Casual IA

A couple of days ago I met with a client to kick off a website design project. The client’s graphic designer arrived with a set of design documents that included detailed screen mockups and a rudimentary sitemap. Her designs were a good place to start the conversation, but I wonder if it was appropriate for us to be looking at designs that early in the process.

I call this phenomenon casual IA: when folks from other fields (usually programmers or graphic designers, but sometimes also clients) produce what amounts to information architecture design, unbeknownst to them. I see it often here in Panama: the profession of IA is not well developed, and websites still need to be designed and built. Someone has to be doing the IA, and it’s usually not an “IA” doing it.

Some folks do this better than others (eg. the graphic designer referred to earlier did a fair job). Where do these folks’ design skills come from? I suspect that from the same place that the “professional” IA’s skills are learned: from using the web itself. There are fairly well established organization patterns that apply to many websites, and if someone wants his site “look” professional, he organizes it like “the big boys” do.

However, I believe there is an important difference: those of us seeped in IA literature approach web navigation armed with mental tools that allow us to be critical of the sites we’re using. This gives us a deeper understanding of the problem at hand, and the ability to resolve problems in (perhaps) more elegant ways. It also allows us to ask the right questions at the right time. Casual IAs, on the other hand, tend to propose sites that function like most sites they know and love, irrespective of the requirements of the project. So, for example, graphic designers tend to propose graphics- and Flash-intensive sites, feature rigid and tightly controlled layouts, use type as an integral part of the design, etc.

A bigger issue, though, is that usually these folks jump right into the design process without explicitly figuring out the fundamental questions: What are the site’s objectives? Who are its audiences? How will it reach them? etc. If the clients have bought into the casual IA (as tends to happen when they themselves are the designers), it becomes very difficult to re-route the conversation in this direction. If the buy-in is irrevocable, the design challenge becomes how to mold the casual IA into a more thoughtfully considered design. This can be quite difficult if the casual IA is a superficial response to the problem. Sometimes, it may even require a complete re-working; in these cases the challenge is more political/interpersonal than design-driven.

This is not to say that casual IA is necessarily a bad thing. I think it’s great that folks are doing this type of work; as the amount of information that flows through our lives increases, we are all going to have to develop some level of IA skills. (To paraphrase Andy Warhol, in the future everyone will be an IA.) This brings up some questions: How can we, as “professional IAs” help educate the other folks that are doing this type of work so that they at least know what questions to ask? Is this even possible? Can we provide tools that allow them to “roll their own” IA, without them even knowing to call it IA? Will this enhance or reduce the value of our profession?