Running for the Board & the future of the IAI

In the midst of all the other things keeping me busy and away from blogging, some very nice people nominated me to serve on the Board of Advisors for the IA Institute. I’m flattered and honored, and a bit intimidated. But if elected, I’ll give it my best shot.

They asked for a bio and position statement. Here’s the position bit I sent them:

This [Information Architecture] community has excelled at creating a “shared history of learning” over the last 10 years. We’ve seen it bring essential elements to the emergence of User Experience Design, in the form of methods, tools, knowledge, and especially people. I think the IAI has been essential to how the community has developed, thanks to the hard work of its volunteers and staff creating excellent initiatives for mentorship, careers and other important needs.

The next big challenge is for the IAI to become more than a sum of its parts. How can it become a more influential, vital presence in the UX community? How can it serve as an amplifier for the amazing knowledge and insight we have among our members and colleagues? How can it evolve understanding of IA among business and design peers? And how can we better coexist and collaborate with those peers and practices?

From the beginning, IA has grappled with one of the most important challenges designers now face: how to define and link contexts usefully, usably and ethically in a digital hyper-linked world. I don’t see that challenge becoming any easier in the years ahead. In fact, the digital world is only becoming more pervasive, strange and exciting.

As a board member, my focus will be to help the IA Institute grow as a valued, authoritative resource for that future.


Already, I feel the urge to further explain.

My position statement doesn’t get into a lot of nitty-gritty details, partly because those aren’t things I feel I can promise. The details still need to be sorted out to meet the stated goal. Plus, I wanted to be relatively brief (compared to how I usually write, anyway). Plus, honestly, all the stuff below is kind of a mess, and not nearly refined enough to be stated as an official “position” on anything. But since some of my colleagues have been more specific in their positions, I figure I should at least take a stab at it. Here we go, with some thoughts on how to achieve what I mention above.

1. Re-think what it means to be an Institute (and a professional organization) in the Web Era.

We started the IAI at an interesting moment: almost exactly at the transition from 20th-century top-down thinking to 21st-century emergence thinking. Many of the old models and templates for organizations like this are becoming quickly, brutally obsolete. There’s a wave of crisis happening in professional organizations globally — they’re having trouble recruiting younger members, because those people are used to organizing and networking on Facebook and other platforms. We are not immune to this sea change.

Example: Why do we need an IAI-curated library, when there are amazing collectively-driven platforms out there already doing that work for us much better? Why not involve ourselves in *those* platforms? Or, why do we have to keep up our clunky membership directory that doesn’t integrate with anything else on the Web, when there are platforms like LinkedIn? (And if LinkedIn doesn’t have the features we need, why don’t we PARTNER with them to create them?!?)

None of these points are meant as complaints — some of them are questions I’m only just now fully realizing for myself. The only fault is if we see the light and don’t do anything about it. We shouldn’t keep trying to improve and prop-up what is now an antiquated approach to community cultivation.

2. Evolve our description of Information Architecture and its Importance & Value

I think that IA as a field of study and practice needs to be articulated better than we were able to state it back in 2002, when the current IAI definition of IA was written. That definition was, as itself states, a *provisional* statement, allowing for further evolution. It’s time to evolve it. That evolution needs to clarify what we mean by “information environment” and “structure.” IA is not merely about organizing content and metadata. That’s like saying architecture is about saying where the bricks and girders go.

My own take on it is that IA has all along been about designing *context* in digital, hyperlinked environments, where semantics are the only material we have to work with. It sounds simple, but it’s not, and the design implications are enormous. With the increase of ubiquitous & location-aware networks, it only gets weirder and more important. In addition, we have to understand that IA is more and more about creating sets of rules-as-structure, systems, for users to create their own experiences. (For my kickoff of this line of thought, see my Linkosophy talk.) I don’t think everyone has to agree with me on this particular take on IA — but the point is that we need to flesh out what the hell IA really is *at that level.* (My talk at IDEA Conference will touch on some of these design challenges.) A few years ago, I wasn’t quite so hot to do this … but I think it’s time.

To some degree, I think this lack of a mature description of IA is at the heart of some other problems with the IAI. It’s hard for people to be motivated to identify themselves professionally with an organization if its on identity is so amorphous. We have some of the smartest people in the UX community in our midst — we should be able to do this.

IA is a deep, complex area of design that’s only getting more complex. And it’s an area with implications that too many designers don’t fully grasp (even IAs don’t fully grasp it, methinks). In fact, we’re only starting to really get how big these implications are. Some people who were more active in our community have gone on to write about these things — Adam Greenfield, for example — and have looked back at the IA conversation and asked “why aren’t you dealing with this?” I wish these friends would have stuck around and *pushed* us harder to have those conversations rather than moving on. Because that’s what the community needs — stubborn, vocal people pushing the others to grapple with new, bigger challenges.

“Big IA” and “Little IA” are not separate things, just as engineering and architecture are not separate things, or micro-economics and macro-economics are not separate things. They’re part of a continuum of interdependent knowledge and skills. But if you’re merely laying bricks without concern or understanding of the whole building, you’re a bricklayer, not an architect. if you’re doing a taxonomy without concern for the “Big IA” end of things — the strategic implications, the social interconnections, the emotional dimension — you’re not doing IA, you’re just doing taxonomy. (There’s definitely a place for professional taxonomists, btw… nothing wrong with that… but it’s a specialty that existed before IA.)

3. Be a thought-leading Institute, not just a professional service organization.

There’s nothing wrong with service organizations for professions. They do important, grass-roots work helping people in their careers, networking, etc. I don’t mean the word “just” as a pejorative in any sense — I mean that it can (and must) be more. Let me explain.

Once the IAI has a better articulation of its area of focus, it can claim a much more solid identity. And it can become a center for exploring, discussing and solving problems around these very complex issues. It can also be a sounding board or amplifier for the many gifted, innovative voices we have in our community. There are many ways to do this: formal publications (a journal is already in the works…but we need to be sure we re-think what ‘journal’ means in this day and age); whitepapers; informal publications, like blogging or occasional symposia; and especially making use of the incredible knowledge-generation capacity of our community. (See point 1 above) We have a great opportunity here to figure out how to be an authoritative resource in an age when everybody has the technology to be an authority on their own.

For example … Every week I see a half dozen answers to questions on our discussion list that that should be published somewhere for people *anywhere* to reference and learn from. I see the benefits of having a closed discussion forum, but there should be a way to make some of the content available to the wider world. That’s how authority and relevance happen in the new Web universe. And in that universe, people will stop coming to a professional service organization that doesn’t have a strong voice, and authority in the idea marketplace, because that’s the coin of the realm on the Web. Without this, the IAI becomes a relic.

Conclusion (wherein I pretend the above had enough cohesion and clarity to warrant a concluding section)

There are, of course, many other wonderful things the IAI can do … but I think it’s already doing a lot of those to one degree or another. Mentoring, creating workshops, etc. I believe that making the three things above happen will help the IAI do all the other service-related stuff even better.

Of course, there are also things we could improve in terms of how well the IAI leadership communicates with its members, involves them in major decisions or expenditures, and the like. Any lack of this, to date, hasn’t been because anyone was running a secret cabal. It’s more a result of beleaguered volunteers being heads-down in operational work to keep stuff going, with minimal support from the larger community. But, again, accomplishing the things above will (I believe) help energize and motivate that support much more than begging for assistance. A successful “Institute” has people offering their assistance just for the chance to be a part of it, and to associate themselves with something great.

Let me be clear — I believe everyone who’s given of their time for the IAI to date has done great work!! It’s come leaps and bounds from the coffee-fueled brainfarts we had in Asilomar six years ago. This is just a new stage in our story.

Author: Andrew Hinton

I use information to architect better places for humans. More at

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