Triangle User Experience Professionals Association (TriUXPA)

Trip report: IA Summit 2006

03 Apr 2006 5:00 PM | Richard Phelps
I attended the ASIS&T IA Summit in Vancouver from March 24th - 27th. The Summit is a playground for IA's of all stripes, from metadata specialists to management consultants. It was a lot of fun, and many interesting ideas were discussed in the three parallel sessions and in the hallways. Here are some of the thoughts that stuck with me...
THE CHANGING NATURE OF AUTHORITY.David Weinberger's keynote asked "What's up with knowledge?" He took a (humorous) sledgehammer to the foundations of information and library science, including the infamous DIKW (data - information - knowledge - wisdom) model. In his view, DIKW gets causality backwards--one needs knowledge and wisdom to get useful information, not the other way around. At the same time, he argued, traditional sources (the New York Times serving as poster boy) favor authority over transparency, whereas the new open, collaboratively-created sources (Wikipedia, standing in for a host of "social media" sites like Digg,, and the blogosphere as a whole) favor transparency. In particular, Wikipedia represents "publicly negotiated knowledge" as opposed to the private (elite) construction of knowledge by mass media instiutions and traditional publishers.
There is a dramatic change building: the ability of institutions to impose authority through carefully-constructed representations is dissipating, soon to disappear entirely. Peter Morville noted in the Q&A that large corporate and government sites often seek to express authority through IA. But next-generation IA is radically decentralized, incorporating many points of view expressed through blogs, tags, and so forth, thereby pushing authority to the edge of the network. As a result, IA's need to expand their scope to consider the broad, socio-cultural impact of their design work.
As Weinberger noted, Dewey thought he was doing God's work through classification, representing one true view of the world. The current landscape of IA, on the other hand, is distinctly postmodern, recognizing many socially-structured views. Despite many efforts to make IA into a postivist, quantified science, it appears the future may be resoutely interpretivist--understanding how the organization and representation of information intertwines with culture.
At the end of the conference, a "5-minute madness" session allowed anyone to speak their mind. One speaker noted the need to explore how and why information forms have evolved over time. Perhaps such work will helps us understand how information forms (from books to Web 2.0) transmit and influence culture and authority.
IA AND RESEARCH.The idea of turning IA into science isn't dead, of course. The Summit featured a whole double-length panel on the topic of IA and research. Don Turnbull identified four areas that could be considered central to IA research: classification, information-seeking behavior, metadata and semantics, and design methods. He proposed creating an open-access Journal of Information Architecture. Keith Instone argued for generating research questions from practice and creating partnerships between IA's and researchers. Peter Morville and Nancy Kaplan argue for "going beyond findability" to address all aspects of information interaction.
It is this last point that resonated for me. Research that informs IA practice is being conducted all the time, it just goes by many different names: information behavior, search strategies, hypertext, credibility and persuasion, personal information management, information literacy, and of course the all-encompassing "HCI." In my view, IA practice should seek to integrate (and mediate among) different methods (information science, usability, design research, human factors, HCI, management, marketing, etc.). IA research should integrate (and mediate) different disciplines (information science, HCI, communications, business, behavioral and social science).
A great example of this challenge was suggested by Donna Maurer's presentation on Lakoff for IA's. Lakoff distinguishes between the classical view of categories ("abstract containers with strict borders") and the modern psychological view based on prototypes and family resemblance (a robin is a better example of a bird than a penguin), as developed by Rosch and revised by Medin and others. Cognitive science research is rigorous. Some of the results are fascinating. But how can it be applied to the design problem--making complex, large-scale information spaces accessible and useful--that IA's grapple with? For example, what are the implications of naive categorization theory for information-seeking behavior and personal information management? How would this connection inform IA practice? I believe integrating and applying social and behavioral science results to IA problems could reinvigorate both IA practice and social science research.

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