Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Information Architecture and Web 2.0

In Dan Brown’s article "Information Architecture 2.0", he discusses the particular challenges that Web 2.0 presents to information architects. Web 2.0, a phrase coined by O'Reilly Media in 2004, refers to a second generation of Internet-based services, such as social networking sites, wikis, communication tools, and folksonomies, that emphasize online collaboration and sharing among users. Since users are more comfortable and trusting of online content, they are more willing to publish content and share personal information. They see the Internet as a virtual space for collaboration to rate, review, comment, tag, and blog. Additionally, Web 2.0 is ideal for “remixing” content. For instance, users can combine different content sources, allow other users to see their content source, and enable content and services to be mixed. The information architect must be able to think more abstractly while structuring online content in light of this increased user participation.

Brown targets three Web 2.0 features and questions how information architects can better facilitate their structure and use. The new challenges facing information architects are users expecting more control over information management (exemplified by RSS), large and dynamic information spaces (exemplified by wikis), and unstructured metadata (exemplified by tagging).

For RSS feeds like Bloglines, the structure is primarily chronological, based on updates as they occur, and inherently dynamic. Potential for interesting organization and use of RSS is just beginning. Brown asks if there should there be recommendations, filters, or archives for content. What else could information architects do to enhance the RSS feed experience and make information retrieval easier for users?

The advent of wikis, says Brown, “present[s] the information architect’s ultimate challenge: a virtual information space with no structure, to which anyone can contribute.” Although the most popular wiki, Wikipedia, does not have an information architect, the user community fills the role. Taking user participation to the next level, do we foresee Web 3.0 pushing users beyond creating content to becoming information architects themselves? Although there is some structure in Wikipedia, it is minimal: the categories are extemporaneous and the search feature is used much more than the subject taxonomy. Information architects will have to create frameworks for capturing content using standard formats and displaying the content categories.

Tagging turns traditional metadata on its ear: instead of adding structure to content, tagging is unstructured metadata. In this context, information architects must determine which projects would benefit from tagging, weighing the benefits of tagging against the problems of unstructured metadata. Additionally, they would have to design systems that leverage tagging with some type of structure.

Brown writes that, “The consequent explosion of content and functionality on the Web and the new ways in which we're making use of Web content has recast the role of the information architect.” Information architecture is moving away from taking set content, categorizing it, then creating a site. Instead, it is more about creating an experience of interaction with users. Web 2.0 sites have structures, but there is less design in the fine detail and the use of classification and less reliance on strict taxonomies. User classification through tagging structures the information to some extent. Web 2.0 sites are a cross between an application and a “traditional” website; there is both content and interaction. Information architects will not have to focus on the progression of the web pages so much as the interaction between the data and the user in the application. Additionally, user involvement and participation in the site must be viewed as just as important as the authoritative content. This can be done through tagging, creating the content itself, or creating a social network.

Brown argues that the information architect must now think about the “higher-level structures that create an overall information framework for a site.” If Web 2.0 creates a network that values participation, there is a clear need for structure to lend meaning to participation. Information architects must lead the efforts to define that structure and collaborate with graphic designers and interaction designers to make sure that structure is clearly communicated to users.

Web 2.0 is dynamic and interactive with user-generated online content. and the popularity of RSS feeds, wikis, and tagging will continue to grow. Information architects must find ways to help structure and present user-created content in an organized and usable way. While a majority of information architecture work is done by people who are not information architects, the specialists do play a role in building the community and advancing the discipline. Web 2.0 will continue to bring more challenges, more opportunities, and more work to information architects.

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