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2.2. Who Should Be the Information Architect?

The information architect of a large, complex web site should be two things: someone who can think as an outsider and be sensitive to the needs of the site's users, and at the same time is enough of an insider to understand the site's sponsoring organization, its mission, goals, content, audiences, and inner workings. In terms of disciplinary background, the information architect should combine the generalist's ability to understand the perspectives of other disciplines with specialized skills in visualizing, organizing, and labeling information. As it's very difficult for someone to retain all of these characteristics, you'll have to make some compromises, but it's important to consider them as you search for that elusive information architect.

2.2.1. Thinking Like an Outsider

Because information architecture is largely about the big picture view of the organization, its goals, and its politics, a logical choice for the architect role is a senior person who knows the organization as a whole and who isn't involved exclusively within the activities of one department. A senior person can often think like an outsider even though being on the inside, and has enough clout to enlist other departments' resources when necessary. One drawback to choosing a senior level manager is that he or she may have so many other responsibilities that the work gets delegated out to staff, thereby negating the original goal of using a single, organizationally savvy person.

Another approach is bringing in a true outsider: a new hire or a consultant (we typically function in the latter role, but we are trying to avoid biasing our discussion too greatly). The great thing about outsiders is that they can get away with asking naive questions considered suicidal by insiders, such as "Why does your organization have two completely separate order fulfillment departments? The web site will confuse users if they can order products in two different, unresolved ways. Are there any politics going on here that we can get past to improve the site's design?"

Further, an outsider can ensure that the organization chart isn't the site's architecture, and challenge confusing orgspeak labels: "`Total Quality Product Dissemination Systems'? Oh, you mean `Product Shipping Options.'" The drawbacks of bringing in a true outsider are that they can be expensive and can lack sufficient knowledge of the organization to do the job, thus delaying the project's progress.

2.2.3. Disciplinary Background

Since information architecture is a relatively new field, you can't just post a job description and expect a flock of interested, competent, and experienced candidates to show up on your doorstep. Instead, you'll need to actively recruit, outsource, or perhaps become the information architect for your site. If you are looking for someone else, you might consider the disciplines listed below as potential sources. If you're on your own, it might be worthwhile to learn a little bit about each of these disciplines yourself. Or, if possible, find someone knowledgeable about them to work with you and complement your own expertise. In either case, remember that no single discipline is the obvious source for information architects; each presents its own strengths and weaknesses.

2.2.3.6. Computer science

Programmers and computer specialists bring an important skill to information architecture, especially to architecting information from the bottom up. For example, often a site requires a database to serve the content; this minimizes maintenance and data integrity problems. Computer scientists have the best skills for modeling content for inclusion in a database. However, unlike librarians or usability engineers, computer scientists aren't necessarily trained in user-centered approaches to designing information systems.

So, an information architect might come from one of many different disciplines. He or she will certainly need to know at least a little about every type of expertise involved in the entire web site design and development process, because his or her work will affect every part of the process. The architect also needs to be the keeper of the big picture as this process unfolds and the details of design and production become the main focus of all involved.

Perhaps the most important quality in an information architect is the ability to think outside the lines, to come up with new approaches to designing information systems. The Web provides many opportunities to do things in ways that haven't been done before. Many sites are pushing the envelope of design, architecture, and technology. While it's tempting to create a site that mirrors the same old things that an organization already does in other media (e.g., product brochures, annual reports), this approach could severely damage your site's chances for success. If a site doesn't rise to the occasion for its users, it won't fare well in head-to-head competition with other sites. This medium is more competitive than any other. One click, and a site becomes one of thousands that the user visits once but never returns to. It's the responsibility of the architect more than anyone else to prevent this outcome and ensure that the user encounters a site designed to take best advantage of the medium.



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