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

Information Architecture 2000

What do information spaces, Sweden, invisible work, XML, footpaths, wearable computers, and nude beaches all have in common?

If you attended Information Architecture 2000 in La Jolla, you know these were just some of the strange connections made during this thought-provoking event.

While there's no substitute for the physical, intellectual, and social immersion of a conference, I hope this article will serve as a map to some of the people and ideas that became part of our user experience.


Samantha Bailey and I kicked things off with an advanced seminar on thesaurus design, covering a full semester's worth of graduate-level material in one day. While the focus was on controlled vocabulary development, topics also included collaborative filtering, automated indexing, faceted classification, and return on investment.

Examples and Resources are available to all.


One advantage of organizing a conference is that you can make yourself the featured keynote speaker. In my talk,, I asked information architects to slow down, referencing Roger McNamee's suggestion in Fortune magazine that "Internet time will prove to have been a hormonal thing."

I also built a case for renaming our current era as the "Information Architecture Age," a time when we can all make lots of money and pursue our cyberspatial dreams concurrently. Hey, anything's possible with fuzzy math.

 view slides online    download PowerPoint file

Designing Effective Digital Relationships

Next up, Terry Swack advocated a holistic approach to experience design, emphasizing the importance of aligning business strategies, technologies, organizations, and customers' needs.

Terry explained that usefulness (would I use it?) and usability (could I use it?) are both critical to the creation of successful user experiences.

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Understanding and Evaluating the User Experience with Information Spaces

Andrew Dillon began with a cautionary note, warning us to avoid "gurus with guidelines." We should listen to our users instead.

Andrew then presented some disturbing research suggesting among other things that:

  • People rate the effectiveness of information systems more highly if they have an attractive interface (even if they are actually less usable than their ugly counterparts).
  • Information systems that gratuitously flatter users (for example, telling a user "that was a really brilliant keyword search") receive higher ratings for effectiveness than those that don't.
Andrew argued that we must consider the softer issues like aesthetics and emotion in our designs, since they have a measurable impact on customer satisfaction.

 view slides online    download PowerPoint file

An Ecological Approach to Design

Bonnie Nardi made a compelling case for ethnographic studies as a complementary approach (to usability engineering, for example) for learning about information seeking behaviors and other forms of "invisible work" performed every day by real people in the real world.

(Chris Farnum, an information architect at Argus, put a different twist on applied anthropology in a high-tech environment, suggesting that Bonnie is an expert at studying "users in the mist.")

Bonnie showed us a fascinating product under development at AT&T called ContactMap. It provides a unifying interface for describing, visualizing, and leveraging personal social networks.

Her discussion of ContactMap gave us a hint of how next-generation information architectures might leverage these social networks to provide unified access to people, content, and services.

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Information Architecture for Diverse Audiences

Karyn Young brought us an insider's view of what it's like to be an information architect within an immense company like IBM. I enjoyed her story about how Lou Gerstner scared people into implementing a standard navigation system across all 14 business units.

And I was impressed by some of the ways her group has been able to demonstrate return on investment, for example tying $50 million in savings to their latest redesign.

 view slides online    download PowerPoint file

Panel Discussion: IA in a Wireless World

Lou Rosenfeld facilitated a stimulating discussion regarding the impact of wireless appliances on information architecture.

Andrew Dillon railed against the PDA of today as an unusable device that's too easy to forget at home. He called for an integration of physical and information architectures; a world with information and interface embedded in our walls.

Seth Gordon pointed out that our clothing may soon be serving as another portal into cyberspace.

Knowledge Architecture: MSWeb Case Study

Vivian Bliss presented an astonishing case study, taking us behind the Microsoft firewall to see what may be the most sophisticated intranet portal in the world. These folks are years ahead of most of their peers, in terms of integrating controlled vocabularies, metadata registries, personalization, XML and XSL into a working information system that is highly useful and usable.

Oh, and by the way, they've managed to save about 45 person years so far by creating a flexible portal architecture that's being adopted by other departments around the company.

 view slides online    download PowerPoint file

Adaptive Information Architecture

Though I'm not sure that Peter Merholz lived up to his new title as "the bad boy of information architecture," he did stretch our minds with an exploration of the ways we might leverage the inherent qualities of information, user behavior, and the process of evolution to design adaptive information architectures.

Peter presented some photos of Berkeley footpaths, as evidence that landscaping architects often fail to predict where people will want to walk. He encouraged information architects to take a more careful look at the patterns of usage within our web sites, to see what we can learn from our users' digital footprints.

 view slides online    download PowerPoint file

Structure and Function: IA for Web Applications

Andrea Gallagher did a wonderful job bridging the gap between information architecture and user interface design, describing the people and processes involved in developing task-oriented web applications.

Andrea explained that the information used to describe products and services (i.e., metadata) limits the potential array of tasks and affects the user's understanding. For this and other reasons, information architects and user interface designers must work alongside one another from the beginning of a project.

Finally, I really enjoyed Andrea's suggestion that we need to "wallow in the information." It brought to mind an image of a happy hippopotamus rolling around in an immense pile of documents.

 view slides online    download PowerPoint file

Into the Sunset

We rounded out the conference with a panel discussion centered around key questions for the field of information architecture. This was a highly energizing experience, because of the active participation of what was probably the most experienced audience of (roughly two hundred and fifty) information architects ever assembled.

There was a real feeling of community, or as Vivian Bliss put it, a sense that we were "among our own tribe."

After the conference, a bunch of us hiked down to the beach (not the nude one), and watched from Flat Rock as the sun set over the Pacific ocean. It was a nice way to end the day.

It also provided one more reason to start planning Information Architecture 2001. I love staying in luxury hotels along the Californian coastline.

End Notes

What did you think about Information Architecture 2000?

Please send your rants and raves to Peter Morville.

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