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one thought on information architecture. Posted on 12/04/2001.

in talking to the good people at zentropy partners, it came up that of all the disciplines grouped under "creative" in web design (graphic design, interface design, copywriting, information architecture, etc.), information architecture is the only one that never existed before The Web. the others have all evolved, but have antecedents in previous efforts. but there seems to be something about *the web*, or, to abstract a bit, networked, digital interaction, that is fundamentally unique to what has gone before. me? i think i'm going to blame the hyperlink. this has afforded information/content spaces/structures/milieus/entities that people must navigate. which makes me wonder if hypertext types thought in terms of what we call "information architecture." i'm guessing they didn't. in my limited and narrow understanding, hypertext is typically an "authored," as opposed to "designed," medium.

i apologize for the all lower case. i blame lou.

16 comments so far. Add a comment.

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The earliest signficant appearance of something *like* the term "information architecture" may appear in WRITING SPACE, the 1991 book by Storyspace co-designer Jay David Bolter. Bolter describes hypertext as intrinsically spatial and "architectonic".

Early hypertext researchers tended to discuss the concerns we call "information architecture" under the rubric of "hypertext rhetoric". George Landow wrote an influential paper on the "rhetoric of arrival and departure" for the first hypertext conference, and the term stuck.

Landow's early hypertext style, incidentally, anticipates many of the classical concerns of information architects: clarity of navigation, explicit hierarchical and lattice structures, emphasis on labelling and "signage". Early critics this approach -- eventually including Landow himself -- found the emphasis on hierarchy limiting. They developed new rhetorics with cycles, conditional links, feints, and mirrorworlds -- hypertexts I've described as "parks and gardens" as opposed to "office buildings" []

(To some extent, the seam is not between 'writing' and 'designing', but between the Dept of English and the School of Library Science. But the early history is tangled, and the contemporary situation is hardly clearer!)
Posted by mark bernstein @ 12/05/2001 08:22 AM PST [link to this comment]

Rather than the hyperlink, I blame the pure volume of information on the Web. We had hyperlinks long before the Web, but there wasn't much to link to. Back then the data king was the compact disc which only holds about 650MB. The usual navigation techniques that HCI people used were sufficient back then, but not now when we're all connected to a million databases.

This could degrade into a chicken-and-egg argument, but I think the volume of information necessitated more intelligent use of hyperlinks.
Posted by victor @ 12/05/2001 11:17 AM PST [link to this comment]

Two things:

1) You were totally trolling for Mark to comment on that one. :)

2) I think we can further blame the lack of any sort of contextual, directional, embedded, intuitable,or other "natural" navigational indicators available via the Web browser. There's absolutely nothing there (well, nothing reliable, nothing inherent, nothing as solid as what you get when you look in front of yourself while walking down the street) that tells you where you've been, where you're going, or what's around you -- basically, what the options are that are available to you. So we need people who will explicitly create that for each individual Web site.

This is in part a function of the mysterious hyperlink, but there's also the design of the browser handed down by the NCSA to consider. If a navigational schema had been baked into the browser early on, back in 93/4, it would be everywhere present today, and information architecture would occupy a lot less of our time. Of course, that would've been almost impossible, would've required an amazing amount of foresight, and would undoubtedly have limited the scope of what we've seen the Web become; which means the Web, at least as we understand it, would never really have happened.

Hmm. Wrapped up in that circular logic is the thing that's fundamentally different about the Web, methinks.
Posted by Lane @ 12/05/2001 01:25 PM PST [link to this comment]

before the web it was called human-computer interaction, or sometimes "user interface engineering". actually, those terms came about to simply make a (facile imo) distinction with industrial design. i've never particularly liked the term "information architecture" because it leaves out the most important part of the practice - humans (also, the only ones who know what it means seem to be the people who practice it, and they can't even seem to fully agree on a definition). otoh, i never really liked the other terms either :)

secretly, i always thought we should call it "bob."
Posted by dchase @ 12/05/2001 03:32 PM PST [link to this comment]

> There's absolutely nothing there (well, nothing reliable, nothing inherent, nothing as solid as what you get when you look in front of yourself while walking down the street) that tells you where you've been, where you're going, or what's around you


I promise not to hijack, but I have to ask what this could mean. Given an infinite amount of computing resources, what would you envision that could fulfill this role? It may be a simple failure of imagination on my part, but I'd say the reason there is nothing on the web which is like the experience of looking ahead while you are walking down the street, is that using the web isn't anything like walking down the street.

Blah blah blah, my usual thing, the relationships between web nodes are conceptual and not spatial blah blah blah.
Posted by stewart @ 12/05/2001 05:38 PM PST [link to this comment]


you are SO WRONG!


before the web, it was *not* called "human computer interaction." information is fundamentally different than "human computer interaction," or, at least, a fundamentally new aspect of that arena.

terms as broad as "human computer interaction" and, say, "experience design" are meaningless where the rubber meets the road, which is also where things are interesting.

"HCI" did not address the issues that information architects currently face.
Posted by peterme @ 12/05/2001 08:11 PM PST [link to this comment]

"human computer interaction" and "experience design" are indeed broad terms, and, as with all broad terms, they can become meaningless within highly specific contexts. for example, i could be accurately called a "human being", but within the highly specific context of reading a bedtime story to my daughter, the term "father" would be more accurate (and "human being" would, indeed, be so broad as to become all but meaningless as it does not take into account the unique issue of my interacting with my daughter).

yes, ia adresses issues that HCI does not. but you didn't claim that ia is different from what came before - you claimed that nothing came before it: "information architecture is the only one that never existed before The Web. the others have all evolved, but have antecedents in previous efforts."

unfortunately, YOU ARE SO WRONG! The best example of ia's evolution from HCI are the papers from Xerox Parc's UIR:

  • 1984: Two experiments explored how users perform visual search to locate a target in a computer command menu.

  • 1986: The goal of the research described in this paper is to develop an application-independent presentation tool that automatically designs effective graphical presentations (such as bar charts, scatter plots, and connected graphs) of relational information

  • 1990:
    A bewildering variety of devices for communication from humans to computers now exists on the market... Following Mackinlay's semantic analysis of the design space for graphical presentations, our goal is to provide tools for the generation and test of input device designs.

  • 1992:
    Advances in computer technology have created new possibilities for information retrieval systems in which user interfaces could play a more central role. Our analysis of the problem suggests that what is needed from the user's point of view is not so much information retrieval itself, but rather, the amplification of information-based work processes.

  • 1993:
    Current information retrieval interfaces only address a small part of the reality of rich interactions amongst user, task and information sources. We view information gathering as an interactive, iterative activity involving multiple disparate information sources and embedded in the context of broader processes of information use.

  • 1998:
    The information presented in a document often consists of primary content as well as supporting material such as explanatory notes, detailed derivations, illustrations, and the like. We introduce a class of user interface techniques for fluid documents that supports the reader's shift to supporting material while maintaining the context of the primary material

  • 1999:
    Surfing the World Wide Web (WWW) involves traversing hyperlink connections among documents. The ability to predict surfing patterns could solve many problems facing producers and consumers of WWW content.

  • 2000: Focus + context information visualizations have sought to amplify human cognition by increasing the amount of information immediately available to the user. We study how the focus + context distortion of the Hyperbolic Tree browser affects information foraging behavior in a task similar to the CHI '97 Browse Off

  • 2001:
    We introduce a technique for creating novel, textually-enhanced thumbnails of Web pages. These thumbnails combine the advantages of image thumbnails and text summaries to provide consistent performance on a variety of tasks

or is what UIR does "meaningless where the rubber hits the road?" if so, then, to be honest, i have no idea what you're talking about when you use the term "Information Architecture".
Posted by dchase @ 12/07/2001 07:38 AM PST [link to this comment]


You're taking what I was saying too far. I know your dislike for location metaphors on the Web, but -- well, allow me to rephrase the way I use the term "location" and we'll see if we come any closer to agreement.

To wit: I don't think that there is anything on or around the Web, even given an infinite number of computing resources, that could ever compare (or should even bother trying to compare) to the experience of simply walking down the street. I merely meant to say that walking down the street brings with it a whole host of location-and-context awareness clues that the average person, nature or nurture, seems to understand. Location and context in, if you will, that particular context. And with this comes *a knowledge of what else can be done* -- whether it's going forward, turning left, retracing your steps, or any number of other things. Location as possibility.

Now, I know you hate the whole location thing, in any sense, on the Web. And I agree that it doesn't port over very well from the real world. But that doesn't mean (I don't think) that there can't be some other method for understanding *what else is possible* whenever you are on a Web page. Maybe "location" isn't the term for it; I invite you to come up with a better one, and I will happily use it, and tell everyone that it was all my pal Stuart's idea. Or else succumb to the knowledge that people use shorthand to communicate, shorthand almost always seems to require some sort of contraction, extension, or subversion of original intent, language grows and changes (unless you're French), meaning is shifty, blah blah blah.

Peter, you have *got* to make this textbox wider. it's a pain in the ass to type in. I realize this is probably my fault, since I was the person who set it up originally, but still.
Posted by Lane @ 12/07/2001 10:06 AM PST [link to this comment]

Information architecture has an antecedent in computer-based insruction, which became the buzz in the eighties. Those programs could become quite complex, and the successful ones addressed issues of information structure, navigation, and interface design.
Posted by R Thomson @ 12/07/2001 02:39 PM PST [link to this comment]

Information architecture has an antecedent in computer-based insruction, which became the buzz in the eighties. Those programs could become quite complex, and the successful ones addressed issues of information structure, navigation, and interface design.
Posted by R Thomson @ 12/07/2001 02:39 PM PST [link to this comment]

The location metaphor may not be perfect metaphor. It is not perfect, but for those that have ever lost their "place" in a book, had to "navigate" a tough situation, been "walked through" a process, or had to "go to box 1" on a tax form, the location metaphor is one that is continually used around us. These cheap and easy illustrations of location illustrate the metaphor and its directional units do not require the us, the user, to move.

Much of the history of IA comes from the library sciences folks that worked in the stacks and created systems of categorization, understanding, and storage of information. In smaller libraries the user would look up the book in a card catalog or roam the stacks and pull a book to read and check out. In larger libraries a user would go to the card catalog and find the book and then request it from a librarian who would take the request and would pull the book from the stacks and deliver it to you. In this last scenario the user did not move, as in a similar manner to the Web. If you were a voracious reader you would still most likely state you were "reading your way through the stacks", yet you were using a metaphor that was not exact as you have the librarian bring you the books. Information is similarly retrieved on the Web, in that we do not move and the information is bought to a screen before us from its storage place (on the Web we are viewing a copy as the information still physically resides in its location). As in a library, the informaiton on the card for the book is cross classified and which makes finding similar information easier. In non-fiction books there are often bibliographies and footnotes that provide (pre-existing) hyperlinks to more information. The term hyperlink uses a quasi-spatial reference in the term "link". Linking is the joining of two separate physical properties that occupy two distinct physical spaces. I always found the library had an easy system to understand and use, but I was often in the minority.

Location metaphors have moved beyond their physical realms and are used to describe other events or actions. The navigation or location metaphor is likely an easy to adapt frame of reference to guide new users through whatever task or process they will be learning.

Had the Web used a classification structure with sets and sub-sets and cross classification of information as its metaphor (similar to a library and its systems and structures) many of the non-users would have to have learned a system that was new to them so to understand the general concepts (not a good choice of metaphor for a general public use). Most of us here at peterme would easily adapt to this classification conceptual representation and understand the relationships between the information and how this information interacts. Many of our mothers would be lost in this metaphor.
Posted by vanderwal @ 12/09/2001 08:37 PM PST [link to this comment]

...the location metaphor is one that is continually used around us. These cheap and easy illustrations of location illustrate the metaphor and its directional units do not require the us, the user, to move.

Bah. "Cheap and easy" doesn't mean it's appropriate or even useful. I agree with Stewart here (as before) that the spatial metaphor has passed its prime. Sure, we "lose our place" (or find it) in a book, but then what? Does that metaphor extend into other aspects of reading, or writing?

Well, I guess I "read further" in that book, or "skipped to the end" of the chapter, but again, does that really get us anywhere new in thinking about reading? (Hmm. "get us _anywhere_ new...").

The metaphoric use of space when describing reading, or tax forms, or whatever, is just a handle, an affordance, to get us through the task, for the most part in 3-D space with real locations in it.

But I don't think that the defense of the spatial metaphor on the web sees it that simply; rather, the metaphor's grown too important: the web is _literally_ spatial, and links are _literally_ the joining of seperate physical space. It's as if we started with the implementation of the technology (two seperate servers) and built a metaphor to glamorize it (conjoined space), which isn't too user-centered.

What would be a model of using the web that is purely non-spatial? That makes no reference to moving through space?

Has the spatial metaphor been taken up by any other disciplines concerned with the structures of non-phyisical stuff? For instance, are any literature theorists who have, anyone?
Posted by Andrew @ 12/10/2001 05:41 AM PST [link to this comment]

I hereby vote that we devote the remainder of this thread to coming up with either a) clever new metaphors through which we can define and redefine the online experience, or b) something completely else, well beyond metaphor, that just works that much better. No need for perfection right out of the gate, of course. These things take time.

Having said that, i must admit i'm drawing a blank. i was going to suggest, briefly, "clowns," but i can't seem to make it work.
Posted by lane @ 12/10/2001 06:12 AM PST [link to this comment]

The construct of the Web growing to be a series of interactions as in a conversation. The navigation and spacital metaphor, while it works well for the general user's understanding does not really represent the ask and receive tasks that make up a large part of the Internet.

This roughly works to describe the back end components, but the interface components may be slightly different. It still follows the conversational structures, but it is more like a restaurant with menus, specials off the menu, and incresingly like a meal brought to you with various items on it.
Posted by vanderwal @ 12/10/2001 06:53 AM PST [link to this comment]

(I've been waiting for Peter to make the box bigger. Thanks!)

OK, Lane, of course, you got me -- I don't have any alternative. I still talk like everyone else ("How do you get to the contact us page from here?", etc.) but I always try to keep in mind that the spatial terms in these contexts afford no more insight into the subject being discussed than they do in examples like "Stockmarkets soared today," or "With the downfall of the left, the conservatives are bound to win this election." Because we are organisms, and organisms first and foremost move around in space, we use "space-talk" for many things, most of which aren't really spatial.

But I think there's a problem when people take the metaphor that we happen to use in everyday language and start their work based on that, rather than on what is actually happening (i.e., what's going on when someone is sitting in front of a monitor and keyboard/mouse, doin' the web thang). So, we might say "up" rather than "more general" — but there is no significance to that usage.

The reason for the confusion, as far as I can tell: A point in space has no inherent properties which give it its "there-ness" -- "there" only comes from the set of relations it has to other points. So, for example, N 49 15.920'; W 123 14.846' is only where it is because of the way it relates to all the other points on the surface of the earth.

Further, points in (3d) space relate to each other by the distance they are from one another along each of the three axes. Nodes on the web (pages, typically) don't stand in any relation to each other which is even remotely analogous to distance (and they are no axes against which they could be measured anyway).

Now, let's say Mary is sitting in front of the computer and gets to the point where (a) none of the things she could click on seem likely (to her) to cause the display of whatever it is she wants displayed on her screen and (b) she is not sure what to click on in order to cause the display of some screen she had seen previously. In situations like this, we may say that Mary is "lost". But if we take "lost" seriously, and begin our work from there, we end up with crap like this page on the HSBC Canada site *. How could anyone get lost, since they've gone to such lengths to show "where" we are? Well, of course, being the smart designers that we are, we know that they were probably solving the wrong problem (just as taking a copy of this map and popping a "YOU ARE HERE" sticker on it would never help anyone).

So, maybe someday we'll have a replacement metaphor or maybe (more likely) the metaphor will gradually have the remaining literality drained out of it (that, or people will be less inclined to consider it literally). And just like we don't actually doing any swinging of our feet when we "kick ass" on a project, the idea of people needing "directions" on the web will seem faintly ridiculous.

p.s. The "hyper" part of "hyperlink" also has spatial connotations (which is the reason, I've always assumed, it was used in hyper-text) — see defintion 3. The idea of some crazy high dimensional space where each point (node) is immediately adjacent to each other point (a maximally connected graph).

- - -
* I worked on the previous version of this site and protested vehemently to the people in charge of HSBC's global web standards (which now seem to have been relaxed, though this particular site still sticks to the old ones).
Posted by stewart @ 12/11/2001 05:10 PM PST [link to this comment]

Peter! How can you say something like this!?

This is EXACTLY the kind of hubris and ignorance that is so distressing in the IA community--which is surprising coming from you. Why must people in the IA community--especially leaders--make such ridiculous comments in order to elevate or distinguish this field? If you look at the number of books published, articles, websites, classes taught, and people employed, you would get the sense that this kind of posturing and exaggeration wasn't necessary.

Of course, anyone around before the dawn of the Web knows that people were "architecting" information (whether or not you want to use the term "design") for centuries! Even in electronic media, CD-ROMs, kiosks, customer service systems, customer response systems, knowledge management systems, databases, and online systems were using these techniques and processes.

I don't know how many times I (or anyone else) need to repeat this before it will finally sink-in: Information Architecture was a renaming of Information Design and the techniques are IDENTICAL! If you don't like this or can't accept it, go invent another term for the subset you're referring to and stop making something that is SUPPOSED to be clear, confusing.

Not only were these techniques employed BEFORE the Web, but they have existed before electronic media. If you don't believe me, go ask the IR and Library Science people if their fields and techniques date only as far back as 1994.
Posted by Nathan Shedroff @ 12/30/2002 05:00 PM PST [link to this comment]

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