Thoughts on global information architecture

Update (Apr 6, 2005): The Global IA discussion list is now operational. Please join the list if this is a topic you care about.

I was happily surprised by the response Liv, Peter and I received to the Global IA tracks during the IA Summit in Montreal; there seems to be a real need for this conversation in the IA community. As we mentioned during the presentation, there are more questions than answers at this point—which is OK, as long as we know what we don’t yet know.

Here are my thoughts on some of the most common questions I heard at the Summit, just to keep the hoops rolling…

What is Global IA?

I see IA as the profession that enables understanding through information-rich media. IAs aim to help individuals find their way to information that is somehow valuable to them. In some cases, these individuals may already aware of their need for this information; in others—such as in the introduction of a new product or service—AIs may be tasked with helping them become aware of their need. In either case, our objective is to help connect a person with a bit of information that is somehow useful to them.

The “information-rich medium” that most of us are working on presently is the Web, and we’ve developed a variety of tools to help design websites in which people can more easily make their way to the information they need on the Web: taxonomies, mental models, thesauri, etc. These tools (and the websites themselves) are heavily grounded in language (both textual and otherwise), and—more broadly—in culture.

Most site design thus far has been done by designers for audiences of the same culture, and most cross-cultural sites have been “localized” versions of the “home site”—which in most cases was designed with a particular target culture in mind (even if unwittingly so). Because of this, these localized sites may not be as effective for folks from other cultures, who may have other mental models, ways of organizing the world, attitudes towards information sources, etc.

With this in mind, we aim to:

  1. Understand these differences between cultures (if they really exist), and
  2. Develop / adapt tools to help design teams work for audiences (“users”) from other cultures effectively.

The end result of this work should be “foreign”-designed sites that are effective and persuasive—in other words, that feel natural and homegrown to local users. (It’s worth noting that this goal may be counter to a business’ objectives. More on this in a future post.)

Why does Global IA matter?

One of the most frequent questions I got at the Summit was: “why should I care about this stuff?” Some ideas:

  • The increasingly global composition of organizations. To whit: US employment at Intel Corp. slipped by more than 3,300 people in 2003, but it grew by more than 4,300 abroad. (Source: MSNBC)
  • The increasingly global composition of markets. To whit: Archer Daniels Midland (ADM)—US’s largest food operation—has had their sales almost double in the past 7 years. Joint partnerships overseas are key to the boom; overseas operations account for almost half of operating profits. (Source: Food Engineering Magazine)

It seems organizations and markets are becoming increasingly globalized; as a result we will probably see an increase in cross-cultural design projects, both in terms of target audiences and project stakeholders. If we are to be effective enablers of understanding in this environment, we need to understand our cultural assumptions / mental models and how they differ from those of the people we serve.

Most of the talk of globalization in the US seems to be focused either on concerns over so-called offshoring (e.g. “We’re losing our jobs to India”) or the potentials of untapped foreign markets (e.g. “We’re rolling out 26 non-English sites in the next year”—actually heard at the Summit). I’ve heard little talk about the opposite effect—foreign designers working on artifacts for use in our own culture, a side effect of globalization that will probably become more prevalent as borders become further eroded. I believe we will be pushed into these studies by pain, as we increasingly find ourselves on the receiving end of this equation. (Note: as a non-American, I already am on the receiving end of this equation.)

There is a further reason to pursue these issues: the current environment’s globalization tendencies are occurring in parallel to a new tendency towards tribalism, as evidenced by the September 11 terrorist attacks and the ensuing “War on Terror”. People now seem to be more suspicious of “others” than before; as designers tasked with enabling understanding, IAs have the potential to help peoples of different cultures to reach out to each other and work together more effectively.

At the very least, investigating Global IA can help us bring our own cultural assumptions to the fore, helping us become more effective designers through self-understanding. In addition, studying others’ mental models can help us expand our palettes, allowing us to be more effective designers for audiences in our own culture(s).

Your thoughts?

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