Information architecture is a broad field. The responsibilities and considerations are likely to change depending on the business the information architect is working with, or the industry that they’re a part of.
How has web 2.0’s emergence changed the field of information architecture? I like to consider the ways that a certain field has changed over the years, using comparisons between ‘then’ and ‘now’ to help understand the changes. This helps remind me that we’re not looking at a simple cause and effect relationship; in my mind it’s closer to two entities whose separate developments affect the other in a kind of back and forth that also receives influence from the outside world.
As I said, examples are clearer than my own attempts at explanation. Dan Brown at UXmatters picks an excellent one: e-commerce. As he explains, in the early days of online shopping, an information architect would have had to use a product catalogue to create a storefront on the Web. This is still true, especially for small businesses that might be experimenting with e-commerce for the first time. But there’s a more dynamic interaction – actually, several more dynamic interactions going on – than there might have been 20 years ago.
The first of these takes place between the server (or more likely, several servers) and the browser. Today’s e-commerce sites can use type assist to suggest products as the user types, while businesses that have brick and mortar locations can suggest the nearest location based on a user’s postcode before mashing their information up with map data to give directions.
This is great for customers: more convenience and so on. And here’s where dynamism on the end user’s part comes in: they can now react, rate, review and tag like never before. E-commerce customers can review products and ask questions of other users, or even tag reviews as helpful or unhelpful. All of this information in turn gets gathered and used by search engines and businesses, as with Google’s Rich Snippets. People seem to naturally take advantage of all these new capabilities.
So we’ve got web pages with all of these new capabilities that people are taking advantage of. What does this mean for information architects? Off the top of my head, it seems obvious that they have a lot more to learn about and to try and plan for. They now have to think about how to manage all of this user-generated content: what to capture, how to capture it, how to display it to those that need to use it. How can we accommodate content that’s coming from millions of unpredictable users? I think the information architect role is essentially expanding from setting up effective frameworks for communicating with users, to include storing, processing and displaying masses of incoming information. As Brown writes, the information architect needs to think in a more abstract way, asking how they can create the right space for users to contribute more while still addressing business requirements.