Saturday, November 9, 2013

Information Architecture and Taxonomies

While interest in “information architecture” by that name has declined in the past decade, interest in what information architecture involves continues to be strong, and perhaps there is some merging of the fields of taxonomy and information architecture.

At one point in my career I wanted to be an information architect, to organize the pages and menus of websites and intranets.  The discipline’s leading professional association, the IA Institute additionally describes the field as “The structural design of shared information environments.” But within a couple of years, I found that interest in my information architecture skills, at least for small websites (“little IA”) was getting squeezed out for skills in either graphic design or technical web development. Over time it also seemed as if information architecture was being replaced by the growing field of user experience design (UXD). Indeed Google search trends show a definite decline in interest in the phrase “information architecture” during the same period of a steady growth in interest in “user experience.”

I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that information architecture was one of the themes at this year’s Taxonomy Boot Camp (Washington, DC, November 5-6, 2013), the leading conference dedicated to taxonomies.

Information architecture was a central part of the keynote “Taxonomy Is Power: Bringing It All Together,” presented by Bob Boiko. He started off explaining that information systems are a triad of people, information, and technology. But he, too, had observed that information architecture (IA) has often been “captured” by user experience (UX), moving away from technology toward the user, but the “information” piece of the triad sometimes gets lost along the way and needs more attention. Bob defined information architecture as “the art and science of designing information structures” and that information architects live in the space between art (design) and science (technology). Information architecture is also about naming things, and taxonomies can help engineers and designers name things for both the front end and back end of an information system. Bob said that taxonomists should look at and “own” the concept of information architecture.

The conference also featured a session of three presentations under the heading “User Experience (UX) in Taxonomy Design.” Michael Rudy, of  the consultancy Factor, spoke on the benefits of integrating user experience  with information management, and Bram Wessel, also of Factor, presented on how different methods of user research, common in user experience design, such as card sorting, tree testing, personas, and prototyping, are also applicable to taxonomies. Taking a different angle to the issue, Ben Licciardi of PPC presented methods of designing the manual indexing/tagging interface for taxonomy use.

There are various perspectives and approaches to this field, whether stressing structure as in “architecture,” naming, as in “taxonomy,” or meaning, as in “semantics.” Different labels may resonate better with different audiences. The week of the conference I was also indexing a book on user experience design (a small project to do on the plane and to broaden my knowledge of the subject). While “taxonomy” was not mentioned in this light book, “semantic design” was the name of a section which mentioned information architecture, organizing information, and metadata.

Several years ago, perhaps 2007, when I introduced myself as a taxonomist to someone at a professional conference, I was asked what the difference was between taxonomists and information architects. My answer then is the same as it is now: there is definitely a significant area of overlap between the skills, tasks, and responsibilities in both professions, although there are some areas that concern information architects and not most taxonomists, and there are areas that concern taxonomists and not most information architects. So, it may only depend on what kind of information architect or kind of taxonomist you are. I hope one day to also attend the main information architecture conference, the IA Summit and continue this discussion, as interest in taxonomies is remaining strong.

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