of the American Society for Information Science and Technology       Vol. 27, No. 5              June / July 2001

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IA Column

IAs in search of an identity?

by Andrew Dillon

At the annual ACM SIGCHI conference in Seattle this April, the keynote address from Bill Gates provided some insights into what Microsoft has in store for us. These ranged from the odd (an e-book system that looked like the primitive designs many of us discussed 10 years ago) to the bewildering (a presence locator that gauges where users are so that those seeking them can determine whether e-mail or phone is likely to be the best way to connect). That's one service I won't be signing up for!  While there is no doubt that his keynote address stole the show for the more than 3000 delegates present, IA also made an impact. Both a SIG/IA meeting, which overflowed from the available space, and a panel discussion (with approximately 700 people in attendance) showed that, if anything, interest in this topic shows no sign of abating. This offset some of the gloom in IA circles that followed the recent announcement of the closure of Argus Associates, for many, the most important organization in IA.

That IA would have a presence (and receive attention) at the ACM SIGCHI conference (note the order of the letters in that acronym) should not surprise people, yet it continually does. In previous columns I have outlined the overlap IA has with HCI, to the point of even suggesting that IA might be the best overarching term for the range of studies conducted around the process of information system design, implementation and use. Several IA folks I spoke to reported that this was their first CHI conference, and I trust it will not be their last. What was more interesting to me, however, was to observe the reaction of the crowd of regular CHI attendees, many of whom came to the panel session to find out what they might have been missing. This panel was convened to discuss the possibilities of quantifying IA, though it veered away from this as it progressed (a point noted with humor at the end by Jesse James Garrett, one of the panelists).

At the open discussion phase of the panel session I heard questions from several audience members who sought clarification on just what was new about IA. These questioners were of the view that what they had just heard in the panel was pretty familiar material to regular attendees of HCI conferences. I did not get to speak to all of the panel members afterwards, but my sense was that this took several of them by surprise. Given the IA community's attempts at distinguishing IA from other fields it was quite interesting to hear several supposed 'outsiders' say "hey, that's what we do too!"

It should be clear now to anyone who studies IA that attempts to narrow the field's scope to organization of information on the Web have failed to garner much support in the broader community. There are at least two reasons for this. First, information organization itself is a much contested area with pragmatic views from the LIS tradition sometimes drawing on and often clashing with more theoretical approaches from cognitive science, anthropology and linguistics. Regardless of how IA tackles this topic, many people will believe this is a legitimate and central concern of other fields too.  Second, many of the folk at the earliest meetings on IA actively resisted the notion of IA as primarily concerned with information organization. Instead, these folks (among whom I include myself) have continually argued that, complex as it may be, website organization is far too limiting (and, dare I say it, uninteresting) an issue on which to base a field. For such folks, IA is concerned with more than categorizing, searching and labeling, and, at the very least, must include the range of experiences that a user may have with an information space, be it in the pursuit of commerce, education or entertainment. In so extending IA, this field was always going to be dealing with many of the issues more traditionally tackled by HCI where usability and customer experience have always been of paramount concern.

Part of the difficulty separating such fields as IA and HCI results from the fact that information system design is a complex activity which requires multiple skills that are beyond any one person and one field. Hence we need teams of people, each with slightly different backgrounds to work collectively on the problems, applying methods appropriate to the needs of the project.  Furthermore, the issues of interest in information design are so numerous that they attract diverse disciplines with differing views of the situation and how it can be studied. Couple this with the amount of design that is going on at any one time in the world and it is clear that no one discipline can claim to cover it all and no one set of issues drives all design processes. End result a mix of professionals working together, bringing different skills, training and methods as needed and available to bear on the problem. To attempt to carve one part of this out for IA alone, and to expect to gain agreement from other stakeholders on this carve-up, is a fruitless task in my view and one on which we should not expend too much energy.

I think the time has passed for IA's scope to be reduced to the issues underlying website organization, though obviously such issues will remain part of the field's focus. While we might argue long and hard over appropriate qualifications for the title, there is no doubt that the job ads for IAs contain requirements for skills that closely mirror those of usability engineers or user experience designers. In the age of interdisciplinary studies should this surprise us?

Of course one downside of such overlapping is huge conferences which seem to have a bit of everything but to lack substance in any one area. It reminds me of the old joke psychology students make about how it is possible to place the phrase "the psychology of..." in front of any human activity and produce a credible title for a graduate seminar or textbook. Well, since interaction with computers has become so much part of contemporary life we can see that it is equally possible for people to play the same game by picking any human issue as a preface to the phrase "in human-computer interaction." Thus we get everything from "gender issues in HCI" to "physical stress issues in HCI"; "child development issues" to "alienation issues," etc. I think the ACM SIGCHI conference suffers from this, but then HCI conferences, unlike IA ones, rarely spend much time discussing what their field really is about.

The biggest obstacle to IA becoming a distinct discipline remains its lack of unique methods and theories. It has few, if any, which are not drawn from or based on work in HCI, LIS or CS (if I left out your pet discipline it is only because I cannot remember its acronym). Attempts to position IA as a unique approach, distinct from these others, are unlikely to convince anyone and will certainly disenfranchise certain groups who feel that they perform similar work. Without engaging across disciplines we are going to run straight into them, forming panels at conferences to answer questions that everybody else has long since given up asking.

Hair splitting divides produce splinter groups, not disciplines. IA, as a meta-discipline, should engage and share, not partition. After all, professionals in many camps tend to share the same goals: the design, development and implementation of more humanly acceptable information systems. As long as we are battling to get human-centered design taken seriously, such professionals are all on the same side. And maybe then, and only then, will we design e-books that offer something better than paper.

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