goals." What does this mean? From the inside out:

  • Help people achieve their goals: IA is about helping people (users, consumers, and other stakeholders) be more effective with your product. IA has a user-centered approach, balanced with the need to understand the business strategy and the actual content of your information.
  • Information Systems: The goal of Information Architecture is to work with large collections of information - think shopping web sites, online repositories for documentation, intranets, internets, and so on.
  • Structuring and organizing: Ever feel like your head's about to explode with TMI (too much information)? Clearly, when you have a huge pile of the stuff, you need to somehow organize or structure it so that people can find the information they need.
  • Art and science: There are techniques for, and even degree programs about, organizing information. More than one person mentioned working with use cases or using UML as an adjunct to the design process (cool!). That takes care of the science part.

But what about the art? Just think of all the unnavigable Web sites you've visited - all the sites where you've known exactly what information to search for but haven't figured out how to find it. As Dave Bernstein would say, if it was easy, we would have already figured out how to do it.

Wow! Who was there?

This was the interesting part. Job titles of attendees included Information Architect (many), Information Designer, experience architect, manager of user experience, knowledge management analyst, producer, business analyst, visual designer, design guru, cognitive designer, director of product marketing, reporter, CEO, recruiter (2), and technical writer (1 - me), among others.

Even more intriguing were some of the backgrounds of attendees - there were many people with masters degrees in library science, many others with UI design or Web design experience, and a smattering of "outliers" - there were at least a few graphic designers and at least one ethnologist.

What problems are we trying to solve?

In other words, why would anyone from Rational go to a conference like this? Now that Ive attended, I wonder why there weren't more people from Rational in attendance <grin>.

More seriously, it seems to me that the documentation groups at Rational are facing some serious challenges in the next few years. Well need to address issues such as how to make the user experience more consistent and seamless across our product set. That user experience involves our presentation of information, including product UIs, short pieces of online Help, and lengthier assistive pieces, both online and in print.

Thesaurus Workshop

On the first day, I attended a workshop on "Synonyms and Taxonomies: Thesaurus Design for Information Architects." I couldn't imagine more than about five minutes of material on this subject. One of the first things the workshop leaders said was that they had boiled down a semester-long, graduate-level, course into a one-day presentation.

The basic idea was to describe the practice of creating and using Controlled Vocabularies - one or more sets of preferred and variant terms. For example, imagine that you're doing a search across several, disparate, databases for articles by Paul Levy. You don't really care if he's listed as author, whether he has a byline, or whether he's listed under "by." To assist you, the IA might determine the preferred term, "author," and the variant terms, "writer," "by," and "byline." The IA might also establish broader terms ("worker") and narrower terms ("business reporter," "PhD candidate").

The whole goal of the exercise is to improve retrieval of information. And speaking of exercises, the workshop had many, both for individuals and groups. One exercise involved creating indexing terms for a Little Debbie Snack Cake; another involved sorting cards containing information about a hardware store, then breaking into small groups to start a high-level information design of an online hardware store.

One of the most valuable points from the workshop was that effective information designs include multiple slices of information. These slices are called "facets." I think our first impulse is to figure out the one, ultimate, way to organize large sets of information. This sounds very hard, and probably not very effective.

Instead, think of the online hardware store example. You probably have different types of people coming to your site for different reasons, from experts to rank beginners, from contractors to do-it-yourselfers. Imagine how powerful your site can be if you provide several slices of the same information - you might organize your site by the tools you sell. You might also provide an organization by "solutions." For people who don't know what kind of problem they're facing, you might provide another organization by "problem." It might also be appropriate to organize by "system" - parts of the house that you want to work on. By providing all these entry points into your site, you help make your users (in this case, your customers) far more effective.

Other Highlights

One thing I enjoyed about the conference was the sheer diversity. I've already mentioned the different types of people who attended. We also saw presentations that covered a wide variety of size of problem, type of audience, and approach to a solution.

We heard from designers of the Microsoft intranet, the IBM Software internet, and the 3M internet about the challenges they faced in assembling huge amounts of disparate information into a coherent structure and package.

One presenter talked about self-adapting systems, or systems that adapt to the way they're used. As a real life illustration, he described how landscape architects can design beautiful lawns and paths, but the real test comes when people start walking on both. He made reference to a Berkeley path study that documents how users have cut their own paths across "designed" lawns. As another illustration, he mentioned how Amazon adapts itself by making recommendations based on your previous purchases. We cut our own path by taking a diversion to YAWYL (you are where you live), which presents massive amounts of data in a digestible form.

We also heard from an ethnologist who observes "users in the mist" to understand how to design better software.

There were other sessions, also good. We had some panel discussions, with opportunities for big group discussion, and plenty of breaks, with opportunities for small and informal discussions. (The conference organizers mentioned their strong belief in the powers of caffeine and sugar.)

How do I learn more?

For more information about the conference, please see the conference site and the trip report by one of the principals of Argus. You can also see me for hardcopy versions of the slides and my notes.

For more information about IA, itself, Id suggest getting started with a book, "Information Architecture for the World Wide Web" by two of the Argus principals. Alternately, go to the Argus Associates web site or the Argus-ACIA web site and start browsing. (The latter includes a bibliography and list of links to other IA-related sites).

I hope this report was informative, mildly amusing, and helpful. I look forward to discussing these topics with other writers in the coming months and years.

Liz Augustine
Technical Writer, RSBU
(781) 676-2682
Rational, the e-development company