Hello and Happy World IA Day! I’m Peter Morville, and I’m honored to be the keynote speaker for the first ever World Information Architecture Day in Depok, Indonesia. I’d love to be there in person to enjoy your warm weather and spicy food, your exotic beaches, jungles and animals, and your diverse culture and friendly people; but for now I’m delighted to have this opportunity to speak with you about my favorite topic, information architecture.
In particular, I’ve been asked to talk about the strange connection between information architecture and library science. How are they intertwingled? Why do they matter? Where are they going? There’s no one right way to answer these questions, so let’s start with a story, and then we’ll try a different lens, or perhaps we’ll try averting our vision, because as any good astronomer knows, sometimes we must look away to see.
So, let me tell you a story about a polar bear, or to be precise, let me tell you my story about how I came to write, with Louis Rosenfeld, an introductory text to information architecture that’s known all around the world as the polar bear book. The story begins in 1991 in my parents home in a beach town in Connecticut. I had graduated from college with a degree in English Literature, and I had absolutely no idea what to do with my life. So I got a job that was so boring it made my back hurt. And, in my free time, I started playing with computers. I taught myself the C programming language, and I began exploring the early bulletin board systems and computer networks: Compuserve, GEnie, Prodigy, and AOL.
I also spent time in our local, public library, desperately searching for my future. Each week, I’d discover a new career. I’d tell my parents “I’m going to be a hospital administrator,” and they’d laugh, and I’d move on. Then, one day while browsing the shelves, I stumbled upon an old, tattered book about careers in library science. Now, despite the fact that I’d spent lots of time in libraries, it had never occurred to me that the library could be the source of a career.
In any case, as I read this book, I experienced a minor epiphany. I made a strange connection between the organization of books in a library and the chaos of files and folders in those online computer networks. Might the principles of traditional librarianship be used to design better digital information environments? It was that question that sent me to the University of Michigan for a graduate degree in library and information science.
During my first semester of graduate school, I feared I had made a terrible mistake. I found myself in traditional classes like reference and cataloging that were taught by really old professors who never talked about design or digital. I feared I was in the wrong place, but before long I met Maurita Holland and David Hessler who taught multimedia design, Joe Janes who taught online searching, Victor Rosenberg who taught entrepreneurship, and Lou Rosenfeld who introduced me to the Internet. In hindsight, I’m glad I took those traditional classes. In cataloging, I learned about organizing information, and in reference, I learned about people: how they ask questions, how they search, and how to help them. Also, from all these professors, old and new, I absorbed the core values of librarianship – access, diversity, freedom, privacy, service, literacy and lifelong learning – that shaped who I would become.
Upon graduation in 1993, I joined with Lou Rosenfeld and Joe Janes to build Argus Associates. It was our mission to prove the value of librarianship in the Internet era. Initially, we offered Internet training and web development services, but soon we specialized in what became known as “information architecture” or the design of organization, search, and navigation systems for websites. There was great interest in our work. We built Argus into a forty person company, and we wrote a book about information architecture that was named Amazon’s Best Internet Book of 1998 and that sold over 100,000 copies in many languages and countries all over the world. That’s not so bad for a bunch of librarians and a polar bear!
Okay, so let’s switch gears and explore the evolving practice of information architecture by examining case studies. In 2001, we closed Argus Associates. Since then I’ve been an independent consultant doing business as Semantic Studios, and I’ve worked with a diverse mix of clients to wrangle with their IA and UX challenges. I’d like to tell you about three of my consulting projects. But first let me note that even in the 1990s, information architecture wasn’t just about library science. We saw IA as an interdisciplinary practice and borrowed insights and methods from such fields as anthropology, human-computer interaction, graphic design, and business strategy. This diversity is central to the way I see and practice IA.
So, for our first project, let’s take a look at the work I did for Polar Bears International. As an author of the polar bear book, and as someone who cares deeply about animals and the environment, there’s no way I could resist the opportunity to collaborate with this wonderful nonprofit. This is a good example, because the original scope of work was classic IA. My clients asked me to improve the taxonomies and navigation menus, so that users could more easily find what they need. In our initial conversations, we expanded the scope to include social media (which meant mapping relationships between Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the website) and mobile strategy (which meant planning for a responsive design and mobile use cases). But we didn’t stop there. It soon became clear to me that these folks live or die by the findability of their content via Google, so we integrated search engine optimization into our scope of work. I used Google Analytics and AdWords to study searcher behavior, and we surfaced common queries such as “polar bear cubs” and “global warming” on the home page. This improved the user experience and increased traffic to the website by 39 percent. In part, this project was successful because we changed its scope, and I would argue that this act of reframing (or selecting a new lens) is vital to the modern practice of information architecture.
Okay, let’s shift to project number two. I had the pleasure and privilege of working with the Library of Congress over the course of several years, and the duration of this engagement is surprising, because our relationship got off to a rocky start. I’d been asked to evaluate the Library’s web presence, so I conducted user research and stakeholder interviews and began to review its websites, which was harder than you might expect, because the Library had more than a hundred websites, all with different visual identities and navigation systems. And, of course, users had no idea which site to visit for which purpose.
So, I wrote my report, and I was brutally honest. I compared the Library’s web presence to the Winchester Mystery House. It’s a well-known California mansion that was owned by a wealthy widow who’d been told by a psychic that when construction was complete, she’d drop dead. So, for 38 years, she continued to build, until there were hundreds of rooms, halls, staircases, and no blueprint. Now, it’s not an unattractive house, and the view from any individual room isn’t unusual, but as a whole, it’s a findability nightmare – just like the web presence of the Library of Congress. So I flew out to Washington DC to present my report to the major units of the Library, but upon arrival, I was told my meetings were canceled because my report had become subject to an embargo. I did meet with the Chief Information Officer, and she told me “we agree with you Peter, but your report may upset too many people, it’s not the right time.”
I flew back to Ann Arbor and continued to work with the Library on smaller projects, but I was frustrated by this outcome. Fortunately, over the next few months, my report circulated in and around the black market of the Library of Congress and eventually made its way to the executive committee where the leadership decided “to change the way we work on the Web” and invited me to help. I spent the next few years working with the Library on web strategy and information architecture, and I’m proud of the work we did, we made great progress, but we didn’t go far enough, and to explain why, it’s helpful to look through a different lens.
You see, I was brought into the Library by a middle manager, and from that vantage point, we could see the problem, but we couldn’t solve it. We didn’t have the authority. Then, when the executive committee formed a Web Governance Board with representatives from all the units and appointed the Chief of Staff as its chair, this change in governance gave us the authority, and we made some progress. But, you see all these boxes on this org chart? Behind every box is a team of people and together they constitute an organizational culture that’s very hard to change. That’s why we weren’t able to fix things faster. And I believe there’s a lesson here that’s vital to the future of information architecture and user experience: if we hope to effect sustainable change, we must engage with the wicked problems of governance and culture.
Okay, project number three. I spent most of last year working with Harvard Business School’s Baker Library. We focused on mapping and understanding the whole research ecosystem, so we could design better cross-channel services and experiences. We conducted ethnographic interviews with faculty, staff, and students. We facilitated service design and co-creation workshops with librarians. And we experimented with different methods of user research.
During one usability test, an MBA student perfectly illustrated the validity of our holistic approach. I’d asked her to complete some basic tasks using the Library’s website, and she failed, again and again. After a while, she felt compelled to explain her frustration. She told me she felt sad, because she could see the value in being able to find information and data in the Library’s databases. In fact, she’d been to the Library several times, and had asked the librarians for help, but their lessons hadn’t stuck. She explained that it was hard to pay attention because “we’re in the middle of the library, which means we’re trying to be quiet,” and “she showed me how to do a few things, but I forgot them once I left,” and concluded by saying “I would really like to learn how to do this; maybe I’m just a totally dumb user.”
As this session unfolded, I was feeling sad because she was feeling sad, but I was also feeling really happy. Fireworks were exploding in my mind, because it was so clear that we could help this user, by improving the physical and digital places and by recording and sharing the reference interview. This one test made it clear that information architecture isn’t just about websites; it’s about the whole ecosystem, because everything is deeply intertwingled.
Information Architecture is older than language. Long before we learned to speak, our hunter-gatherer ancestors were organizing nuts and berries (by type, color, ownership, etc.). Even today, the way we organize ourselves – self/other, us/them, good/bad – is partly prelingual, so these organization schemes are invisible, dangerous, and hard to change.
Of course, information architecture has become deeply intertwingled with language, and we can read between the lines of our books that IA continues to evolve. The first edition was a gentle introduction to organizing websites. The second polar bear was bigger and scarier (and in this particular case, Russian). It was written by and for professional information architects, so it was a deeper book for a narrower audience. In edition three, we tackled social media and findability, but it was only a light refresh. Lou was busy building Rosenfeld Media, and I was consulting, speaking and writing more animal books, including Ambient Findability, Search Patterns, and Intertwingled, which does have animals on the cover, they’re just smaller.
The fourth edition is a bigger deal. We added Jorge Arango as a co-author, and we tackled “the web and beyond” including mobile, cross-channel, and places made of information. We also put the polar bear on a diet. We slimmed it down for a wider audience, because as Abby Covert, who just so happens to be president of the IA Institute and the inventor of World IA Day, explains in her absolutely brilliant book, information architecture is for everyone.
A surprising number of great books about information architecture have been published in recent years from Andrea Resmini’s Pervasive Information Architecture and Reframing Information Architecture to Andrew Hinton’s big book about context. Of course, books aren’t the only lens through which we should look. I created a Prezi a few years back that’s all about Understanding IA. And just a few weeks ago, Dan Klyn led an architecture walk in San Francisco that demonstrated the value and vitality of what’s known as “the architecture school of IA.”
It’s precisely this plurality of voices, this diversity of thought, this framing and reframing of what we do, that makes me so happy to be a part of the information architecture community. And it’s still changing and growing. We’re adding new voices every day. How about yours?
I’ve just begun a new project for the Ann Arbor District Library. I’m so excited by the chance to make this wonderful public library in my own community even better. Anyone who knows me knows that I love libraries. A library isn’t just a place for books, and it’s never been just about information. The library is an act of inspiration architecture and a keystone of culture. Libraries lift us up by reminding us of our amazing ability to create and share knowledge and wisdom.
And libraries are more important than we know. If we lose the keystone species we call the polar bear, the Arctic ecosystem will crash. And, if we lose our libraries, the ecosystem we call culture will crash. That’s why I feel strongly about working with and for libraries. As the library is increasingly defined by the physical-digital, cross-channel experiences that it makes possible, I believe that information architecture is vital to making our libraries better, and I believe that libraries are vital to making our future better.
I understand the University of Indonesia has built a great library in Depok. It’s the largest library in Southeast Asia, and it’s a stunning building, a beautiful place, I’d love to visit. But, as the world’s fourth most populous country with over 255 million people, Indonesia doesn’t have nearly enough libraries: there are less than 1,000. For a per capita match with the United States, Indonesia needs 6,000 more. On the bright side, Indonesia has thousands of informal, community-organized lending libraries known as Taman Bacaan or “reading gardens.” Led by volunteers who care deeply about literacy and lifelong learning, each reading garden reflects its unique context – its neighborhood, finances, people, culture, and history – and yet together these reading gardens point us in a singular, uplifting direction.
This brings us to the title of this talk and the official national motto of Indonesia, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, which means “unity in diversity.” I’d like to close this opening keynote about information architecture and libraries with a reminder that as people of all races and religions celebrate World IA Day 2016 in 34 countries on six continents, “we are many yet one.”
Thank you for your attention. And have a wonderful World IA Day!