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Oct 25, 2001: Optimism and Warnings

Just back today from Washington DC, where Margaret Hanley and I co-taught two days of information architecture tutorials at the Nielsen Norman Group conference. The attendees were bright, the discussion brilliant, and we all laughed a lot. In fact, I actually detected a hint of optimism in the air.

Optimism?

Hard to believe after the year we've all had. But even post-9/11, there seems to be something of a rebound underway in the demand for information architecture. Sure, this is a hunch, but my IA hunches are usually pretty good. And in this case, my hunch is based on both personal experience and what I'm hearing from others.

What's changed?

Here's my oversimplified explanation: until roughly one year ago, information architects were often being hired for the wrong reasons. Just like everyone else in the web design biz. Companies were moving too fast, talent was hard to come by, and employers/customers weren't very good at discerning all these new-fangled skills anyway. Witness the confusing and sometimes conflicting requirements that were found in both IA RFPs and IA job postings. Anyway, it didn't really matter: your cocker spaniel probably could have gotten a job as an information architect.

Then came the year of utter, desolate nothingness that we'd all like to forget.

So let's fast forward to the present: we may be witnessing a new and welcome trend of companies hiring information architects for the right reasons. Powerful, expensive IT infrastructures remain, and content continues to explode in volume and corrode in quality. Budgets haven't completely dried up. So, after getting burned in the frenzied debacle, companies are starting to realize that perhaps a more careful, planned approach to dealing with information issues is merited. And that planning happens to be something that information architects are very good at...

Assuming we really are turning the corner, the field is entering a new phase. Here are some thoughts to consider as we move forward:

The End of the IA Buyer's Market: If you're a manager, take note: it may never be as easy to find quality IA talent again as it was during 2001. Never. As in the rest of human history. This isn't just wishful thinking; personally, I'm already overbooked. And I honestly believe this will soon be true for the IA "supply" as a whole.

My advice? Start stockpiling.

Eternal Vigilance against IA Gurus: As the field continues to mature, we will surely encounter self-proclaimed gurus who spout hard rules and other dogma, often for no other reason than self-promotion. In a field where everything really does depend, such orthodoxy is oxymoronic and, as it misleads, is ultimately harmful. So let's avoid the crap we've seen in sister fields. Consider it your professional duty to:

  1. poke holes in the dogma of all "gurus"; and
  2. inoculate clients, coworkers, and the media against falling for opinions and ideas masked as incontrovertible truths.

Skepticism is good. The alternative is bad: an intellectual coup by a few aggressive individuals.

Share or Die: During the Good Times, most IA practitioners shared information about techniques and tools that helped them do their work. There were, unfortunately, a few major exceptions who held their cards close while benefiting from others' largesse. Not only did this result in less good knowledge being shared by the community as a whole, but it was just plain mean.

And probably dumb: can an IA methodology truly be "proprietary"? And if so, could it really be that much further ahead than another? Even if it was, by the time it could be captured, shared, and broadly understood, its owners would have moved ahead with new ideas. (Hey, when the polar bear book came out in early '98, Argus was already doing things much differently.)

Many of the culprits are kaput or have scaled way back. But now we begin again: let's not get off on the wrong foot. If we're all smarter, we look better as a field, which is a good thing. Besides, there will ultimately be too much work out there for us to take on, so why be so competitive?

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