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Louis Rosenfeld: The InfoDesign interview

By Dirk Knemeyer (February 2004)

Each month, InfoDesign interviews a thought leader in the design industry, focusing on people who are identified with or show strong sensibilities to the design of information and experiences. This month, Dirk Knemeyer interviews Louis Rosenfeld.

Lou helped create the profession of information architecture, co-authored its leading text, and was president of its best-known consulting firm for seven years. He is a director and co-founder of the Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture (AIfIA).

Dirk Knemeyer (DK): Lou, talk about the evolution of information architecture, from the Richard Saul Wurman conception, to the vision you helped manifest in the 1990's, to where you see IA today and in the future.

Louis Rosenfeld (LR): Ouch, Dirk. The first question is supposed to be the easy one. OK, evolution of information architecture, in a few paragraphs.

Information systems have been around at least as long as language, which, naturally, is an information system, as are papyri, diagrams, books, radio programs, and your favorite website. And by default, each information system has an information architecture. For example, a book's information architecture consists of chapter headings, tables of contents, sequential pagination, and all those other structural and semantic aspects that we take for granted.

What's interesting is that for eons we've been developing information architectures subconsciously. Very little thought has gone into how we actually structure, organize and label information. But that's really begun to change these past few decades for a couple of reasons:

The act of designing consciously means we look more closely at our own work, and that's where people like Wurman come in. Wurman basically achieved a higher level of design consciousness earlier than most. He sensed something that stood on its own, and called it information architecture. Maybe the big black monolith showed up in his backyard while the rest of us were still eating paste. Whatever the case, he gave it a name, information architecture, that clicked for many. Books like the one that Peter Morville and I wrote took naming further by identifying basic IA concepts and labeling them.

Naming the heretofore unnamed is half the battle. IA isn't new, but now those of us who have been doing it for decades know what to call it. We can have conversations about it with others about our work. We can also meet peers, read books, find job postings, attend conferences, and join professional groups that all share this wonderful new term 'information architecture'. That's what's been happening over the past decade or so.

Adam named the animals in the Garden of Eden; it wasn't much longer before he and his significant other were tossed out. Hopefully information architecture isn't approaching a similarly dangerous point, but we are stepping across the boundaries of 'traditional IA'. We've got most of those basic 'textbook' concepts named and fairly well-understood, but now we have to connect them to other fields like, for example, content management. We also need to explore IA in settings where it's not well understood, such as the enterprise environment or information systems that have to support a multi-lingual, multi-national audience.

DK: The information architecture community is one of a handful of communities drawn toward the idea of 'user experience' (UX). As someone actively engaged in the UX community, talk about this convergence of disciplines and why it is being identified as UX.

LR: UX is simply a label for the growing awareness that no single traditional type of design provides the diversity of wisdom, experience, and ideas necessary to tackle designing today's information systems. Information architecture, interaction design, usability engineering, visual design, and a host of other fields fit neatly under that UX umbrella. Call it User-Centered Design, Experience Design, or whatever cringe-inducing term you want, but what's behind these terms is a reckoning by many that today's complex design challenges require things that typically haven't been available, such as:

I think this last issue of communal meetings is really telling. Every year, I encounter more and more people who vent their frustration with the traditional array of professional conferences, many of which seem to be settings for the same people having the same old discussions. More and more designers are instead attending new, cross-disciplinary events, like DUX and DIS. And these are the same people who are organizing local cocktail hours and reading groups that cast the net widely at a local level. If you've seen list postings with subject lines that start "IA/UE/UX/ID cocktail hour in Hoboken this Friday", you know what I mean.

So whatever you call it, this interdisciplinary movement is growing organically and often locally. I'm hopeful that the traditional professional associations will encourage and participate in it, rather than see it as a threat. DUX and DIS are symbols of that participatory spirit for which we should all be thankful. But naturally there's so much more that can be done.

DK: You ground UX in the context of 'designing today's information systems', which I interpret as meaning design in the digital realm. As a label for growing awareness, then, is UX focused on designing digital solutions? Or is it more intended as an intentionally vague and inclusive approach, as your referring to it as a 'label' might indicate?

LR: Yes.

Seriously, UX has to go beyond the digital realm. Design wisdom didn't exactly begin as a twinkle in Vannevar Bush's eye, and we'd be foolish to ignore what's been learned in non-digital media.

But you're pointing out a painful truth: most who discuss UX think Web. Perhaps UX has made its initial appearance in this realm because there is comparatively less available knowledge about digital design, combined with a more complex medium. Put another way, Web folk -- the least experienced designers out there -- are taking on some of the most difficult design challenges. Desperation leads to collaboration; hence UX is mostly digital, though in many ways it's still just a sophisticated form of web design.

DK: OK, let's change gears a little and talk a little about what you are doing and your experiences. In 1991, you co-founded Argus Associates, the landmark information architecture consultancy. And today, like many of the core team at Argus, you have your own consultancy, Louis Rosenfeld LLC. Talk a little about your personal evolution from running a progressive consultancy to working independently and what you prefer about each.

LR: Argus was a wonderful experience, even if ten great years were followed by a few horrible, agonizing months. Getting paid to provide IA consulting is like getting paid to eat potato chips, and Peter Morville and I really enjoyed sharing that sensation with a growing staff, many of whom were ex-librarians accustomed to being under-valued and under-utilized.

I miss that gang, though many of us keep in touch and regularly get together at conferences like the annual IA Summit. And I miss the experience of setting up and tweaking an organizational infrastructure that allowed the people to grow and the business to thrive. If you do it right, you get out of the way and watch as good things happen; it's not unlike playing SimCity.

But solo consulting has been quite enjoyable too. Fewer headaches, lots more freedom. It forced me to recall much of what I'd forgotten about IA while I was in executive mode at Argus; it also pushed me to explore new areas, like UX and enterprise IA. And AIfIA has kept my SimCity urges satisfied: instead of building business infrastructure, as Peter and I did at Argus, we're building community infrastructure that is supporting a host of volunteers' efforts to realize their own great ideas.

DK: Considering your personal experiences, and looking at the landscape of today and tomorrow, where do you see the best opportunities for information architects? Is there opportunity for IA consultancies like Argus in the future? How does the cross-disciplinary convergence we talked about earlier influence these opportunities?

LR: Information architects would do well to attach themselves to content management system (CMS) implementations. Most of these efforts fail because organizations oddly believe that content management is about 80% technology and only about 20% process, policy, procedure, and design. This, of course, is completely backwards, absolutely Bizzaro Planet thinking, and often leads to disaster.

After catching an initial whiff of such failure, or falling into it face first, these same organizations begin to realize they need information architects (and many other types of UX professionals) to do all the messy work that enables the CMS to actually function much as its vendor originally promised.

This awakening is a relief and eventual boon to us all, and I sense it's already having an impact. Four or five years ago, information architects tended to work as outside consultants, employed by agencies large and small. The reverse is true today; most of the jobs are found in-house, bobbing in the wakes of CMS, search, and portal implementations, dodging the detritus of failed implementations. And the occasional outside IA's like me swoop in to help in-house folks with strategic or specialized consulting, training or, from time to time, to provide a shoulder to cry on.

In five or ten years, I might change my tune, but right now that type of work won't support larger outside IA consultancies. Companies like Adaptive Path have a more appropriate model for today's market, converging on broader UX consulting rather than specializing in IA.

DK: What sort of research or learning would you recommend for IA's and other UX professionals who are interested in content management?

LR: That's a tough question, but as an overpaid consultant, I can answer it with this handy Venn diagram:

Venn diagrams

Information architects need to know something about each of these three areas to ensure their designs are balanced, regardless of whether they're designing content management processes, search interfaces, taxonomies, or anything else. Most of us already know a lot about one of these areas - for example, if you studied organizational behavior in college, you might be considered an expert in context. If that's the case, it might not be a bad idea to 'minor' in the other areas to achieve a more balanced perspective. So you might shore up your knowledge of content by reading up on topics relevant to content creation, like technical communication, journalism, or markup languages. Ditto users: read a book on human factors or ethnographic methods. (If you're interested in an expanded version of this concept, see the diagram 'IA Skills Cross Training' that Jess McMullin and I developed a couple years back.)

I think this is a sensible approach, not just for information architects but for anyone interested in UX. But your original question sounds focused on content management, so here are some of my favorite CM resources:

CMSWatch: "... an independent source of information, analysis, and reports about web content management solutions" edited by Tony Byrne.

CMS Forum: "... a structured home for the information that circulates on the industry's main mailing list server, cms-list.org ...vendor forums ... and aggregation of the major CMS News and CMS Blogs" assembled by Bob Doyle.

Books:

The Content Management Bible by Bob Boiko (John Wiley & Sons 2001)

Managing Enterprise Content by Ann Rockley (New Riders 2002)

Content Management for Dynamic Web Delivery by JoAnn Hackos (John Wiley & Sons 2002)

DK: Who are some of the role models and/or mentors that had a meaningful impact on your thinking and professional development?

LR: It may sound a bit trite, but my father always has been my model. About forty years ago, he went into what was at the time an unheard-of business: furniture leasing. He fell in love with the concept, and because of that he was successful in communicating its value.

The parallel with information architecture always seemed clear to me: a strange-sounding new area that could be quite beneficial, if only people would let you explain it to them. I figured that if my dad could sell the idea of leasing furniture in the mid '60s, I could sell people on the value of organizing and structuring their digital information in the '90s.

DK: What can we learn from our history to guide the future of design, information and experience?

LR: I think we need to look at prior multi-disciplinary collisions and examine them for lessons of what to do and what not to do. How did different specialists get along when they came together to build cathedrals? Corporations? Newspapers? Airplanes? Refrigerators? What did they fight about, and how did they work it out? What would they have done differently in retrospect? I'm sure there are lots of rich and relevant lessons out there to be plumbed.

DK: Do you have any interesting projects or publications coming up that you'd like to share?

LR: I'm really excited by the growth and success of AIfIA (http://www.aifia.org), the information architecture professional association that a bunch of us started in late 2002. Many initially pooh-poohed the idea of an all-volunteer organization as overly optimistic and unrealistic. But at last count, AIfIA had over 400 members in over 30 countries, and a number of useful initiatives and resources in place or under development. I think the critical factor in AIfIA's success has been to not engage in community building; instead, we've built infrastructure (including legal, governance, financial, technical, and communications) that enables natural community builders to much more easily pursue their own goals.

I'd like to see that same approach to building infrastructure applied to UX. To that end, I've been working with a small and highly-interdisciplinary group of UX people (including you, Dirk!) on a fairly informal initiative with two major goals. One is to help jumpstart and coordinate discussions between traditional associations, like CHI, STC, AIfIA, ASIS&T, and UPA that have an interest - or should - in UX. There are probably lots of benefits that the nascent UX community could derive from increased collaboration between those established associations. The other goal is centered on a vision of a unified calendar and directory of UX-related events and local groups. None of this will be easy to pull off, but I'm optimistic.

As far as publications, I'm playing with the idea for another book, this one on practicing information architecture in the enterprise environment. It's an important topic, and I've had good experiences covering it in my ongoing seminar series. I hope the book happens, but my most important project -- Iris Rachel, who was born December 31 -- might trump it.

DK: Yes, she is really a beautiful girl! Share some final thoughts that you would like for people to take away from this interview.

LR: I'll resist my natural urge to give an extensive pep talk, and distill it down to this: fields like IA and concepts like UX really are new. Certainly the work itself isn't new, but a conscious understanding of them is. Consciousness is a prerequisite for just about everything else in life. So when we're feeling our most frustrated with our clients, our bosses, our colleagues and peers, and the economic harshness of recent years, we have to remember that this is all new, that levels of consciousness are rising, things are get tingbetter, and that it remains an extremely exciting time to be working as a designer of any stripe.

OK, I guess I gave a pep talk.

About Louis Rosenfeld

Lou Rosenfeld is an independent information architecture consultant. He has been instrumental in helping establish the field of information architecture, and in articulating the role and value of librarianship within the field.

At Argus Associates, a consulting company that Lou co-founded in 1991, usability engineering, ethnography, technology analysis and others were successfully folded into the mix with information architecture, and the company became perhaps the best-known firm in the field.

With Peter Morville, Lou co-authored the best-selling book, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web (O'Reilly, 1998; second edition, 2002), Amazon.com's 'Best Internet Book of 1998', which has been acclaimed as a classic and is used as a standard text in many graduate-level classes. Lou has contributed regular columns for CIO, Internet World and Web Review magazines, and has written and edited numerous other books, chapters, and scholarly articles.

Lou has participated heavily in efforts to coalesce the information architecture community. He is a director and co-founder of AIfIA, the Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture, the sole professional organization of information architects. He has taught popular tutorials for the Nielsen Norman Group, and is currently on a speaking tour with usability expert Steve Krug.

Lou holds a Masters in Information and Library Studies and a B.A. in History, both from The University of Michigan. He serves on a variety of corporate and non-profit boards. Lou lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife, Mary Jean Babic, their daughter, Iris, and Schwa the cat.

About Dirk Knemeyer

Dirk is the Chief Design Officer at Thread Inc. One of the architects behind 'InfoDesign: Understanding by Design', Dirk is a prolific writer and frequent public speaker. He is a member of the Board of Directors for the International Institute for Information Design as well as the AIGA Brand Experience community. Dirk's primary interests include using Design as a catalyst to improve business and culture.

Buy the book from Louis Rosenfeld

Information Architecture for the World Wide Web: Designing Large-Scale Web Sites

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