February 2005

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IA vs. UX

The title to this entry is oversimplified, but it addresses the issue of whether or not “User Experience” as an umbrella discipline of sorts contains IA and all the other things that are related to the new kinds of design we’re all doing for the internet and elsewhere.

In my company, somebody ran across this article by Peter Boersma (at peterboersma.com), and asked what we thought.

I dashed off a reply that sort of fell out of my head, so it’s not entirely refined, but it’s just the same thing I’ve been obsessing about and digging away at for a long while now. I wonder if I’m insane, or if this make sense to anyone else?? Here’s what I wrote.

I still think that the internet has added a new paradigm to design that isn’t covered by traditional disciplines. Until the last decade, nobody had to think about massively populated environments where everything is made of language, and documents are places and vice versa. It’s the shaping of *that* kind of space that necessitates a new kind of architecture, one that isn’t so much concerned with how the thing looks or what statement it makes artistically, but with more emphasis on function.

What we need is a discipline that combines urban planning, civil engineering and “architecture” all within networked electronic environments. If there is another discipline that does this, then I’ll start calling myself after that discipline. But for now I use “information architecture.”

My issue with bundling all of this within “user experience” is that “user experience” puts emphasis on the singular “user” as well as the idea of a received/perceived “experience” — this lends itself to being more about interfaces for individual users involved in specific, solitary tasks.

But the internet has made necessary an approach to design that looks beyond these specific user experiences to the collective experience, which is truly a whole greater than the sum of its parts. This is why Metcalfe’s Law is so important: the usefulness, or utility, of a network equals the square of its users. Why not just the sum of its users? Because with each additional user, the potential for synthesis increases exponentially.

The internet changes what we mean when we say “space” and “time” and “community” — I just don’t see how serially adding together all the various disciplines that have become involved in internet-related design covers this sea change.

One thing my point does, however, is draw a boundary around information architecture that defines it as internet-related (or massive networked electronic environment related — our intranet is technically not ‘on the internet’ but it’s definitely the same order of being). A lot of IA people don’t like that, and want to say that IA is about everything. That’s where it gets watered down, though. If you’re talking about all the old orders of reality, then yeah — there are many lovely disciplines and traditions that have been designing for those orders of reality for generations. The necessity for IA is internet-specific.

This is an excellent overview of the insidious logic behind all these otherwise silly sounding obsessions.

Zero Tolerance, by The Plaid Adder – Democratic Underground