… for the World Wide Web

Polar bear

Fifteen years ago, Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville published Information Architecture for the World Wide Web. The “polar bear book”, as it’s affectionately known in UX circles, was a landmark in our field, and deservedly so: it’s smart and well-written, and it came along at the right time, when the web was booming, experimentation abounded, and we all needed a bit of structure. It was — and remains — a great book by any measure, and a very successful one to boot.

The success of the polar bear inevitably means it’s the primary (or even sole) point of contact many people have had with the phrase “Information Architecture”. I’m not sure if it’s because of this, but lately I’ve started to see more articles questioning the relevance of information architecture in a multi-channel world, a position that should be surprising and disappointing to anyone who’s been paying attention to IA over the past decade. Invariably, even superficial analysis reveals that the author is thinking of IA exclusively in terms of web navigation structures.

Folks, Lou and Peter did not call the book Information Architecture. They called it Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, and the “for the World Wide Web” qualifier is important. The polar bear presents ways to use IA to organize websites. Although the web is a medium in which IA is easily appreciated and applied, the principles of IA precede the web, are larger than the web, and underlie the structure of websites. That IA is obviously employed to create navigation structures for websites does not mean that IA is only about creating navigation structures for websites.

I don’t know if Lou and Peter had this idea in mind when they titled their book, but implicit in the “for the World Wide Web” moniker is the suggestion that there could be other applications of IA. Imagine a series of books, and feel free to pick your own animals:

Information Architecture for Mobile Experiences

Information Architecture for Service Design

Information Architecture for Content Management

Information Architecture for Retail Businesses

Information Architecture for Personal Organization

Information Architecture for Multiple Channels

(Actually, something like the latter has already been written: Andrea Resmini and Luca Rosati’s Pervasive Information Architecture.)

There is an active community of information architects who’ve been exploring these (and other) directions since the publication of the polar bear book. There is a peer-reviewed journal, a vibrant yearly conference, and books on various topics that extend and deepen IA, with more on the way. There are new university-level IA programs. There’s now a consulting firm dedicated to IA. The people who are devoting their careers to this field are not idiots or helpless romantics pining for a bygone era. It is obvious to anyone with a pulse that multi-channel experiences are here to stay. Multi-channel only makes the need for IA more urgent than ever, as designers and managers struggle to achieve consistency of meaning across different customer touch points.

Information architecture is the only field  I’m aware of that is concerned with the structural integrity of meaning across contexts. By definition, this means “larger than just the web”. It also means IA is urgently needed. Anyone who questions the relevance of IA by diminishing it to “just” website navigation in 2013 is talking about their understanding of the state of the profession 15 years ago. In other words, they are tilting at a straw man, and are diminishing themselves and an important area of practice in the process. Other fields — science, law, medicine, engineering, etc. — would not tolerate this type of behavior; responsible professionals would call out prescribers of provincial and out-of-date information, and invite them to refresh their understanding of the subject before pontificating about it. I encourage you to do so as well, respectfully but firmly.

Image: nate_kate

About Jorge Arango

I'm an information architect. I've designed and produced digital products for a wide variety of organizations for almost two decades, and am an active member of the global IA/UX community. Read more.

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