Explain IA and win a thousand bucks!

Peter Morville and the IA Institute have joined forces with some excellent sponsors to host a contest. To wit:

In this contest, you are invited to explain information architecture. What is it? Why is it important? What does it mean to you? Some folks may offer a definition in 140 characters or less, while others will use this opportunity to tell a story (using text, pictures, audio, and/or video) about their relationship to IA.

Be sure to note the fine print lower on the Flickr page (where there’s also a link to a free prize!):

Our goals are to engage the information architecture community (by fostering creativity and discussion) and advance the field (by evolving our definitions and sharing our stories). We believe this can be a positive, productive community activity, and a whole lot of fun. We hope you do too!

I’m glad to see most of the chatter around this has been positive. But there are, of course, some nay-sayers — and the nays tend to ask a question along the lines of this: “Why is the IA Institute having to pay people to tell it what Information Architecture is?”

I suspect the contest would come across that way only if you’re already predisposed to think negatively of IA as a practice or the Institute as an organization — or people who self-identify as “Information Architects” in general. This post isn’t addressed to those folks, because I’m not interested in trying to sway their opinions — they’re going to think what they want to think.

But just in case others may be wondering what’s up, here’s the deal.

Information architecture is a relatively new community of practice. As technology and the community evolve, so does the understanding of this term of art.

For some people, IA is old hat — a relic of the days when websites were mere collections of linked text files. For others, IA represents an archaic, even oppressive worldview, where only experts are allowed to organize and label human knowledge. Again, I think these views of IA say more about the people who hold them than the practice of IA itself.

But for the rest of us, this contest is just an opportunity to celebrate the energetic conversations that are already happening anyway — and that happen within any vibrant, growing community of practice. It’s a way to spotlight how much IA has evolved, and bring others into those conversations as well.

Of course, the Institute is interested in these expressions as raw material for how it continues to evolve itself. But why wouldn’t any practitice-based organization be interested in what the community has to say about the central concern of the practice?

I’m looking forward to what everyone comes up with. I’m especially excited to learn things I don’t know yet, and discover people I hadn’t met before.

So, go for it! Explain that sucker!

A mature approach to maturing IA

Here’s an excellent article written up at the ASIS&T Bulletin, by some talented and thoughtful folks in Europe (namely Andrea Resmini, Katriina Byström and Dorte Madsen). I’ll quote the end of the piece at length.

IA Growing Roots – Concerning the Journal of IA

Even if someone’s ideas about information architecture are mind-boggling, if they do not discuss them in public, embody them in some communicable artifact and get them to be influential, they are moot. This reality is the main reason behind the upcoming peer-reviewed scientific Journal of Information Architecture, due in Spring 2009. For the discipline to mature, the community needs a corpus, a defining body of knowledge, not a definition.

No doubt this approach may be seen as fuzzy, uncertain and highly controversial in places. Political, even biased. But again, some overlapping and uncertainty and controversy will always be there: Is the Eiffel Tower architecture or engineering? The answer is that it depends on whom you ask, and why you ask. And did the people who built it consider themselves doing architecture, engineering or what? The elephant is a mighty complex animal, as the blind men in the old Indian story can tell you, and when we look closer, things usually get complex.

The IA community does not need to agree on a “definition” because there is more to do. An analytical approach must be taken on the way the community sees itself, with some critical thinking and some historical perspective. The community needs to grow roots. We hope the Journal will help along the way.

I especially like the Eiffel tower example. And putting a stake in the ground saying let’s not worry about a definition, we have more work to do. This is the sort of mature thinking we need at the “discipline” level, where people can focus on the academic, theoretical framework that helps evolve what the bulk of IA folk do at the “practice” level. (Of course, that flow works in the other direction too!)

The UX Tribe

UX Meta-community of practiceI don’t have much to say about this, I just want to see if I can inject a meme in the bloodstream, so to speak.

Just an expanded thought I had recently about the nature of all the design practices in the User Experience space. From the tweets and posts and other chatter that drifted my way from the IxDA conference in Vancouver last week, I heard a few comments around whether or not Interaction Designers and Information Architects are the same, or different, or what. Not to mention Usability professionals, Researchers, Engineers, Interface Programmers, or whatever other labels are involved in the sort of work all these people do.

Here’s what I think is happening. I believe we’re all part of the same tribe, living in the same village — but we happen to gather and tell our stories around different camp-fires.

And I think that is OK. As long as we don’t mistake the campfires for separate tribes and villages.

The User Experience (UX) space is big enough, complex enough and evolving quickly enough that there are many folds, areas of focus, and centers of gravity for people’s talents and interests. We are all still sorting these things out — and will continue to do so.

Find me a single profession, no matter how old, that doesn’t have these same variations, tensions and spectrums of interest or philosophical approach. If it’s a living, thriving profession, it’ll have all these things. It’s just that some have been around long enough to have a reified image of stasis.

We need different campfires, different stories and circles of lore. It’s good and healthy. But this is a fairly recently converged family of practices that needs to understand what unifies us first, so that our conversations about what separates us can be more constructive.

The IAI is one campfire. IxDA is another. CHI yet another, and so-on. Over time, some of these may burn down to mere embers and others will turn into bonfires. That’s OK too. As long as, when it comes time to hunt antelope, we all eat the BBQ together.

And now I’m hungry for BBQ. So I’ll leave it at that.

PS: a couple of presentations where I’ve gone into some of these issues, if you haven’t seen them before: UX As Communities of Practice; Linkosophy.