Ilaria got in touch to ask me to answer some questions for her thesis about Information Architecture:
- First of all, I’d like you to introduce yourself, your job, main stages of your professional career and of your education (studies) that have brought you to deal with Information Architecture.
- Do you think Information Architecture is more of a scientific or arts subject matter? Why?
- Can you tell me any advantage in your Information Architecture job derived from being involved in communication/journalism?
- Why, do you think, Information Architecture is so important and relevant?
Here’s my waffly responses:
1. I studied Communications at the University of Leeds and when I graduated I took a graduate trainee position with the Guardian newspaper in London. The role was working in their research and information department. It mostly involved putting newspaper articles into the electronic and paper archives and carrying out research for journalists.
My manager encouraged me to apply to study for an MSc in Information Science. Around a month before I was due to start the course, the website manager for the Guardian emailed everyone asking if anyone was available to work night-shifts on the Guardian website. I realised this would be interesting and a good way to fund my MSc so I applied.
Whilst studying for my MSc I was introduced to the concepts of information architecture. I read Rosenfeld and Morville’s Information Architecture for the World Wide Web and had a ‘eureka moment’ as I realised that IA would combine my interests in media and information management and just generally organising things! I decided to base my dissertation on IA.
At same time I was still working on the Guardian website. One night one of the team came and asked me where the letters page was on the website. I didn’t know off the top of my head so I had a browse around and I couldn’t find it. I realised if two of the staff couldn’t find it then there might be something wrong with the site navigation. I decided that my dissertation would be about the IA of the Guardian website. I carried out a number of card-sorts and category membership expectation tests and subsequently proposed a simplified navigation structure in my dissertation.
On graduation I applied to the BBC for a role called Assistant Producer, Search & Metadata. At that time there were no information architects at the BBC but shortly after I joined the BBC hired their first IA. I talked with him and tried to learn where I could. Later the BBC initiated a content management project and hired Margaret Hanley who had previously worked at Argus Associates. She built a team of IAs which I subsequently joined.
2. It is both, I’m afraid. Individuals who approach IA in very different ways. Some are very focused on metrics, search log analysis, multi-variant testing and rigorous user testing (although we rarely test to levels of statistical significance). Others come from a more creative background and focus more on the ‘design’ aspects of the role. Personally I think the reason IA is powerful and that IAs are valuable to organisations is because they combine thinking styles and should be at ease with both logical/analytical approaches and with more intuitive and inventive styles, and be able to use whichever is more appropriate at a given point in time.
3. Studying communications was useful in getting a foot in the door in media organisations but I’ve also been surprised at how much of both my degrees I have actually used in my career, particularly the sociology of communications that I studied in my first degree. I often find myself going back to David Gauntlett’s work (http://www.theory.org.uk/).
Journalism has always been about structuring information clearly. This can mean that in a media organisation an IA will find allies amongst the journalists who also think about IA problems. In my experience, however, it is also true that these allies can be found in the software engineering teams, design teams and amongst the product managers too.
Sometimes it can be difficult to be an IA in a news organisation. In journalism-led organisations the journalist is king and other disciplines may be relegated to the status of support staff. This can make it hard to be listened to. Luckily this is less the case in the BBC, hence why I have stayed so long!
4. For me, IA solves two main problems:
* ensuring content is findable
* making the complex clear
You don’t have to have an IA to do this. Many sites run by smart non-IAs have cracked these problems without having a dedicated IA but if they have thought about and solved these problems then they were applying IA thinking.
So why have an IA do this? It might be necessary to have someone operate in the role of facilitator/connector, who can talk the language of both the designers and developers. Or the project may be large enough to justify a specialist who concentrates on the IA aspects and frees up the other disciplines to concentrate to concentrate on, say, the emotional design, or the scalability of the technical solution.
My experience at the BBC has been that once a project team has had an IA on a project then they want one on the next project. They can’t necessarily explain why but they know it mattered.
A dedicated IA might be a luxury for many websites but having someone who thinks like an IA is vital.