The Definition of Information Architecture

The recent unveiling of the Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture provoked two predictable reactions:

  1. Is this yet another attempt to define IA?
  2. What is IA and why have I never heard of it?

These questions obviously come from two different audiences.

  1. IA insiders, who have lived through a decade of definitional debates and are tired of arguing over minutia.
  2. IA outsiders, who constitute the vast majority of people on this planet and have never heard of information architecture.

What’s scary is how many IA outsiders exist inside IT. On MetaFilter, a person with 20 years of large-scale IT systems experience asks:

Why haven’t I heard of this before? IA doesn’t seem to be very well plugged into the IT architecture community or the management consulting community. What’s IA’s intellectual heritage, and where does the community come from?

Is this widespread ignorance of IA our fault? Are we really such lousy communicators? What’s up?

Small Voices in a Big World

We’ve actually done a pretty good job explaining the substance and value of IA. Collectively, we’ve made thousands of presentations in public and private venues, authored hundreds of articles for print and online publication, and written several books on the topic.

And a few thousand professional information architects prove their value every day in the trenches by contributing to the design of more useful, usable, and desirable systems and products.

We feel we’re failing to spread the good word because we’re living in such a big world. 6 billion people. 3 billion URLs. Growth outpaces our ability to count. The U.S. Library of Congress holds 18 million books. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recognizes 770 occupations. But the United States represents only 4.5% of the world population.

A Megaphone for the IA Community

If nothing else, AIfIA presents an opportunity for us to join forces and speak out. We must focus our message. We must carefully select our target audiences. And then we must speak loudly and clearly.

But we hope to go much further than that. If we listen carefully to people’s reactions, if we involve outsiders in the discussion, if we make connections to other communities and disciplines, then we can learn how to improve the practice of information architecture.

Ultimately, our greatest challenge will be execution. Good intentions will carry us only so far. In the coming months, to focus our collective energy, we’ll be developing a business plan for AIfIA.

We’ll be speaking out. We’ll be listening carefully. And we’ll be shaping a strategy and a plan for this new organization. Now is the time to enter the conversation. Become a member, a partner, or a volunteer. Or simply challenge us by asking difficult and provocative questions.

We hope you’ll add your voice to the growing numbers of people all around the world who are defining the past, present and future of information architecture.

by Peter Morville

Appendix I. Information Architecture Definitions

From the Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture:

  1. The structural design of shared information environments.
  2. The art and science of organizing and labeling web sites, intranets, online communities and software to support usability and findability.
  3. An emerging community of practice focused on bringing principles of design and architecture to the digital landscape.

From Information Architecture for the World Wide Web (2nd Edition):

  1. The combination of organization, labeling, and navigation schemes within an information system.
  2. The structural design of an information space to facilitate task completion and intuitive access to content.
  3. The art and science of structuring and classifying web sites and intranets to help people find and manage information.

For more definitions, see Defining the Damn Thing on Elegant Hack and the IAwiki.

Appendix II. Five Facts About AIfIA

  1. A week after going public, AIfIA has 163 charter members representing 120 organizations in 13 countries.
  2. AIfIA was born at Asilomar but incorporated in Ann Arbor.
  3. According to our bylaws, we can add another 15 members to the AIfIA Leadership Council.
  4. Starting next year, our members will elect the Leadership Council and the Leadership Council will elect the Board of Directors.
  5. Currently, AIfIA is an all-volunteer organization with no paid staff.

Appendix III. Potential Partners

We’re collaborating with a few partners, and we’re particularly happy to be working with ASIS&T on the IA Leadership Seminar.

A number of organizations are on our radar as potential partners. They include: ACM-SIGCHI, AIGA, Information Today, New Architect, STC, and UPA.

But we know there are many more organizations around the world that could be great partners. Please, tell us who they are.

Appendix IV. Quotable Quotes

Some memorable responses to the public launch of AIfIA:

Well, folks this is the who’s who of IA. I would seriously urge all IAs and those in tangential fields to consider getting involved. This organization will do great things! Challis Hodge

My gut reaction says that within a year this will either die from lack of interest, or be transformed into the classic management consultancy song-and-dance completely decoupled from real results. Fuzz on MetaFilter.

The inmates are running the asylum. Or at least they’ve gone and built their own asylum, somewhere nice, by the sea. Matt Jones

I do however wonder from a graphic design standpoint whether they’ll address information graphics and interface design and how important it is to architecture. Stan Chin on MetaFilter.

What’s the difference between IA and Information Science as practiced by librarians, records managers, and other professionals? IshmaelGraves on MetaFilter.

I worry that AIfIA is good-intentioned, but the motivation will wane. unless there’s real money being thrown around, where the people working with AIfIA have a salary imperative to keep things going. Peter Merholz

Ever since the demise of the ACIA there has been no focus for information architecture research and best practice. A year or so ago… I suggested that what was needed was an Institute for Information Architecture, and without any effort on my part this has now been formed with the launch of AIfIA. The people behind the new organisation are the leading authorities in the field. There is also a distinguished Leadership Council, though somewhat biased towards North America. Martin White

This initiative is probably the best thing happening to IA for a long time. Consolidating IA is a key step towards making IA a well respected and highly valued profession. Gunnar Langemark on SIGIA.

To learn who else is talking about AIfIA, see the AIfIA Referrer Log or wade through the several hundred Google Hits.

Appendix V. Information Architecture Books

If you’re still confused about the definition of information architecture, buy a book:

Information Architecture for the World Wide Web
by Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville.

Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web by Christina Wodtke.

Practical Information Architecture by Eric L. Reiss.

Information Architecture: An Emerging 21st Century Profession by Earl Morrogh.