So You Want to be an Information Architect?

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by Charles Roe

In March 2011, the innovative architect Thomas Heatherwick presented some of his company’s newest projects at TED, especially his design for the Seed Cathedral, the UK’s 2010 World Expo pavilion. His TED talk focused on the idea of creating buildings that have materiality and soulfulness like smaller objects such as beads and musical instruments, rather than the often soulless box-shaped monstrosities of most modern urban settings.  Mr. Heatherwick and his pioneering group of developers, designers, landscape artists, and engineers bring imagination and a desire to breathe life into an industry that is so often controlled only by the digital T-square and straight, utilitarian designs.

In the early years of the World Wide Web, the title of Information Architect (IA) was often synonymous with webmaster – they went hand-in-hand with each other, and if not the same individual, they worked together. The webmaster or team of webmasters would create and control the environment, while the IAs would ponder the interactions of the all the pages and inherent information of the site. IAs would design a tree structure to show how the information of the site would be presented in various degrees of complexity:

IAs were also the creators of software navigational schemes, intranets, and other information communities, but not to the degree they are today. According to Peter Morville:

“Information architects are inveterate systems thinkers. In the Web’s early days, we were the folks who focused less on pages than on the relationships between pages. Today, we continue to design organization, navigation, and search systems as integral parts of the whole. Of course, the context of our practice has shifted. Increasingly, we must design for experiences across channels. Mobile and social are just the beginning. Our future-friendly, cross-channel information architectures need to address the full spectrum of platforms, devices, and media.”

In 2007, the Information Architecture Institute defined Information Architecture as “the art and science of organizing and labeling websites, intranets, online communities and software to support usability.” In the Fall 2011 issue of The Journal of Information Architecture Andrea Resmini and Luca Rosati expanded the definition as “[I]nformation architecture (IA) is a professional practice and field of studies focused on solving the basic problems of accessing, and using, the vast amounts of information available today.”

Such definitions contain the possibility for IAs to be involved in organizing the structural designs of webpages and other interactive services as well as creating navigational platforms. But when expanded beyond their traditional spheres, as is common in many organizations today, IAs also work with organizing the architectures of legacy relational systems, newly integrated data warehouses and recent non-relational, unstructured and semi-structured systems. The definitions also comprise Metadata systems, the creation of ontologies and taxonomies, Data Governance, Master Data, Data Quality, development processes, Data Modeling, the alignment of business and IT silos, and essentially any organizational process that contains information from the smallest email field in a relational database to the highest conceptual level enterprise process. This does not mean that all IAs are Enterprise Information Architects, but certainly the career path exists.

Big Architecture

In a recent white paper titled “Oracle Information Architecture: An Architect’s Guide to Big Data,” Oracle claimed that:

“Information Architecture is perhaps the most complex area of IT. It is the ultimate investment payoff. Today’s economic environment demands that business be driven by useful, accurate, and timely information.”

Such a claim would seem to take the above-mentioned definitions and expand them far beyond the traditional spheres of control for most IAs. Such is the case with the ever-increasing demands of Big Data, social networking, Unstructured Data and the new world of Data Management where gigabytes became terabytes and have now become petabytes and exabytes. Information Architects are the masters of information; they understand the vast complexities inherent in making information accessible and understandable to those who require it when they require it.

The traditional silo approach to Enterprise Architecture is changing; business processes must be tied to IT processes: businesses seek to associate their data demands (both Big Data and standard relational warehouses) with identifiable business practices; they want to create systems of integrated standards and Data Governance across all levels; they want to align all their data systems together rather than having disparate structured and unstructured areas; they want to assure that all enterprise knowledge is easily accessible to everyone throughout the organization in easily navigated and optimized systems; they need a much more organic architecture whereby all the elements are working in concert rather than a cubical-like system where all elements are disparate and closed off from one another.

The contemporary world of data now requires IAs to work side-by-side with Data Scientists, Developers, Business Analysts, Software Designers, Data Modelers and everyone else within an enterprise to cultivate the architectural systems that allow all those petabytes to be profitably collected, analyzed, and used by the corporation. Enterprises need Mr. Heatherwick’s Seed Cathedral much more now than simple schematic trees. Information Architects are central elements in cultivating such a design.

What does it take to be an Information Architect?

The job of IA is defined so differently within any given organization that one IA may be a working on an organization’s webpage structure while another may be mapping conceptual level business processes within a multi-national enterprise. But having the standard skill set for any IA is a necessity.

  1. The Basics of IA: A good understanding of model information structures, data gathering requirements, user needs and behaviors, organizational platforms, labeling techniques, and creation and use of navigational systems are all important. General knowledge of controlled vocabularies, faceted classification, and techniques of knowledge sharing are also necessary.
  2. Programming Skills: While any form of programming knowledge, including C/C++, Java, PHP, Ruby, Perl, Python, XML, HTML and others is vital and for most positions a requirement, IAs must also have clear experience in coding and creating site maps, wireframes, understand object-oriented programming, and have skills in full-lifecycle software development.
  3. Relevant Methodologies: IAs need to be at minimum familiar with many of the methodologies they could be working with, such as the Zachman Framework, TOGAF, Information Technology Service Management (ITSM), and many others that could arise during an interview. A solid background in Data Modeling and such concepts as UML, ORM diagrams, ERwin, Agile and different schema is necessary.
  4. Distributed Computing Systems and Tools: IAs do not need to be non-relational systems experts, but a good understanding of the modern world of Big Data is important. A background in various NoSQL/non-relational systems and tools such as  MapReduce, sharding, distributed caching, Memcache etc, along with the ability to discuss some of the leading tools such as Hadoop/HBase, Cassandra, Redis, Riak and a host of others is only going to make the IAs skill set stronger going into the future.
  5. Relational Databases: Since the world of relational databases is not going to disappear even in the wake of Big Data, IAs still need a strong familiarity with the various relational/SQL-based systems as well as specifics involving queries, DML, data types, extensions, and controls among others.
  6. Education: More colleges and universities are offering degrees in Information Architecture, including Kent State, University of Baltimore, University of California – Berkeley, Georgia Tech and Iowa State University. The Information Architecture Institute has an extensive listing of programs worldwide on their website. If a specific degree in Information Architecture is not possible, then a related field such as Computer Science, Graphic Design, as well as experience (or a degree) in Marketing or Business is preferred. Most upper level jobs prefer a Master’s Degree. Further certifications in web design, content management systems, knowledge management, and various data management certifications such as those from DAMA International add strength to any resume.
  7. Business Operations: A proven track record and understanding of business processes and structures is of the utmost importance for most IAs in today’s IT world. IAs work with business users and are integral in the design and implementation of software systems and other platforms used within organizations, so a solid understanding of the business side of an organization.

Information Architects are a key to success for any enterprise, they understand the flow of information, they design the information systems used in businesses, and they are key players in the interaction between information and users both internally and externally. The traditional barriers between business processes and IT functions are breaking down or have already broken in many firms, and those still hanging onto old practices are finding themselves left behind in the new world where legacy silos are more than just hindrances, but real threats to organizational success. In this new world of integrated business functionality, IAs are prime players.

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