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Sep 09, 2003: IAs from SMEs

An interesting question came up during a conversation with nPower's Paul Nattress at the post-seminar happy hour in London last week: will future information architects start out as subject matter experts?

Seems like most of us come from a "industry neutral" background; perhaps we've studied graphic design, like Paul, or library science, like me, or technical communications or some other field that is focused on the creation or communication of information, regardless of setting. We're interested in the information itself; its origin and topic don't matter so much. Conversely, I don't typically run into IAs who started out as, say, materials scientists, mortgage brokers, or specialists in medieval British history.

But it's not hard to imagine someone starting out at a utility company, maybe down the corridor from Paul, with a civil engineering background. After a few years as a researcher, she becomes interested in how to better organize the company's growing collection of technical reports. Soon she's delving into search tools, metadata, task analyses, instead of writing reports. She gets hired to do this kind of work at an energy publishing company. A few years later, she's an information architect with an insurance company. No more civil engineering; besides changing industries, she's transmogrified from SME to IA.

Do subject specialists specialize precisely because they're not terribly interested in any topic besides their own? Or is the scenario I described above increasingly commonplace?

If SMEs are going to move into IA, perhaps their journey is bit longer than, say, people with backgrounds in human factors or journalism. So I'll wager that those entering IA five years from now might have significantly different backgrounds than the newly-minted information architects of today. It'll be interesting to see what impact that has on our field.

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Comment: Livia Labate (Sep 9, 2003)

Interesting considerations. I am currently doing IA consulting for a large banking institution and my first feeling upon entering the project and coming across so many banking details was "thank goodness I went to business school".

The second thought was that an IA specialized in banking would certainly have it easier and that an IA with a different background and not much experience would have a really hard time adapting and learning. The learning curve on specialized IAs would certainly tend to zero and that means time and expenses saved on budgets.

Seems *very* likely a possibility, specially if you share the idea that information architecture is becoming part of a skill set, rather than a role segmentation. But that's another discussion...

Comment: Lou (Sep 10, 2003)

Great ideas Livia; now you've got me thinking that there might soon be seeing the advent of banking IAs, insurance IAs, higher education IAs, automotive IAs... Maybe we'll find IA Summit 2009 split into a number of industry tracks.

Comment: Stewart Dean (Sep 10, 2003)

I agree with Livia's comment. I find myself working on a lot of IT sites (usualy big names) and find that an understanding of their products helps a lot. I've face more than one step learning curvue and have worked on banking sites.

I would say many IA's specialise in one way or the other or at least have more expertise creating one kind of site.

I view it as chefs or can cook different things. To me a 'kind' of site has a list of ingredients. Film sites always tell you a bit about a film, with some stills/video clips and a release date. IT sites always have support, product information and some kind of solutions slant (broken down often into home, small to medium business and enterprise).

I almost think it's worth creating a book of these reciepes - but would that make life too easy?


Stewart Dean

Comment: Bill Van Loo (Sep 11, 2003)

The idea of "IA plus specialty" seems pretty similar to the way the program I graduated from was structured. I did the STC degree from Michigan Tech, which encouraged a core number of credits (45, maybe?) in a specific subject. The idea here was that you'd go and write documentation or whatever that was related to that subject matter.

Now that I'm a number of years out from college and see the parallels between STC and IA, I don't see why future IA programs might not do the same thing.


Comment: Lou (Sep 11, 2003)

OK, so here's a question. Which of the following two choices would you prefer to have on your staff and why?

* Option A: a half-time information architect (with "generic" but deep IA expertise) and a half-time SME (subject matter expert)

* Option B: a full-time information architect with subject matter expertise

Comment: Livia Labate (Sep 14, 2003)

By analyzing what we have discussed so far I would pick Option B, which is supportive of the notion that specialized information architects might be the wave of the future. However (after all everything ALWAYS DEPENDS on information architecture :), I've been considering a different future scenario...

How about the next generation IAs, which will start out their careers as information architects, rather than coming from some other background (info sciences, business, or whatever)?

These folks will come out of high school and have their first jobs structuring Web sites and other online applications (mobiles phone interfaces, etc). This 'new breeding' of IAs will not have previous experience or expertise in a particular field or subject matter and will most likely gain the "generic but deep IA expertise" Lou mentioned above.

Where do these IAs fit? Would they slowly become the full-time information architects with subject matter expertise as they gain experience (Option B), or would they remain the generalists who work alongside an SME (Option A)?

Comment: Paul Nattress (Sep 15, 2003)

I think we have to look at whether the Information Architect is in-house or a consultant.

An in-house IA will have to become a subject matter expert sooner or later. It will be a natural part of working for the company. (I work in-house for a utilities company and I now know a lot about gas and electricity.)

A consultant will not get a chance to become an SME, as they will rarely spend enough time working in one industry to gain the subject matter expertise needed.

We also have other web workers who, like me, have much broader roles than being the IA. I'm a 'Content Editor' (although I'm an ex-IA) and I look after content writing, content and graphic design, usability, IA, etc. Do I fit into Option A or Option B?

I think perhaps that we should call Option A 'in-house IA' and Option B 'consultant IA'. Companies may not require a full-time IA with deep IA experience unless they are undertaking a major project such as a site redesign. (Call in the consultants!) They will however, require an SME with IA experience to perform the task of a 'maintenance Information Architect' (see http://www.boxesandarrows.com/archives/tackling_maintenance_projects.php). This role can also, like my role, cover other aspects of good web design such as graphic design, usability, typography etc.

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