Information Architects

Web Builders with a Sales Bent

Information Architects

Among dotcom-era job titles, information architect is notable for its staying power. But the relatively new status of this job role presents both challenges and opportunities for information-architect wannabes.

After all, the work an information architect does is not as easily described as that of a coder or network engineer. The Information Architecture Institute, a professional organization formerly known as The Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture, defines the field as "the structural design of shared information environments," as well as "the art and science of organizing and labeling Web sites, intranets, online communities and software to support usability and findability." Information architects (IAs in industry parlance) often work closely with software and Web teams but typically focus on navigation schemes and usability rather than pure design or hard-core coding.

Many Entry Paths

Experts agree that the IA job role is here to stay but acknowledge that information architects sometimes find it necessary to justify their roles to managers, who aren't always sure of an IA‘s value as organizations seek to conserve resources and generate sales.

Unlike other IT jobs, such as a database analyst or programmer, the typical path to becoming an information architect doesn't exist -- yet. "Most working information architects got to be information architects by doing [information architecture] as part of some other job they had," says Jesse James Garrett, author of The Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web and founder of Adaptive Path, a user-experience consulting company. "They get hired to do a job for which IA may or may not be a defined part of their responsibilities, they take an interest in it, and they manage to talk somebody into letting them take responsibility for those things."

Would-be IAs may move into a full-time role from positions as programmers, interface designers, HTML coders and other Web team members, including content producers and writers.

Few Training Programs; Many Areas to Learn

As for training, courses in information architecture may be difficult to find, though educational programs in the field, such as a master's degree in interaction design and information architecture at the University of Baltimore, are beginning to emerge. Experts recommend drawing on a number of areas.

"Fields like usability engineering and market research give us excellent methods for learning what's going on inside users' heads," says Louis Rosenfeld, coauthor of Information Architecture for the World Wide Web and one of the field's pioneers. "Journalism, library science, database design and technical communication arm us with ways to understand and manage content. And we can learn about what makes a business context tick by borrowing from organizational behavior and management.

Hard and Soft Skills

But is information architecture for you? Garrett says IAs often have an "analytical bent," yet also have a deep interest in people and the way they think. Typically, IAs collaborate with a variety of people, he notes, from marketing and design pros to business executives and customers. In some ways, they serve as the linchpin between various groups. The blogs of both Garrett and Rosenfeld provide plenty of resources for IAs, as does the online publication Boxes and Arrows.

"Remember that this is still a new field," says Rosenfeld. "To break in, you won't be expected to have 20 years' experience or even any sort of certification -- in fact, there is no such thing."

To stand out, you often need to sell yourself. "The ability to sell is important," Rosenfeld explains. "You will continually be asked to justify yourself and the field of IA to colleagues who still think it's too new and abstract to have concrete value." Other challenges, says Rosenfeld, include serving organizations where information is spread among "dozens or hundreds of business units, making it difficult for users to find what they need," as well as working for global companies with multicultural and multilingual audiences.

"The field will have to evolve rapidly to rise to these occasions," he says. "On the other hand, their impact could mean that the demand for information architects will soon outstrip the supply."

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