“Nobody needs information architects anymore”
June 4, 2001 11:43 AM   Subscribe

“Nobody needs information architects anymore” “His problem, he figures, is simple: Nobody needs information architects anymore. The entire discipline was overly specialized, a hologram created by temporarily explosive demand for Web-site design, which vanished last year.” (Link sometimes worked and sometimes did not over the course of ten trials in three browsers. ROBMagazine.com → Table of contents → “Crash Test Dummies” will get you there.)
posted by joeclark (21 comments total)
Hm, that link doesn't seem to work. Perhaps this link will..
posted by valerie at 11:49 AM on June 4, 2001

I can't edit this link for some reason (either the weird high ascii characters or the correct URL is just too long), but this URL is working for me.
posted by mathowie at 11:50 AM on June 4, 2001

I read this article last week in the print ROB; didn't know it was online or would have beaten Joe to the punch. :-)

That quote leaped out at me as well. I think it is pretty clear that "information architecture," as a discipline, is still valid. In fact, I expect it to become proportionally more important as Web publishing processes become increasingly automated and less labour-intensive.

The information architect role might not survive as a stand-alone job; I see the function becoming part of a package of responsibilities that a site producer or strategist would have. That is certainly the role I'm filling at the moment. The typical "webmonkey" roll - the person who slaps together static pages - is in more danger in a large site environment.

I didn't like the dot.com boom hype; dot.crash hype isn't any better. Most Web businesses built themselves of foundation of strange planning. I interviewed at a few dot.coms in late-1999 and 2000 and could never shake the idea that no one seemed to know how to run a business. After reading this, I'm glad I finished my MA instead.
posted by tranquileye at 12:16 PM on June 4, 2001

Man, reading that was so depressing. I'm about two months behind the guy in the article who had been spent his savings, been unemployed for six months and was living at his friend's house for free.

I'm in total agreement that IA and its cousins doesn't require a specific job, that it should be something that everyone involved with web sites should have some training and knowledge of. As a developer, I found the individual at one of my previous jobs who took up the mantle of information architecture the least useful, because they were schooled in a million half-baked theories but hadn't actually had any experience building sites -- she was basically a writer that wanted to change her focus by arming herself with new buzzwords.
posted by Big Fat Tycoon at 12:28 PM on June 4, 2001

That's interesting. I used to work for versity (one of the companies discussed in greater depth in the article)...

I was employee number 7 or 8.

They mistakenly called versity.com a San Diego based company - we were from Michigan. And while Dan B. may have been employee number 4, he was most certainly *not* a founder. He may have been there very very early, but it was not his idea, and he had zero controlling interest in the company. The "founders" were three other guys, Jeff, Michael, and Jeremy.

I love it when they get their facts straight.
posted by jaded at 12:37 PM on June 4, 2001

jaded: Thought as much when the article mentioned his stocks were worth 2 mil when the company was valued at 125 mil.

Best quote: "I'm road kill on the information highway."
posted by dithered at 1:09 PM on June 4, 2001

Dot.com hype was media self-service for fat advertising payoffs -- VC vampirism. I still haven't seen or heard anything about business models that will actually work (subscription models? micropayments? puh-leaze) and the simple fact that most of the web is noise destroys what miniscule credibility ad-model sites ever had, while the media conglomerates float to the top -- the only big winners. If there is some new "paradigm" we are just seeing the beginnings of it. Dot-bust is only news because of the casualties. If it bleeds...

IA is a concept, not a way of life. Content & usability are things any webmonkey should be able to manage with a proper database. And I agree that HTML coders shouldn't make six figures, but I'd be happy to oblige. :o)
posted by greensweater at 1:11 PM on June 4, 2001

I could not disagree more. There was a lot of poor business management that had a negative impact on the core of Internet development. Many of the problems tied with the down trend in Web development have nothing to do with the skills that are needed to develop a sound product. People that learned buzz words may have added to the problem, but the concepts behind the buzz words are instrumental in creating a successful information application that creates efficiencies of information flow.

Many of us have gone in and cleaned up the messes created by those that were just programming a *solution* or implementing applications that did not match a companies business patterns. The need for information architects is greater now than before. Why? There are so many poorly implemented applications and business that feel burned by the rush to *e-biznestize* themselves that they did not have the patience to have it done correctly. I am continually dealing with clients that want solutions immediately and the solutions do not make sense for their business. Today there is still a mindset to put something in place, even if it is not exactly right and can not be built upon to scale or used as a foundation to add other components of the business. This short sitedness does not provide a ROI nor happier customers.

Most of the IAs I respect started building sites and programming information applications. Many of realized there is a key missing that helps ensure success and that falls under IA. It may not be an individual role, as it may be integrated into one's responsibility or even shared across many, but IA is needed. The IA takes the business needs / requirements and ties it to how a user would interact with the site or other information application interface.

I am really sorry to find there are talented people who really want to build a better Web. There is still a need for these folks, to build usable, maintainable, reliable, and repeatable applications.
posted by vanderwal at 1:21 PM on June 4, 2001

It seems silly to single out IA here. Sure, there are fewer IA jobs now than there were a year ago -- but there are also fewer HTML jobs, fewer ASP/PHP/CF jobs, fewer "Marketing VP, no experience required" jobs. The entire Web industry has contracted, not just a single field.

There are still lots and lots of working IAs out there. The problem was with startup mania, not the Web business as a whole. I'd guess that there are now more IAs working in established companies than in startups. Of all the services my company offers, IA is the one we've seen the greatest demand for, and we've got no shortage of work.

As for the notion that IA doesn't need to be a distinct job, I've seen too many times the train wreck that results when you don't have somebody focused on these issues. Web sites are only getting more complex, not less -- you can't shrug off the task of managing that complexity as something a project manager or tech lead can just handle along the way.
posted by jjg at 1:35 PM on June 4, 2001

Agreed for the most part, Jesse, but we've done really well with good quality product managers handling the IA and usability (with the exception of one particular issue which I detailed somewhere on these pages or in my blog [can't remember which])...

The key to that of course is "high quality". Having one person focusing on IA is great because it gives you more flexibility in hiring PMs, but the gatekeeper IA role is rarely successful in-house.

Now outsourcing IA...that's a business! ;-)
posted by fooljay at 2:11 PM on June 4, 2001

Errr, the end of the second paragraph above should have read "in my experience." YMMV.
posted by fooljay at 2:13 PM on June 4, 2001

I agree jjg, that the IA is best as a distinct job, it has been difficult to convince clients of its role. You have hit the nail on the head and your news of the demand for services is a great note.
posted by vanderwal at 2:14 PM on June 4, 2001

What IS the core of internet development, once the cocoon falls off? Information retrieval? Order fulfillment? The media channel is where they're dying in droves, unless they're owned by Time-Warner-Disney-Turner-Viacom. I hate that!

But hey, what do I know? This article's sour grapes; a reflection on better times; crying in the beer. But I would think that a solid business plan would have some level of IA built-in... SAP style. 'course, I'm just a webmonkey.
posted by greensweater at 2:33 PM on June 4, 2001

I also had problems sending the article link out to some IA friends of mine. Seems, ROB could benefit from a little IA and QA work on their end. Probably was posted by some web monkey who is doing 4 jobs at once. Irony?
posted by Umpqua at 2:34 PM on June 4, 2001

Have to disagree with Greensweater on usability. Web monkeys don't fully understand usability. If they did, the web would be a whole lot better than it is today. OK, so perhaps companies will outsource usability testing to consultants, but usability as a profession is rock solid. The more we allow designers to create unique interfaces (ala Flash, etc.), the greater call there will be for usability analysis.
posted by fleener at 2:44 PM on June 4, 2001

A decent IA would have made sure that the site with the link had URLs that were easy to bookmark and send to other people. Nuff said.
posted by holgate at 3:16 PM on June 4, 2001

Companies in the Web industry developed like those in a lot of other industries: started out small and semi-profitable and then looked to get big and really profitable through mass production. Jobs got more narrowly focused; people who had been doing a little bit of everything moved into doing just HTML or IA or DB design so that they could be easily (and more cheaply) fit into the product assembly line.

As the big companies in this industry get more rare (at least for now), I wonder what effect this will have on the "assembly line" workforce that they created (and, in turn, what effect will that have on the industry)?
posted by jkottke at 3:36 PM on June 4, 2001

As the big companies in this industry get more rare (at least for now), I wonder what effect this will have on the "assembly line" workforce that they created (and, in turn, what effect will that have on the industry)?

It's something I was thinking about this evening, as I jotted down the webby jobs I've done in the past five years, and the titles associated with them. What I can see is a gap opening out between recruiters' expectations -- not of skills, but the titles attached to them -- and people's experience. So you get firms, desparate to cut costs, wanting someone who can "do everything". And those sorts of people don't really exist any more, because the people who used to be able to do everything -- the one-man site designers, builders and maintainers back in 96/7 -- were forced into management by necessity during the expansion of the industry. And as most of us know, being able to build and maintain a static site that handled Netscape 2.0 is completely different from "doing everything" in 2001.

Are there any small-scale "web boutiques" left, these days?
posted by holgate at 4:00 PM on June 4, 2001

Huh, I'm not so sure I agree that people are looking for generalists these days, at least not in the Bay Area. I've always considered myself one of those "do anything" people and have experience in all facets of the web application life-cycle. But searching around, I see a lot of focused and targeted job titles and descriptions. I have yet to see any position where I can be involved in IA and usability AND backend coding or db design. But then again, I'm not looking very hard because I don't really want a job. ;)
posted by megnut at 4:10 PM on June 4, 2001

I have one of those *do anything* positions covering backend coding, usability, interface development, DB for the interface object store, and IA. The most important part of what I do, in terms of a project's successful outcome is the IA role, but the client wants to skip that and get to the coding and interface first. As soon as we get one client side manager convinced they get replaced with one that wants to code and make it pretty. We are on our fourth manager in 19 months.

I would gladly trade in my *do anything* role for one a little narrower.
posted by vanderwal at 4:56 PM on June 4, 2001

Jesse, I think within a consulting context, on in a large shop, having an IA expert certainly makes sense. I was thinking of my own recent circumstances: medium-sized sites with an internal shop possibly rationalizing and combining the IA role with QC and usability into a producer position.

Regardless, IA is critical.

Holgate, there are still web design boutiques in Montreal, from what I can tell.
posted by tranquileye at 5:00 PM on June 4, 2001

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