Why Do Information Architects Need Web Development Skills?
“Get well-rounded individuals. Go for quick-learning generalists over ingrained specialists…. We’ll never hire someone who’s an information architect. It’s just too overly specific. With a small team like ours, it doesn’t make sense to hire people with such a narrowly defined skillset.”—from Getting Real 
This quote is from Getting Real, the popular book on how to build a successful Web application, which goes on to say, “Small teams need people who can wear different hats” and “Everyone should have an idea about how to architect information (whatever that may mean).”  These are controversial statements, but I suspect that many information architects (IAs) would agree that there’s some truth in them.
Within the information architecture community, there’s an awareness that IAs need to avoid becoming precious about what they’re prepared to do; that they need to be ready and able to get involved in activities beyond the basic information architecture work of organization, labeling, and navigation. The question is: how much more should they be able to do and in what areas?
Donna Spencer  suggests that, in addition to defining information architectures, many information architects also “do strategy, content writing, interaction design, and production.” So it’s not just in the area of Web skills that IAs need to be flexible.
But what about Web skills? Which would be the most useful and why? In this article, I’ll suggest the Web development skills that I think would make IAs most employable. My proposals earn’t based on a formal study, but on my understanding of the field of information architecture and on informal communications with former students and potential employers.
Of course, metadata and Webometrics are of central and growing importance to all aspects of Web development in general and information architecture in particular. However, these topics are beyond the scope of this article.
Some Pragmatic Proposals
My proposals are pragmatic and take into account the fact that many graduates with a Masters in Information Architecture will end up in roles in which they’ll design some information architectures, but that may not be their main focus. I’ve also attempted to take into account the broad range of backgrounds and technical abilities among typical students in information architecture programs.
For example, the ENS-Lyon Masters “is open to students from all disciplines … also available as part of continuing professional development to: persons performing managerial functions wishing to acquire expertise in both IT and digital documentation; persons performing technical functions and wishing to move into positions of engineer or project manager in information architecture.”  While this is very broad, teachers of information studies / science are familiar with trying to convey technical Web development skills to students with very varied technical abilities. Most of the time, it works; sometimes it doesn’t. What I’m proposing won’t suit all students, so flexibility is necessary. My proposals also assume that a student is studying for a Masters degree in Information Architecture rather than just taking a single information architecture course in a larger program of study.
But HTML5 has exploded beyond those bounds. Its focus is no longer static markup. HTML5 is highly dynamic, highly interactive, and often, highly social and collaborative. Although HTML5 is a lot bigger and more complex than XHTML, in some ways, HTML5 is easier than XHTML. No longer having to explain HTML4 or XHTML doctypes will be a relief to many teachers. Choosing to continue designing Web sites the way we always have would be business as usual, but would miss the point of HTML5 and related Web standards and ignore their potential. Old approaches to Web development are really not what we should be teaching the next generation of IAs. Instead, we should be promoting the use of related Web standards, including the following:
- Web Workers
- Drag and Drop
- File API
- Connectivity: Web Socket/Server-Sent Events/PeerConnection
- Geo Location
- Web Storage, IndexedDB, Web SQL Database
- Web Audio
- Full-screen Web Components (HTML Templates, Custom Elements, Shadow DOM, HTML Imports)
- CSS—FlexBox, Animations, Web Fonts, Multi-column, transformations and transitions, regions and exclusions, media queries, calc()
- Microdata, form fields, form validation
- Web Intents
- Canvas, WebGL, advanced SVG & SMIL support
- EventSource <menu>, <meter>, <progress>
IA as Change Agent
The best IAs are change agents, helping others to move forward. If they’re to adopt this role, IAs must be completely au fait with what’s possible in Web site design. HTML5 is—and should be—a huge challenge for everyone in Web development. The world of Web development is changing exponentially. Inevitably, some people are going to be left behind. The challenge is to ensure that the students emerging from academic information architecture programs earn’t among this group.
It’s not just the IAs who must up their game. HTML5 is a challenge for everyone in Web design and development. For example, visual designers have, in the past, concentrated on how things look. But with new, highly interactive Web pages, they’re going to have to extend their focus to how things behave. In other words, their role is morphing into that of interaction designers. Indeed, as the number of skills that Web development requires increases, fewer and fewer organizations will be able to afford a different member of staff to cover each role. So every employee has to wear even more hats than they do at present. (Having said this, I would not suggest that IAs take on the role of project managers—or, in agile parlance, Scrum Masters. In most cases, that wouldn’t be the best use of an IA’s skills.)
If an IA understands this sea-change in the roles of Web sites and applications, as well as Web development team members, they can support and advise other members of their team, leading the team toward the use of more dynamic interactions. IAs should sufficiently understand the potential of HTML5 that they can at least suggest to developers and visual designers what is possible for them to achieve. Alternatively, they should be able to work constructively with interaction designers, if the team includes someone with that title. You might think that all of this is someone else’s job, but it’s impossible to separate the information architecture from the way users interact with it. And, as I mentioned before, we need to be pragmatic and train IAs to be as flexible and useful—and therefore, as employable—as possible.