Authors: Louis Rosenfeld & Peter Morville
Reviewed by: Simon Wistow
Information Architects are like the Piltdown Man. In the evolutionary tree that contains designers, usability experts and programmers IAs are the missing link between us and our artistic brethren. Concerned with organising data into efficent structures there's a lot programmers can learn from them and since they're often the point of contact when working on large scale websites (if the company you're working with has deigned to hire one) knowledge of the field is as valuable as a web designer knowing about HTML and the workings of HTTP.
The Polar Bear book, first released in 1998 was written by Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville, luminaries in the IA world. As the founders of Argus Associates, a visionary information architecture consultancy, between the two of them they've worked on huge and high profile web sites. This book aims to distil some of that knowledge into one handy dandy 200 page volume.
The book is seperated into 10 chapters. Starting off with a quick guide as to why some web sites work and some don't the book then goes on to define the role and scope of an Information Architects (although, from hanging around on IA mailing lists the exact details of this is one of the great flame wars of the IA world) before diving into the basics of organizing information - the challenges and how web sites and intranets can be coerced into cohesive organisational systems.
From there we plough through the specifics - designing navigational, labelling and search systems - all good stuff which may seem like common sense but, then, doesn't all good advice?
Finally the book rounds off with chapters on researc, conceptual design, how an information architect actually operates 'in the wild' and a case study which does a good job of tying everything together.
Having not read much IA literature and having very little IA experience (for values of 'very little' rapidly approaching none) it's difficult to say whether this a good text from an IA's point of view so I won't. From what I've heard it is very well regarded which is a comfort but this is a group (and their web site) which is, largely, for programmers so it's better for me to do this with my coder's hat on.
The book is obviously written by people who know, and love, what they're talking about. However the structure, fine from the birdseye view of the contents page, sometimes feels a little dijointed in places - not helped by the fact that the tone can swing from being formal to being jocular in the space of a few sentences.
It also suffers from having been written 4 years ago - some of the sites showed in the book are enough to make you wince and it doesn't really tackle more modern issues such as DHTML, CSS, coding for multiple browsers and why people who have Flash splash pages with no skip button should be taken out back and molested by hairy backed baboons.
However, in a special bank holiday gift from our friends in the 'fantastic timing' department, the next edition is due to be published in the next couple of days and it would be fascinating to see how the authors have bought the book up to date (or are they waiting till version three until they iron out all the bugs).
The book is undoubtedly filled with useful information that any programmer would do well to read but there are some problems with it. I was midnful as I was writing this that I had just finished a fantastic book on usability (a closely if not wholey related discipline) before I read 'IA and the WWW' which might have made me look more harshly on it but, even still, I look forward to reading the next edition whenever I get my grubby mitts on it.