on 19 February 2007
When I first told people I was reviewing this book, there was often a blank look. When I explained what information architecture was, then there was invariably a look of pity that passed across their faces. It appears that many people haven't a clue what information architecture actually is, and when they find out, wish they still didn't.
Well, this book has shown me the light. And I'm here to share it with you. Hallelujah, and so forth.
Information is all around us, and thankfully for much of it we have had plenty of time to work out a sensible way or organising it. When you look at a map, you understand the conventions, you know north is going to be up, you know there will be a scale, and so on. So much so, that when those conventions aren't there, if, for example, you are looking at a mappa mundi, you are completely thrown.
A bigger example is that of libraries. We are all used to some form of organisation in libraries - we know that related subjects will be near each other, that we can look this up and go straight to the shelf we want.
This is all well and good, and librarians, such as the authors of this book, have had many years to improve this system, to impose some sort of order on the chaos of so much information. The problem comes, however, when we consider the new sources of information that have exploded over the last 20 years or so. These electronic systems, and the greatest of these is of course the internet, provide completely new challenges - challenges we can start to try and tackle using principles and lessons learnt from other methods of organisation that have been developed elsewhere, but which will ultimately need to be solved in ways we cannot yet fully grasp.
This is where this book comes in. This third edition gives a novice like myself a good grounding in the philosophy behind information architecture, and proceeds to show how this can help in the design of large web sites. Coming from both a web development and a project management background, I felt a sense of relief that the vague concepts I was trying to use were at least recognised elsewhere, and had been developed far beyond what I had been able to. I suspect anyone who has had to grapple with how to display information to users will get a similar feeling when reading this book.
However, the philosophy and semantics are only part of this book. More important is the techniques it describes to actually implement information architecture - both the process, and the likely pitfalls that will be faced in a commercial environment. The formalised process is a good guide to anyone working in this area. (Mind, I would say that - I'm a project manager, so I think processes are intrinsically beautiful...)
These sections of the book, in addition to the examples at the end, provide anyone interested in how to use information architecture to improve their website with the tools they need. There is, however, more to this book.
Information architecture is a very young field. Part of this book is a primer for anyone interested in information architecture as a career, or part of a career. It sets out what, in the opinion of these authors, is a set of ground rules for how to be an information architect - the ethics, what to learn, what tools to use. It follows this with a set of short essays on how to actually sell the concept of IA, because a young discipline needs to carve out its niche in the world, bit by bit, organisation by organisation. It needs people to become enthused by this book, or by others, to take part in the work of popularising IA, to take part in the ongoing work of defining what IA actually is - as a new area of work, there are still many competing views on what it actually is, how it should work, and this book provides only one view of that.
But more importantly, this book shows us that there is still a lot of work to be done in creating a shared set of tools and techniques for navigating this new, vast information resource that we have created. This isn't about making sure commercial websites will make more money, though it will do that. It's not about making people feel happier about their user experience, though it will do that too. It's about making sure we are not overwhelmed, swamped by the sheer volume of data out there. It's about making sure we can find the information we need, and only the information we need, when we want it. It is, in essence, an expression of egalitarianism, the same egalitarianism that drove the internet in its earliest days. If we want to make as much information as possible available, it is ultimately worthless if only a small, trained few can actually find what they need. We need to build the systems that will ensure everyone is able to get to where they need to be.
In short, we need to make sure that the new generation, those who have grown up with the internet a ubiquitous reality, use the best techniques we have had for handling previous information systems, and combine them with completely new ones to create a truly accessible web, one that enables users to get to where they want to be.
So yes, read this book. Use the techniques it talks about. It will make your websites better. But more excitingly, it will let you take part in defining what the map and compass of the internet will actually look like.