Why we need an information architect

Information was once a sought-after and treasured commodity like a fine wine. Now, it’s regarded more like crabgrass, something to be kept at bay. When Information Anxiety was published in 1999, the cry was: less data, more information. But more than a dozen years of exploding quantities of information have elevated us to a higher level. How can we find what we want and tune out the rest?

Living in the Information Age has profoundly altered our lives, and those who fail to recognize that the rules of information design are changing will find themselves left behind. Businesses clamoring for an audience find that it’s harder to be heard. When content streams 24 hours a day from multiple channels, the rules of navigation change.

Designers need to rethink how they can make the journey more meaningful, how humans navigate down the path to understanding and what information designers can do to make the trip more compelling.

The way information is presented in these different channels has yet to be fully explored, which presents both opportunity and catastrophe. The opportunity is that there is so much information; the catastrophe is that 99 percent of it isn’t meaningful or understandable.

No one had even heard of an information architect in 1999. Now a search on Google turns up 817.400.000 results under that term.

Those who shape information for the masses – the media, marketers, designers, writers, information architects – need to rethink the way information is delivered to the masses because people’s information appetites are much more refined.

Where we once went to great lengths in this country to find information – like walking from one town to the next – and we were concerned with not having enough information, now we’re more concerned with winnowing down the amount, even avoiding the constant barrage. A reduced amount of useful information seems preferable to skimming everything possible.

That changes the rules for people who want to be heard, for businesses that want to reach customers.


eToys is just one of the companies that had problems last holiday matching the customer service promises it posts online. Add the likes of macys.com and Petopia.com to the prominent names that snarled customers’ gift-giving this past Christmas.

“You can screw up at Web speed, too,” notes Cal Slemp, director of trust and e-commerce services for IBM Global Services.

To be fair, each of these companies acted in good faith: Each one had policies in place that, for the most part, come straight out of the brick-and-mortar world and match the basic outlines of what e-tail customers should expect. These firms sought to guarantee delivery, accept returns, provide a money-back guarantee, list customer support information (including phone numbers) at easy-to-find spots, and send purchase confirmations (the email equivalent of a customer invoice) to customers. They also addressed e-tail-specific issues of security and privacy.

Still, delivering on these promises proved difficult. A post-holiday survey by Andersen Consulting, for example, indicated that 40 percent of product purchases were not delivered on time.

So how did so many good intentions get trumped over the holiday? What have companies been doing to fix the problems?

Tim Allen, the new can-do vice president of operations brought in from distributor Ingram Micro to untangle Petopia’s back office mess, notes that a deluge of customer orders cascaded through his company’s system. An inundated distribution center hurried to send late packages out. In the rush, overworked warehouse workers mixed up orders. That caused a flood of calls to customer service, which couldnÂ’t handle the volume.

“One thing falls into another,” he says.