Building a Future for Collection and Document Architects, Together

Dec 05, 2006

The terms Information Architecture and Information Architect were first coined by Richard Saul Wurman, a real architect who created the theme for the 1976 convention of the American Institute of Architects. His theme was The Architecture of Information. Twenty years later, Wurman solidified the essence of his vision with the 1997 book Information Architects, which documented the work of twenty leading designers of illustrations, diagrams, publications, software, and exhibits.

His book began with a dictionary definition: Information Architect [L. info-tectus] n. 1) The individual who organizes the patterns inherent in data, making the complex clear. 2) a person who creates the structure or map of information which allows others to find their personal paths to knowledge.

A year later, Peter Morville and Louis Rosenfeld chose the term Information Architect to name a new discipline of organizing, labeling, navigating, and searching the information on the World Wide Web. They wrote the very influential O'Reilly book, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web (the 3rd edition is now shipping), and in 2002 founded the Information Architecture Institute.

They were giving substance to a third meaning proposed by Wurman: 3) the emerging 21st century professional occupation...focused upon...the science of the organization of information--Information Architecture.

The IAI founders included librarians (Peter is a Lecturer at the University of the Michigan School of Information) who wanted to make their training and experience in categorizing, cataloging, and browsing library collections of documents relevant to those building web sites. Marketing themselves as Information Architects greatly improved their job chances in cyberspace.

Now a website is clearly a collection of documents (web pages) that needs to be managed like a library. Librarians define their objectives in simple terms: help users to 1) navigate the library, 2) locate or find documents, 3) identify them uniquely, 4) select the right document, and 5) access the document physically or electronically (online).

But there are many other disciplines that think of themselves as organizing information, structuring it and mapping it to make it more usable and accessible. Long email exchanges on the IAI mailing list wrestle with what makes an IA different from many neighboring disciplines like Visual Designers, Interface Designers, Interaction Designers, Usability Professionals, and User Experience Engineers.

There is an additional major discipline, one of critical importance to content management, which has been doing another kind of information architecture for decades: what I will call the Document Architects. They are interested in the internal structure of documents. Indeed, most of the Wurman's Information Architects were structuring documents, even single illustrations, and not collections of documents.

Every writer has an approach to structuring writing, but today formally structured documents are a critical necessity as content has to be reused and repurposed to multiple publishing delivery channels. With the globalization of business and its content, the information may have to be translated into dozens of languages, retaining its structure so it can be delivered to many publishing platforms, which differ greatly from country to country. We think of the developing countries as backward in their ability to access web content, but the U.S. and Europe are distinctly backward compared to countries like Korea and Japan where 30 Mbps bandwidth is commonplace and as much commercially valuable content is delivered to advanced cell phones as to conventional desktops.

The discipline most involved in document structure is the society of technical communicators who produce the documentation and user training manuals for the world's products and services. But the techniques of structured authoring, single sourcing, content reuse, controlled vocabularies, and simplified English are proving to have enormous returns on investment when applied to the fastest growing content in the world, electronic content, which also includes all the marketing content for the world's websites.

Pioneers of the field include Robert Horn of Information Mapping, who researched the best methods for analyzing, organizing, and arranging words and illustrations on a page to reveal the form, structure and relationships inherent in the information, John Carroll of IBM who promoted Minimalism (a technique for telling the user only that which they need at the moment and in the given context), and JoAnn Hackos, whose books on user and task analysis, managing documentation, and standards for online communication have identified best practices for single-source publishing.

Just as the exchange standard for information on the Web is now XML, so XML, especially in the limited vocabulary of information types called DITA, has become the standard for structured documents.

For Morville's Information Architects, XML is important as a part of the AJAX technology that makes Web 2.0 pages deliverable dynamically without repeated calls to refresh the whole page. And of course XML drives RSS, a major form of blog content delivery.

However, you will rarely see a discussion among these former librarians of the world of structured writing. I hope we can someday bring the Collection Architects together with the Document Architects, along with Visual Designers, Interface Designers, Interaction Designers and User Experience experts under our broader umbrella of Content Management.