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Book review: Information Architecture for the World Wide Web »

FERDY CHRISTANT - OCT 8, 2009 (07:49:16 AM)

Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, also called the "Polar Book" was what appeared to me as a classic work in the field of information architecture. It is mentioned everywhere you look for this topic and shows on top of Amazon's ranking system, backed by more than a hundred overwhelmingly positive reviews. It appeared to me as a good investment to introduce myself to this field. Although I do not have the ambition to become an information architect, I figure it never hurts to broaden my view on web design and development.

It is quite easy for me to tell whether I like a book or not. When I like it, I look forward to reading more and typically finish it in a few weeks, sometimes a single week. When I don't like it, I find myself excuses not to continue reading. Well, it took me over 6 months to read this to the end.

The book surely is comprehensive and I do not doubt that the information in it is correct and backed by solid experience, it is a classic work after all. Nevertheless, I found it's comprehensiveness to be it weakest point. My expectations were to have a book with a small introduction into the field, followed by practical tips and guidelines on how to do IA. Instead, you really have to go dig for the gems, as most of it is surrounded by fluffy chapters explaining how to sell IA in your organization, how to form an IA team, how to deal with ethics, how to form a business strategy, how to educate yourself in the field, and the list goes on. Where the subtitle of the book "Designing large scale websites" hints at an emphasis on actual design, the book seems to be about everything except design. 

In those rare cases where things actually got specific, the author leaves you with an answer like "it depends". I was also highly surprised that appearantly in this field there is a lack of any standards in documenting information architectures, it's all seems to be a matter of using Visio to draw blocks and arrows, freely mixing entities such as navigation, pages, actions, users, etc. The kind of architecture you CEO would design. I expected this area to be mature, specifically considering IA having a strong library science background. After a few hundred pages of introduction I expected to see the gems, some real IA craftmanship. Instead, I found Visio, common sense and "it depends".

In the author's defense, he does acknowledge how information architecture is a new field, and surely he can't be blamed for the state of the industry. Also, he does provide some solid theory on things that were new to me, such as vocabularies and there are quite a few good case studies at the end of the book.

All in all this is a solid book, comprehensive and correct. Unfortunately, it is too fluffy, vague and impractical. I would only recommend this book to people who actually want to become an information architect, not to someone passing by to pick up a new skill or looking for practical tips on how to apply information architecture to their own work.

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