About six months ago, I posed the question during my presentation at the IA Summit: "What Killed Information Architecture?". While I had some glib answers for the audience at the time, I didn't really have the perspective to answer the question. Only now am I starting to get a handle on what I think is wrong, and what can be done about it.
I won't be answering the question today, but I am going to start to set some of the stage for the answer that needs to unfold. I've realized that my perspective on the stagnation of Information Architecture as a field is quite complex, and can't be boiled down into a nice clean answer. I certainly don't think that it's about "Defining The Damn Thing". Sorry folks, I've decided to stop putting all of my effort into digging that hole.
At the AAAA Planning Summit this summer, I talked about how I thought that IA's were somewhat good at method innovation, especially when it came to building new methods out of mashups of old ones. I referred to this as the "Robin Hood Effect" - stealing from other fields to prop up our capability as a discipline. Over the last 15 years, IA has been extremely successful in stealing from other fields to cobble together "a way" of solving problems around the organization of information. I'm now convinced that it's protected us from having to do any real work in the area of creating new tools and methods for IA.
The problem with stealing is that it's breeding out the ability of information architecture to create new capability and value. We're getting lazy, and we're starting to accept whatever tools other other fields put in front of us. This laziness has been a long slow slide. Jesse James Garrett wrote IA/Recon back in 2002. When I read Recon today, I feel terrified. While we haven't regressed, we didn't move forward either. If we stay this course, information architecture is probably only a few years away from being marginalized and mostly irrelevant.
To be fair, the last few years have been very good for the information architecture field. If you have a bit of experience you're probably happily employed and have a nice title with "Sr" or "Lead" in front of it. You're most likely an expert at wireframing and card sorts and you can put together a mean mental model. You might even be mashing up some of your own methods. Wireflows? Swimlanes? Mashup methods are good, right?
I used to think they were, but now I'm not so sure.
Black Boxes and Rap Metal
People I've worked with may have heard me throw around the term "Rap Metal Innovation" before. It's a disparaging quip I use to describe what happens when you take two seeming good ideas and try to combine them into something better and more powerful. It doesn't always work. In the case of Rap Metal, combining Anthrax and Public Enemy eventually resulted in Limp Bizkit.
Real innovation creates long-term change and sustainable advantage. It's not a fad, and it's not something you discard; its value does quickly not diminish.
I'm not seeing much method and tool innovation in the information architecture community these days, and when I do, it's increasingly the equivalent of Rap Metal. I'm not suggesting that method mashups are killing information architecture, but I am suggesting that they are a symptom of a larger problem with the discipline. Like a lurking shadow, most of us would rather whistle and walk faster than turn and face the darkness.
Getting back to my point about laziness, I'm going to draw an analogy from software engineering. Using an API is not the same as writing a library of software objects. It's not too hard to throw together a mashup from a bunch of exposed interfaces on a web API. It is a lot harder to write the library itself. With IA right now, most of our problem solving is based around superclassing and subclassing a relatively small number of tools and methods from other fields. We don't seem to care what's inside an object; we're comfortable with the fact that it's a black box that we can instantiate in the context of IA.
This is part of the problem. It's superficial problem solving for the here and now. In the last five years, I can't identify a single original method that has grown up inside the IA field. Everything, including my own work has been stolen and instantiated from some other field's parent class. This is keeping our head above water, but I don't think we can keep treading for much longer.
As we continue to solve yesterday's IA problems with borrowed tools, we're increasingly stuck playing catchup with the emergent nature of the web. Today it's about the link, but one day we'll wake up to discover that the link is just one part of the rich environment that the web is becoming. I know I'm being overly dramatic here, but we'll never have the tools to build the future capability of information architecture if we're just borrowing stuff from other places. It's time to seriously invest in a new set of tools, and we're going to need to build some of them from scratch.
Hand me the Screwdriver
During my IA Summit presentation last spring, I suggested that information architects weren't good at deconstruction. I still believe that, but I'm starting to think that we'd benefit more from taking stuff apart in a thoughtful way instead of just breaking things. This means we need to take a screwdriver to some of these black boxes and start looking inside. This won't give us insight into what kinds of tools and methods we need to build, but it just might give us a sense of what kinds of thinking goes into rolling your own.
We have to start somewhere. If we can't build our own tools, we can't build our discipline. Tools and methods are only one part of the solution, but they're something useful and tangible for the practitioner because they create immediate value. They're also something that we can use to bump up against the real problems and see if we're making any progress. I'd like to be able to go to the IA Summit in 2010 and see a couple of really good presentations about failed methods. That's one of my performance indicators for the health of the IA discipline; people talking intelligently about failure.
In my mind, learning from failure is a damn good screwdriver. It's something we need to embrace if we want to build a discipline that's based on original thinking, and not just Rap Metal.