From time to time I have the pleasure of talking to others who do Information Architecture as a part of their work. Sometimes as *all* of their work, although usually as a part. (Of course, there’s lots of debate and confusion over where Information Architecture starts and ends, but I’ve posted about that already).
Given that IA as a profession is really only about 10yrs old (or at least, that’s the figure I hear bandied about), it makes sense that *most* IAs have a ‘past life’ of one kind or another. This has got me to thinking that there are probably about six different species of Information Architect, based on the kind of professional past life they’ve had (nor not).
I’m going to make some wild sweeping generalisations here… bear with me :)
Here’s what I’m thinking:
graphic designer/visual artist – there are graphic designers who have a particular gift for organising information. These guys do the nicest looking wireframes you’ll ever see. It’s pretty easy to bag this species IA because they often don’t bother learning all the big words that other IAs like to throw around, and they tend not to be into reading research papers and books. Seminars also bore them. But they *do* tend to be quite user centric. That combined with their pretty wireframes and their creative ‘presence’ means that they’re generally pretty popular with clients.
This species of IA tends to start out on consumer focussed sites, and never really moves away from this. They don’t really want to think about doing an intranet, and a project title that includes the term ‘enterprise’ sends them screaming from the room (not that they couldn’t have a good crack at it, they’d just rather thrust bamboo skewers under their fingernails). Because, when it comes down to it, they’re a bunch of show offs. And they know that, deep down, all the other species are a little bit jealous.
producer/project manager/product manager – if your project has a tight timeframe, this is probably a species you’d want to consider. This ex-’jack of all trades’ has finally escaped from budgets and timelines and gotten to focus on the *best* part of a project. The design phase.The advantage of this species is that they tend to have a well rounded view of a project, from the creative to technical, content to business aspects, and they’ve no doubt had a bit of exposure to user centric design methodologies and various kinds of testing. Usually they’re great (and safe) client facing, having been in positions of accountability for past projects.To follow the old saying though, jack of all trades, master of none. That’s the potential risk for this species, unless they work hard to hone their craft and build up their expertise in areas where they might be a bit light on.
reformed developer/techie – its a safe bet that the majority of these species have paid for, downloaded and read the Getting Real methodology. These are also the IAs that didn’t freak out when the 37 Signals guys said that they’d never hire someone to do a pure IA role. This is because this species already thought that… they just never thought about publishing it. They’ve been doing a rough sketch then a prototype for years. Although they do tend to do their controlled vocabularies in XML now… having *finally* given up whichever archaic database they’d clung to for ages (no, it wasn’t SQL).Deep down they know that if we don’t like what they do we can all go and get stuffed, because they could just go code up some cool new application, sell it to Google and become web 2.0 millionaires. Ah, but I exaggerate.This species tends to be highly methodical in their approach and can rationalise every decision that they make. They do, sometimes, have to be reminded of the importance, indeed the existence of the user. These guys love intranets and enterprise work, because it means they’re unlikely to be bothered by the graphic design species. :)
information sciences/library dudes – these are the guys that love the big words. They bang on about taxonomies and clustering and semantics forever (which I know sounds dismissive, but that’s just because I’m not one of these guys and I found them scary and intimidating for a long time.)They’re usually pretty smart, but they’re a relatively low-tech species, and possible part of the reason that they use such big words is to scare of the more tech-savvy species who are capable of intimidating the IS types with their techy smarts.These guys think they are the *real* information architects and can be a little snobby about it. They don’t mind the developer/tech species though, because they’re both kind of nerdy in the same way.For all that bollocking, this species are also incredibly comfortably in the midst of the most enormous intranet in the world. The bigger and dryer and more complex the problem the happy these guys are. The graphic designer species are very happy that these guys exist, otherwise they’d all be doing the bamboo stuffing routine.
writer/copywriter/content types – Jessie James Garrett was one of these kinds of IAs (I don’t think he calls himself an IA these days, does he?). He reckoned there weren’t too many who had made the transition from content person to IA. Personally, I’ve seen a few of them about the place. Here’s what Jesse says about this species:“Throughout human history, the people most concerned with effective communication have been those who worked with language. Predating hypertext, predating plain old text itself, language is the original toolkit for “architecting information”. Which kind of makes sense, but Jesse goes on to talk more about editors than writers, and I think that’s an important distinction. It’s about the methodical approach again. Editors are methodical, and detail oriented (without losing sight of the big picture, of course). And they’re good communicators. That, combined with their understanding of using words to communicate, all very good building genetics for an IA species.Writers… not so much with the methodical. And also, perhaps problems with the subjective? Of course, this is an enormous generalisation (to match the ones above!). There are lots of really methodical writers. Not many of them become IAs.
usability IA - these guys started off testing everyone elses bodgy work and got so frustrated that they decided to do it themselves. Fair enough too.Not surprisingly, these guys love to research and test. They love talking about Human Factors, and quite fancy themselves as anthropologists. Their favourite conversations include the words ‘ethnography’, ‘mental model’, and ‘metaphor’.These guys can spend more budget before doing a sitemap than any other species. But we love them for it.They’re also more responsible for the validity of the profession than any other species. Because they did the research and wrote the papers. Then they started the conferences to speak at so they could present their papers.(Although, don’t tell the Information Science species that, because they think *they* started the conferences).
nouveau IA (fresh skin graduate types) – there are just a few out and about now who have graduated with some kind of qualification that makes them feel that they’re now an Information Architect. (If you had any of the above past lives, then you’re not allowed in this species. This is only for newskins. Undergraduates. These kids are young.I think that at the moment the universities tend to turn out nouveau IAs who tend towards the Usability IA species.I haven’t actually had the pleasure of working with, or even really talking with any of this species. Although, I have studied with a few prior to them being released into the wide wide world… I wonder what their survival rate is.
Now, before you all go berko and abuse me for sterotyping your ‘species’… I don’t think that anyone who works as an IA for any period of time can actually remain strictly within the confines of their species. I think you’re always coloured by it, but I think the more you do and the better you get, the more you respect the other species and what they bring to the collective table. And the more you tend to extend your skills and refine your approach to take in some of these traits and build them into your personal repertoire.
The ultimate IA is probably a combination of all of these things.
Just think. Then we could design and build the entire thing ourselves and everything would be perfect.(Oh, come on. You know I’m kidding).
So. Which species are you? Have I missed a species? Have I mis-represented a species? Let’s hear it.
(Prediction: I *bet* I end up going back and updating this post with numerous edits, disclaimers and retractions!)
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My name is Leisa Reichelt. I am the Head of User Research at the Government Digital Service in the Cabinet Office.
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