A disturbing trend in UX books?

This morning, Karl (a professor who teaches both HCI and Information Architecture) handed me a semi-recently published textbook (2012) that he said he thought might be able to finally serve as a comprehensive text book that could be assigned to students in the program where he teaches.

I looked at the book with a lot of enthusiasm as I also teach and mentor in the UX field and have also longed for The Book that could become the seminal textbook as opposed to the (relatively large) assortment of books that currently need to be recommended to really cover the bases.

At first glance this book (The UX Book by Rex Hartson and Pardha Pyla) looks wonderful–it is obviously written by authors with deep expertise, I love that it is geared to active learning with the inclusion of exercises, it is thoughtfully organized. As I scanned through the table of contents an alarm bell went off in my mind, however–how could a book purporting to be a comprehensive guide to designing effective user experiences (which primarily still means designing effective user interfaces) fail to include information architecture? Thinking that perhaps the topic would be embedded in the text I checked the index for “information architecture” and for “navigation”–no mentions in the index for either. This strikes me as an egregious oversight.

Some books on the topic don’t use the term “information architecture” but they still delve deeply into organization, navigation, content strategy, and other critical elements that information architecture encompasses. I’m always disappointed when the term “information architecture” isn’t used, as I consider it the best and most widely understood term for capturing this unique set of components–but a rose by any other name still smells as sweet, so I can cope without the term as long as the concepts are there. I don’t think that is really the case with this text, however. There is a (thin) chapter on mental models that imperfectly and partially covers this territory–and that is about it.

In reality, this book is an extensive usability evaluation techniques book (and from that aspect it appears to be a very good one) that also includes information on user research techniques and a chapter on prototyping. This is not a comprehensive user experience design text and I would not recommend it as a comprehensive text given that such critical content is absent.

Karl acknowledged that it is troubling that IA is missing in both name and form but encouraged me to appreciate that the book is pretty good at everything else it covers and great at many. I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but that seems a bit like saying that we should appreciate an anatomy text for its brilliant coverage of the skeleton, muscles, and organs, and overlook the fact that the cardiovascular system is missing.

At this point Karl pulled out two other books he’s been considering for texts, Inventing the Medium by Janet Murray and User Experience Re-mastered by Chauncy Wilson (someone he knows I respect). As with The UX Book, neither of these use the word information architecture. (The Murray text covers pretty much the full suite of concepts I would consider important from an information architecture perspective but she includes them all under the label interaction design; I think the most important thing is for the topics to be covered, so my beef with this book would be more one of semantics than content.) I found myself looking at the stack of books with a certain amount of consternation.

I don’t think this is just a case of sour grapes from someone who specializes in information architecture complaining that my pet area isn’t getting enough attention. In the majority of interface evaluations I conduct, broken or sub-par information architecture is a significant problem–and this happens in websites, intranets, software and applications. Some organizations are aware that they have information architecture issues and they reach out to user experience designers with expertise in IA, but many organizations are not able to articulate that information architecture is an issue, although sometimes they are able to target navigation or labeling or organization among their pain points.

If the professionals who are being educated (either formally or self-directed) in User Experience are not encountering information architecture in the books that are attempting to broadly define and describe User Experience design we can hardly blame them if this is a blind-spot or weakness in their work, (and perhaps this is yet another reason we still encounter so many interfaces where the IA emerged organically as a cobbled together after-thought or emerged from the haphazard directory structure in the CMS).

The Information Architecture Summit is coming up and I will definitely be eager to poll other IA-oriented professionals as to whether they perceive this to be as significant a concern as I do or whether I’m  making a mountain out of a mole-hill.

3 thoughts on “A disturbing trend in UX books?

  1. Kai Turner

    The UX community has been flooded with so many come-latelys from other disciplines, that I believe there’s a UX bubble.

    I think the smart move, actually, is to double-down on Information Architecture– it’s a strong discipline and it will endure the UX practice being increasingly muddied.

  2. Andrew Hinton

    IA as a rubric for an actual discipline has been under-championed for a while, but that is turning around. Unfortunately, in the meantime, it’s become (colloquially) associated with just a bunch of methods you can learn in a workshop or two, and a worldview that many assume is out-dated “Web 1.0” page/browser-centric.
    I keep pointing people to the Pervasive IA book, and Morville’s Ambient Findability as an early, visionary entry into the more expansive view of what IA is relevant for.
    A meme I’m working on pushing is that “language is infrastructure” — it connects everything together, makes everything from business rules to interfaces have meaning. Place-making, sense-making, etc… these are extremely important issues that are being largely overlooked.
    So, thanks for putting this out there. And if you get a chance, try to participate in this:

  3. Mike Atherton

    Andrew must surely win points for saying ‘rubric’. I have noticed this disturbing trend too, as focus on IA shifts toward UX, and interests align more with Gladwell than Ranganathan. Perhaps it just has better marketing. In our cross-platform, context-sensitive, big-data-driven, adaptive-content world we need solid information architecture more than ever. Yes, we also need persuasion, seduction, frictionless interaction – all that good stuff – to go beyond usability into the frontier of motivation, but content – information is the whole damn point, and who better to tame the roots and branches of knowledge than an information architect?


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