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Mar 14, 2002: Silly IA Optimism

Just got off the phone with usability poobah Steve Krug, keynoter for this weekend's IA Summit. Our agenda was ostensibly to give Steve a sense of what to expect from all of the goofy information architects he'll be meeting this weekend.

Steve was making the point of how information architects are prone to the same economic hardships as usability folk. The recession hits and suddenly we're all an expensive luxury. The line item for outside consultants is especially easy to squash (and don't I know it!). Steve's subdued assessment seems all too accurate at the moment.

But it doesn't feel entirely right to me. Yes, I'm a natural optimist, but I think I may have some reason here. There are more and more information systems every day, holding more content, serving more users. I'm probably wrong, but I think it would be safe to reason that, despite this growth, the set of usability and interaction design problems doesn't really change. Or if it does, it grows slowly. These problems may get reproduced again and again, but professionals with UE or ID backgrounds have probably seen them before. In effect, that particular problem space seems finite.

On the other hand, information architecture does get more and more challenging over time. Growth in content means more complex IA problems: volume increases the stress on each information architecture component. Labor-intensive approaches, such as manual tagging, suddenly don't work any longer. Focus turns to content objects of greater granularity, analogous to moving from librarianship (organizing books and journals) to archives and records management (organizing collections of objects).

The point? Well, all this work and all these new frontiers will necessarily demand more information architects. I'm not saying that the demand for usability engineers or interaction designers will decline or stay flat, but I think that the morphing problem space that information architects face will ultimately push up demand for IA even higher.

Now time to duck... I'm sure that I'm completely wrong, and will try to find some convenient way to tag Steve with the blame. ;-)

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Comment: Michele de la Iglesia (Mar 15, 2002)

I agree that as the quantity and complexity of information and information needs grow, there will be an increasing need for information architects. The question is whether companies will finally realize that IA is a necessity and not a luxury. We see evidence every day that most websites need our help, yet as you note IA consulting projects are nixed everyday. It's frustrating, to say the least.

Comment: Dan Brown (Mar 18, 2002)

Lou wrote: "...the set of usability and interaction design problems doesn't really change..."

Why? Because the capabilities of the human mind are not going to change. A product's usability is determined by how well the design fits cognitive limitations. (Read "The Humane Interface [http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0201379376/].")

While good usability practices incorporate specifics regarding the context of the user, the majority of usability problems arise when an interface challenges our cognitive abilities.

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