International Information Architecture

Connecting people from diverse disciplines, countries and cultures is a strategic imperative, not only for AIfIA but for the information architecture community as a whole. Our competitive advantage derives from our very ability to build bridges and span networks.

This argument alone should provide ample incentive for us to nurture an international perspective within the practice, but there are all sorts of idiosyncratic reasons why information architects should reach across borders.

Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things

George Lakoff’s book about categorization is required reading for any serious information architect. Consider this excerpt:

The title of this book was inspired by the Australian aboriginal language Dyirbal, which has a category, balan, that actually includes women, fire, and dangerous things. It also includes birds that are not dangerous, as well as exceptional animals, such as the platypus, bandicoot, and echidna.

The ways we categorize are rooted in language and culture. This creates unique challenges for information architects. For example, a web site targeted for a Japanese audience may require a completely different structure and organization than its German equivalent. Localization isn’t limited to translation.

These issues have been addressed before in library science circles, as noted in an article in Information Services & Use (volume 17:2) by Michele Hudon on Multilingual Thesaurus Construction:

The development of a multilingual thesaurus is more than the “putting together” of several monolingual thesauri. The true multilingual thesaurus offers complete conceptual and terminological inventories for each one of the languages involved; most importantly, to present a fully developed thesauri structure in each language, so that a user consulting the linguistic version most appropriate for her/him gets the same amount of semantic information.

Unfortunately, for many, this topic appears largely academic. We recognize our web sites have an international audience, but we lack the resources to engage in globalization and localization efforts. Or at least that’s the excuse we use, particularly here in the United States of America.

US Centrism

Assemble a multi-national group of people, and it won’t take long before the incendiary topic of US centrism pops up.

In one of AIfIA’s formative discussions, Karl Fast, a feisty Canadian, responded to a US centric message with an all-caps blast:


Since then we’ve had several similar incidents, each of which has been stressful but informative. In my opinion, the gain far exceeds the pain.

But why is this such a hot topic these days? Well, clearly US foreign policy hasn’t gone over too well. And, it’s fair to say there are elements of envy behind the animosity. But beyond these factors, the plain truth is that most of US are pretty damn ignorant about the perspectives and sensitivities of those in other countries.

This ignorance is not a symptom of stupidity or even arrogance. Rather, as we optimize for income and quality of life, it’s tough to make a cost-benefit argument for exposing ourselves to attitudes in Brazil or learning to speak fluent French.

Sure, we can check out the Indiatimes or the BBC News from the comfort of our homes, but the ruthless efficiency of our information foraging behavior steers us more frequently to CNN, the New York Times, and our friends in the nearby cubicle.

Architects Without Borders

So, why should information architects in the US care about this stuff when the dominant market incentive steers us towards designing English-language web sites for US companies targeting US residents?

  • Low-Hanging Fruit. When you’re starting from ground zero, a little learning goes a long way. For many USIAs, spending one hour reading about internationalization and localization may avert 80% of the obvious blunders.
  • Insight from Outside. We can improve our methodology and create better products for domestic audiences by interacting with people who see and do things very differently.
  • State of Readiness. While the history of IA may have a US voice, the future of IA will surely be international. We must build understanding and relationships before we need them.

The State of Information Architecture

Now is the time to actively work on building these international relationships. IA in the US has reached a plateau. We enjoyed major investment and rapid learning in the 1990s. We developed core concepts and methodology, and we experienced the trials and tribulations of interdisciplinary collaboration. As the economy revives, we’re positioned to invest real energy in cross-cultural IA.

Meanwhile, I’m seeing growing interest in IA around the world. I’ve spoken in Sweden and Italy and been invited to speak in Australia, England and South Africa.

In AIfIA, I’ve had the pleasure of working with the wonderful people leading the Translations Initiative. They come from Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, and Panama, and they bring tremendous energy and new insight to the IA community.

Eggshells and Empathy

They also bring controversy. We had one quarrel over the use of Europe (except Ireland & the UK) as a category in our salary survey. And we’ve had a vibrant debate over the establishment of discounted membership rates for people in developing countries.

What’s great is that people have felt comfortable enough to engage in these difficult conversations. Obviously empathy is a key ingredient for collaboration. But we also need the guts to honestly share our own feelings and opinions about these sensitive topics.

Many in the US are very conscious of walking on eggshells these days, but we must overcome our fear of being branded an Ugly American, if we’re to enjoy the benefits of real engagement in international collaboration.

So, what do you really think? Come on, let’s break some eggshells.

by Peter Morville

Appendix I. International Insights

Stories, quotes and insights I’ve gathered in recent weeks through research and serendipity.

As the grassroots level, people are reaching across borders:

  • The Q Connection. I’ve been working closely with a US design firm named Q which enjoys a productive relationship with a German design firm also named Q. They transformed a fun coincidence into an opportunity for international collaboration.
  • Polar Bears in Haiti. I recently had lunch with students who are helping a community in Haiti to setup a library, a technology center and an intranet. They delivered 6,000 books (some donated by O’Reilly), 92 computers and 3,200 pounds of pinto beans in a lime green school bus.

Web Blunders
Stig Andersen highlighted the following examples:

Time Magazine Europe Subscription. After having chosen “Denmark” they prompt me for a “Salutation” that makes no sense in Denmark. Also they offer me, as first option, to pay with American Express, a credit card which is not widely used here. Not to mention – why not bother to translate this page? I know – the customer is buying an English magazine, but still.

IBM Denmark. Say I have an IBM PC and I need support or to download a driver. I go to the Danish page and choose “Alle downloads & drivere” (means “All downloads and drivers”). Ups! Without a warning comes a page in English. This is very typical. Microsoft and Sun have the same problem, but these two sites warn me that the following page will be in English.

Amazon. Now take Amazon. We like to praise them as best practice. Well why is it they offer me an American Woods 1305T Windsor Collection Chaise Lounge with Sidetable in my Gold Box when they know I live across the Atlantic?

The Need for Translations
English is not the world’s language:

Today, several IA groups around the world are poorly serviced when it comes to information about IA as a discipline (particularly non-English speakers). Many practitioners feel isolated in their current locations, lacking the support and enrichment provided by a group of people with similar interests.
Lívia Labate, São Paulo, Brazil

The people who deal with information within a company and in customers relations – can be reached far more easily if stuff on IA is available in the native Dutch language. These are people who use PCs with Dutch language software, who do not read/think in English – and for whom the “all-Anglified” subculture of IA-wizards are a non-entity.
Oskar van Rijswijk, Zoetermeer, The Netherlands

Go to Amsterdam or Antwerp or Oslo and you will find that almost everyone speaks superb English, and yet if you venture into almost any bookstore in those cities you will usually find only a small selection of books in English. For the most part, people want to read works in their own language.
The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson

On Professional Associations
The real benefits of membership vary by location:

I have recently moved to London from South Africa and until now found most of these kind of memberships too expensive to consider. It is not simply the cost of the membership, but also the level of face-to-face interaction and the access to events such as conferences that ultimately means in more developed countries you end up getting far more for your membership.
Vanessa Wolfe-Coote, London, England

Interestingly, one person noted on SIGIA that people in Kansas and Kentucky may feel the same way, since most events in the US occur on the east or west coasts.

On US – European Relations
In today’s tense world, we can use a little humor and a lot of hope:

I fully understand the frustration that you and probably most US people feel when they find themselves portrayed as coke-drinking, imperialistic Mideast invaders 🙂 I have as many friends in the US who share this frustration as I have friends in France, for example, who are frustrated by the way they are portrayed in the press and movies in Hollywood.
Stig Andersen, Copenhagen, Denmark

The social gap between us and America is small, and from a business perspective modern technology has helped to make the business gap even smaller. I look forward to a future with more European – American integration which will help to build a more international community.
Thilo von Debschitz, Wiesbaden, Germany

IA Around the World
It’s tough to figure out where IA really stands in different countries.

IA stands nowhere in Europe as a separate profession. Peter Bogaards just started an IA company (BogieLand), but I was told that the talk me and him gave was the first event in Belgium about IA!
Peter Van Dijck, a Belgian living in New York, USA

Even though the United States is home to most of the prominent research and people in the field, IA is becoming very popular worldwide. This signals the power of internationalization in the IA world.
Lívia Labate, São Paulo, Brazil

Appendix II. The Polar Bear Overseas

I had hoped to compare international sales of our polar bear book in Chinese, English, Italian, Korean, Polish and Russian, but unfortunately O’Reilly doesn’t have easy access to the foreign language sales data. Still, the lifetime English language sales figures are interesting.

Country Name % Lifetime Sales
Australia 1.99%
Brazil 0.06%
Canada 6.78%
Chile 0.01%
China 0.03%
France 0.36%
Germany 2.88%
Hong Kong 0.21%
India 0.04%
Israel 0.01%
Italy 0.04%
Japan 0.21%
Korea, Republic of (South) 0.43%
Netherlands 0.31%
Philippines 0.01%
Poland 0.04%
Russian Federation 0.04%
Saudi Arabia 0.01%
Singapore 1.04%
Sweden 0.02%
Switzerland 0.01%
Taiwan 0.26%
United Kingdom 15.77%
Uruguay 0.01%
USA 69.44%