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We Are All Information Architects
2014, Q2 (March 31, 2014)
By Michael Harvey, STC Fellow

Michael Harvey
Michael Harvey
To really understand something, teach it. Having recently taught Information Architecture for the Duke Continuing Studies Technical Communication program, I find that I have a richer appreciation of the topic. I also discover that I have become a devoted, lifelong student of it.

So just what is information architecture? Pondering this question led me to think about “architecture,” and everything associated with the art and science of designing functional and beautiful spaces in which to live, work, and play. And it made me think about “information.” When we consult the dictionary, we find this definition: “facts provided or learned about something or someone.” When we examine Claude Shannon’s information theory, we find a discussion of information sources, signals, noise, receivers, and information destinations. Gregory Bateson, a British anthropologist, social scientist, and cyberneticist, said that information was “a difference which makes a difference.” During class, we explored the intersection of these ideas, and how that intersection is relevant and important to information architects.

During my first class, I shared David McCandless’s TED talk entitled
“The beauty of data visualization.” McCandless is a British journalist who has written extensively about that topic. In his talk, he presents graphics that render difficult-to-grasp ideas such as “a billion dollars” into intuitively graspable patterns. Check out his website called Information is Beautiful. McCandless’s work is relevant to anyone interested in good information design.

Information architects, we learned, care about:
  • Who is using the information and why
  • The information itself
  • The needs of the business

They design information considering accessibility, reuse, and global access. Information architects need to be familiar with the science of audience and task analysis, and must master how to organize and categorize information.

Richard Saul Wurman, who coined the phrase “information architecture,” asserted that there are essentially only five ways to organize information. These can be remembered with the mnemonic LATCH:
  • Location – use the visual depiction of a space – think of a subway map
  • Alphabet – use the ABCs when someone already knows the item that they are looking for – think of any reference book
  • Time – use a temporal organization when things happen over a specified duration
  • Categories – can be used practically anytime – think of the aisles of a grocery store or the sections of a clothing catalog
  • Hierarchy – use this principle when importance or rank is paramount – think of the organization chart of a business

And of course we talked about information chunking and DITA. For some students, it was their first encounter with a markup language of any kind. We covered the three basic technical content elements: task, reference, and concept, leaving the rest of the OASIS standard for independent research.

I was privileged to work with an inquisitive and imaginative group of students, and I look forward to the next class. I continue to think about “information,” and how, because we are inundated with it every day, we have a responsibility to render it easy to find, navigate, and use.

During my exploration, I came across the assertion that everything is information: every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself. Everything derives its existence–even if in some contexts only indirectly–from answers to yes-or-no questions, bits. If this is so, we are not just information architects, we are information! All the more reason to devote ourselves to studying this subject.

Michael Harvey can be reached at mtharvey at yahoo dot com. End of article.

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