The emerging field of Information Architecture (IA) concerns itself with the structure, organization, labeling, and navigation of content in information systems. Its practitioners historically come from two different camps: library science or graphic design. Library Science (sometimes renamed to Information Science or Knowledge Management in certain schools) has curation and classification of content at its core. Graphic Design is a creative process that focuses on communication and presentation. Each field has played an important role in the development of the internet, specifically in the construction of websites.
I approach IA from a background in Rhetoric via Technical Communication. At our core, technical communicators have a more holistic view of the web as discourse. We understand how to summarize the instances of our work by audience, intention, and context. The classical and modern rhetorical tradition has served western civilization well for centuries by giving all of us a framework for the evaluation of effective discourse. The study of language, especially the social life of language, also helps in understanding the effectiveness of any communication event, especially the interaction between humans and computers.
In addition to its rhetorical roots, Technical Communication as a discipline adds evaluative criteria such as practicality, usefulness, utility, and usability to its purview. Technical Communicators create real documents for real people, therefore the evaluation of effectiveness isn’t merely academic or hypothetical. Instead, whether or not a document works for the intended audience and situation is a real concern and has real consequences for technical communicators.
This is why technical communicators make great information professionals, especially information architects. We’re qualified to evaluate an online document as discourse and are necessarily concerned with design and structure as well as the content itself. These elements combined construct a new language—perhaps even a new rhetoric—one that is inherently digital.
In both my academic and professional careers I’ve focused considerable time on the subject and practice of information architecture, even before I knew what it was called. As a web professional, I’ve been designing and developing websites for well over a decade. I started down this path when I converted a large, structured print document to online. Printed materials have an interactive experience that most people don’t ever consider because it rarely gets in the way of usability. The act of flipping pages back and forth to navigate through information has been an instinctual and elementary task for centuries. Crafting interactive experiences online however has a much shorter history of mere decades, and the conventions we so take for granted in the printed realm are still taking shape online.
So my early interest in hypertext led me to study technical communication and therefore rhetoric. While in the Master of Arts program in the Department of Rhetoric I’ve always been able to apply what I’ve learned to the online context. This section of my portfolio features my work in both doing the work of information architecture and evangelizing that work to others.
Maintaining the information architecture for ualr.edu is a busy job. One key component is homepage navigation. The homepage is considered the front door to any university web presence, and it must be all things to all people. I often describe the homepage audiences as constituencies because each group is represented by an office or offices on campus who advocate and lobby for certain links. I wrote this post to explain as best I could the structure of the homepage and why the navigation is structured the way it is.
The political nature of maintaining the information architecture of ualr.edu was also the topic of an award-winning presentation I gave at a national Higher Education Web Professionals Association conference. I wanted to start out by outlining the general principles of information architecture and explaining how these techniques were activities that web professionals do all the time, even if they had no knowledge of the discipline. But then I talk about the need for transparency when making potentially divisive changes to IA.