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

An Information Architect's Manifesto

Information architects of the world, unite!

The environment has changed. Now, so must we!

Think back to the early 1990s. We were alone and naked and cold and wet, struggling to pull ourselves from the primordial, pre-web, pre-pre-IPO swamp.

We labored in library sweat-shops, cataloging dusty books in dark basements. We battled with Gophers, desperately seeking WAIS to improve access to information. We were quiet, but we had big plans. All 10 of us.

Fast forward to a new reality. We've multiplied like tribbles. I haven't seen the latest Department of Labor statistics, but I do have reason to believe there are today at least 2,431 practicing information architects. And, we have reached out and touched one other, forming our own conferences and web sites and discussion groups. In short, we have become a community.

Since information architects tend to be nice people, we often think of community in terms of friendly neighbors, interesting conversations, sharing and caring and...

No, No, No, Bad!

We need Community with a capital C.

We need to define and leverage our Collective Bargaining Power.

We need to work together to make the world a better place...for us!

Fearless Leadership

Shortly after publication of a recent survey on salaries and benefits for information architects, we received the following email from an information architect at one of the major e-business consulting firms.

Email Excerpt:
identity concealed to protect the dissident
"I just got hold of this. You guys are awesome. I've been looking for this for a long time. I think it is about time for us to unionize like the other industries. I'm running short on time today. But I'd be more than happy to help you in such matters."
While I appreciate these sentiments (especially the "You guys are awesome" part), I want to be clear that I personally am not advocating the formation of an information architects' union. In fact, I am not going on record as having any opinion whatsoever about unions or any other legally or politically sensitive matter.

In any case, my point is that there is a groundswell of activist sentiment in the IA community. All we need is a strong leader (who's not afraid of powerful executives, lawyers, or gun-toting law enforcement officials), a clear set of demands, and some threatening rhetoric. It sounds like the guy who wrote this email is willing to be our fearless leader, so I'll stick to some suggested demands and threats (which do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this author, his company, or his mother).

Our Demands

Figuring out what you want is often the hardest part of any revolution. We could demand higher salaries, but is that what motivates us? Would that make us happy? I think not.

What we really want is UNDERSTANDING.

We want our colleagues, bosses, parents, children, and next-door neighbors to understand what the heck we do. And we want the whole world to understand how damn important it is.

I submit that our modest demands should be limited to expecting that all people must understand the following:

  • Information architects solve SERIOUS problems. We're talking mission-critical information infrastructures. We're talking recall and precision, time and money, life and death. Information architecture is headed straight towards the heart of business strategy and competitive advantage. Companies that don't invest will die a slow, painful death.
  • You can't solve these problems with TECHNOLOGY alone. Portals do not come in a box (or in little blue folders). Neither do controlled vocabularies. Companies that have unique products, unique strategies, and unique cultures also need unique information architectures. In a world of increasing personalization and customization, generic solutions will fail.
  • Information architecture does not equal USABILITY. Usability engineers and user experience designers are wonderful and important, and we like them too, but they can't do everything. Neither can the user. You can't user test your way from a bicycle to an airplane.
Are these demands too extreme? Is this too much to ask for? Of course not. In fact, we have more demands. Many, many more. But let's get our inch before we take our mile.

Our Threats

Another prerequisite for revolution is some type of ominous threat that captures the public's attention. Violence is too messy and hunger strikes can hurt morale. We could threaten some form of walk-out or slow-down, but it's hard for information architects to generate quite the same short-term catastrophic impact as pilots and nurses and baseball players.

We could threaten to create dreadful information architectures that frustrate users' attempts to complete tasks, buy products, and find information. Unfortunately, it would be hard to get noticed amidst the masses of accidentally abysmal web sites and intranets already in existence.

The trouble is, coming up with good threats turns out to be harder than you'd think. This is where Community comes in. I call on information architects around the world to join the good fight and brainstorm some threats. Please make them funny, creative, interesting, and very, very ominous.

Send me your threats and I'll add them to the manifesto.

Remember, you have nothing to fear but fear itself (but if you'd prefer to remain anonymous, just let me know).

Your Threats

If our demands are not met, the information architects of the world will:

  1. "Make it so that your contextual navigation does not make sense. Users will pick out a red hat, brown pants, and a blue shirt, and your site will then recommend a new ballcock for your toilet." (Keith Instone)

  2. "Create a virus that unravels all the folder links on the computers it infects, so that no one can find any information at all. After completely disrupting your computer's information architecture, the virus flashes a message with the phone number of the nearest information architect, who will (for a small fee) not only restore all the now invalid links, but will reorganize your file structure so that you can actually find things." (Fred Leise)

  3. "Fear and Tremble before us, or thy Navigation Paths shall be torn asunder and rearchitected in Braille, thy Labels shall be scattered into Analects of Esperanto, thy newborn Pages shall have their Metatags ripped out and thrown to the Spiders of Hell, amid the Weeping and Gnashing of Users' Teeth! We shall smite thee with a Great Storm of Flash and Shockwave, and visit upon thee the Howling of the Moneychangers and a Mighty Pestilence of Ads! A Curse upon thy Site and all of its Subsites! Repent! Click thee here and take up the One True Word!" (Larry Rusinsky)

  4. "Read our lips: No new taxonomies!" (Jeff Harrison)

  5. "A virtual wedgie shall be foisted upon the users of the web, so that navigation becomes reversed, and then inverted, and placed in different locations on every page; thesauri become repositories of antonyms and bad haikus; whenever personalization of content is to be employed, it shall always be employed for someone else; copious plug-ins shall be used to display the word "the," and, finally, the back button shall be disengaged. Nothing hurts more than a virtual wedgie!" (Ariana French)

  6. "...we will disavow our allegiances to Dewey, Cutter and Raganathan by losing control of our vocabularies, slaying the mighty Thesaurus, tampering with users' channel capacity and hiding the shopping carts of the world! (Julian Richards)

  7. "We will spend every waking hour perfecting the art of superfluous animation and extrinsic information elements with a good dose of ambiguous taxonomies. We will indoctrinate copy writers with malapropisms of misguided instructional text. We will hold Jakob Nielsen captive and coerce him to turn into usability mudslinging. He will be forced to watch Flash introductions repeatedly until his eyes pop out of his head and the term "skip intro" no longer resides in his consciousness. And when users are salivating with interactive rabies, we will destroy every personal computer and force them to browse the Internet on Sprint PCS phones... with higher radioactive emissions." (Justin Hambleton)

  8. "We will go into your houses and redesign them the same way your web sites are designed. The basement will be the first thing you see, the kitchen will be unreachable except through the bedroom and both bathrooms, the bedroom will be on six different floors, and the dog will be in every room at once." (Ann Feeny)

  9. Your Threat Here.
See Also More Threats

End Notes

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