Understanding the Evolution of UX: Expanding Upon the Foundation of Information Architecture
by Darren Hood
According to the Apple Fandom Wiki, Don Norman joined Apple in 1993. He had the title “User Experience Architect.” This was the first use of “user experience” in a job title on record. It would be approximately 12–14 years before UX became commonplace in job titles around the globe. Having a history of being holistic in his design approach, Norman already had a glimpse of the future.
Interestingly, the world of UX wasn’t holistic in its views. The first major focus of what we now know as user experience was that of information architecture. Considering the issues associated with the dot-com bust, this was fitting. The low-hanging fruit of findability was the main value proposition of the day. This yielded the first human resources concentration with creative agencies being the first committed adopters of the newly-found discipline.
In conjunction with the erupting demand and discovery, thought leaders in the field began to emerge (or be noticed):
- Richard Saul Wurman’s 1989 book, Information Anxiety, became more popular and served as a go-to resource for those to seeking to learn more about the discipline and its inner workings.
- Wurman also wrote the book “Information Architects,” published in 1997. He was the first to coin the phrase “information architecture.”
- First published in 1998 and currently in its 4th edition, published in 2015, Louis Rosenfield and Peter Morville authored what is arguably the most visible and most popular books on the subject of information architecture. “Information Architecture: For the Web and Beyond” became a staple for many early practitioners of the discipline and has even been used as a textbook for related courses.
- In 2003, the first edition of Christina Wodtke’s “Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web was published. This well-written book was another personal favorite of mine that helped me during the massive early years of self-taught learning experiences. Wodtke was a co-founder of the Information Architecture Institute — one of the first associations dedicated to the well-being and advancement of practitioners. NOTE: Unfortunately, the IAI was dissolved in 2019.
- In 2011, Andrea Resmini and Luca Rosati wrote “Pervasive Information Architecture: Designing Cross-Channel User Experiences.” This book goes above and beyond by including coverage on such topics as multi-channel and cross-channel design efforts and consistency, both of which were not covered as much or with as much attention in the past and are both critical today. They also introduce the concept of “place-making,” which builds upon the IA-related concept of wayfinding.
- In 2014, Abby Covert penned “How to Make Sense of Any Mess,” one of the easiest and most practical reads I have ever had the pleasure of perusing. One of the things I appreciate the most about this work is the holistic thinking reflected in its pages. I feel it does a fantastic job of going beyond the main subject to help challenge people to engage in greater levels of critical thinking.
- Also in 2014, Andrew Hinton’s Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture was published. Like Covert and Resmini and Rosati, this book does a masterful job of delving into topics that provide additional insights into key IA-related topics such as context, perception, cognition, affordance, and the importance of understanding the environment, all of which are critical to optimal user experiences.
As you can see, there is no shortage of quality books covering the subject of information architecture. In addition and contrary to popular belief, IA has not vanished into oblivion, nor is it being ignored en masse as many are assuming.
The work I’m focusing on for the purpose of this post is the little known “Information Architecture: An Emerging 21st Century Profession,” written by Earl Morrogh. This book didn’t just focus on the methods and methodologies associated with information architecture. It expanded by providing some visionary insights, including the following dynamic statement:
“… information architecture design problems are complex, and information architects must draw upon the expertise of multiple disciplines for the successful resolution of IA design problems…. To understand more easily what influences are shaping the evolving IA design process, it is helpful first to know more about: design, structure design process (methods), users, usability, user-centered design….”
How insightful! And how right he was. Again, Morrogh made this statement in 2003. I’ll provide some additional color. Having begun my UX career as a Web designer and an information architect, here’s a list of my observations that will help illustrate how UX has evolved since Morrogh
- Our early and initial efforts were focused on information architecture and its products — nomenclature, taxonomies, and findability. This, coupled with brochure-ware sites sufficed in the earlier days of the Web.
- It became quite obvious that one could not produce sound nomenclatures and taxonomies without considering heuristics and usability.
- Building upon the evolutionary mindset, it became critical to validate design direction through formative and summative research methods and methodologies.
- Elements of interaction design naturally integrated into workflows. After all, if there is an interface, there will be interaction; hence, best practices associated with interaction design needed to be considered in order to optimize experiences.
After observing this evolutionary expanse, I eventually created an illustration that I call “The Landscape of UX” (shown, below). I have learned that while true and pure UX has indeed evolved, it does not dismiss prior methods and methodologies, but (as Morrogh states) builds upon and interweaves additional components with four main pillars serving as its understructure:
- Information Architecture
- UX Research
- Interface & Interaction Design
Those learning UX without being properly exposed to the pillars are experiencing gross omission.
Today, UX has come full circle and is more akin to Don Norman’s earlier vision, being broader and more holistic, taking several factors into consideration to drive the discipline’s value. We started focusing predominantly on information architecture, but just as Morrogh predicted, other aspects of what we now know as UX have naturally integrated into our processes and workflows.
While UX has indeed evolved, it’s quite unfortunate that many have not or simply have not been exposed to or embrace the more foundational elements of the discipline. In addition, the TRUE evolution of UX did not and has not done away with the previously prominent tenets. Information architecture IS STILL RELEVANT. Omit it and you sacrifice its main product—findability.
NOTE: You may experience people in 2021 with the title of UX writer doing things that are the responsibility of an information architect (e.g., working on navigation nomenclature and working on proper structuring of calls-to-action). Don’t buy into that hype. Those are and have always been the job of the information architect. And most information architect responsibilities have become the responsibility of today’s UX Designers or UX Architects. I challenge people to review the job responsibilities of the UX writer. I’ll talk more about this faux pas another time.
One can be a researcher, an interface designer, or an interaction designer, but it is a matter of time and a natural progression to begin incorporating other aspects of UX into one’s work.
Have you evolved today? And where do you stand when it comes to pure UX?
Darren Hood is a 26+ year UX practitioner with a broad professional footprint that spans several types of business. He serves as an adjunct professor at Kent State University (Kent, Ohio), Lawrence Tech University (Southfield, Michigan), and Harrisburg University (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania). He is also one of the authors featured in “97 Things Every UX Practitioner Should Know.”