Web Development Skills for Information Architects
Published: June 23, 2014
Some information architects can merely propose information architectures, but the most useful information architects have skills that enable them to be actively involved in Web development.
What Web skills does a good information architect need? In this article, I’ll propose a set of Web skills that a graduate with a Masters in Information Architecture would ideally possess.
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.
Learning Web Development Skills
So, in practice, what does this mean for the syllabus of a Masters in Information Architecture?
- HTML5 and CSS3 markup
- the standards in the HTML5 family
Course 1: HTML5 and CSS3 Markup
This module should also cover the basic tenets behind HTML: document hierarchy, how to identify that hierarchy through markup, how to document hierarchies using trees, the separation of presentation and content, and building content for reuse. Focusing on these tenets in this course ensures that the students build transferable skills that will outlive the current versions of popular Web code editors.
Of course, familiarity with a Web code editor is useful—particularly if the use of that editor is ubiquitous—such as for Dreamweaver, which has a sufficiently steep learning curve that it’s helpful to have spent time getting to know it before using it in a work setting. But, in my experience, if you want to ensure a deep understanding of HTML and CSS, there just isn’t time to include how to use a Web code editor in the same five-credit course. Besides, students often can’t resist using such an editor to avoid having to come to grips with the complexities of markup. So, if you want to cover editors, do it in a separate course.
For those of us who have been teaching HTML for years, it’s tempting to save time by simply tacking a lecture on HTML5 onto an XHTML course. But doing this would prevent your teaching HTML5 as a coherent whole. Of course, it’s also important for students to appreciate where HTML5 has come from, and they will likely need to understand and edit legacy documents in earlier versions of HTML and XHTML.
Course 3: Related Web Standards
The third of our three Web-development skills courses should provide the expertise that would allow IAs to discover the potential of the continually evolving family of Web standards. Earlier, I listed some of the main non-markup specifications in the HTML5 family. They’re all essentially client-based standards. So this course could focus on client-based standards rather than server-side development. Next, I’ll describe just a few examples that show the potential of these standards.
It is important for IAs to understand the WebGL standard because it is central to the development of the next generation of realistic 3D games and visualizations. The move from Flash to HTML5 is happening at a fast rate. For a short period, we’ll still need to develop shims in Flash for browsers that do not support HTML5. But, in general, new information architects can simply skip the Flash generation.
HTML5 Web sites can store large amounts of data in the client. For example, Google Calendar lets users access calendar events even when they’re disconnected from the Web. This new local-storage capability is a big change from the model to which Web developers have been accustomed until now, where any user data generally gets uploaded to the server.
Web applications that remain useful even when they’re disconnected from the Web are becoming increasingly important with the growth of tablets. Indeed, it’s the explosion of HTML5-ready mobile devices and tablets that has been responsible for the rapid move to HTML5. The mobile Web is also having great impact on the evolution of information architecture. As companies reimplement their Web sites for optimal presentation on mobile devices and tablets, and new sites target these devices, the work of the next generation of IAs will increasingly focus on such devices.
Server-side Development Environments
Agile Development Processes
An understanding of agile development processes should permeate all of the courses for a Masters in Information Architecture.
While more traditional development methods ignore the possibility of changes in a project’s requirements, agile development methods attempt to respond to changes. They involve a rapid succession of incremental software releases, or iterations; early coding, lean documentation, close collaboration between developers and users, and rapid feedback. Agile teams avoid defining fixed roles for specific team members as far as possible.
The five-credit Information Architecture course that the UCD Dublin iSchool  offers is based on a project in which a student imagines that he or she is an information architect on a team that’s creating a Web site using agile methods. This allows students to gain an appreciation for and familiarity with agile methods.
While in an agile development environment, developers may focus on development issues 100% of the time and visual designers may focus on design 100% of time, to really understand what’s possible and keep their skills fresh and up to date, IAs should do some Web development. They may take on just some of the simpler development tasks, for perhaps only 10% of their time, but their being actively involved in development is the ideal.
People who want to be IAs need to understand that earning a Masters in Information Architecture would just start them on the road to becoming excellent IA practitioners. They need to be prepared for life-long learning in all aspects of their craft, but particularly in terms of their Web development skills. The Web is rapidly and constantly evolving, and IAs need to keep up with these changes. Part of life-long learning in relation to Web development skills involves keeping abreast of the latest best practices.
IAs need to know what’s possible and have at least a general idea of how to go about making it happen. In other words, they need to understand everything that a developer understands. But they also need to be aware of many other issues—notably everything to do with usability—so must know more than anyone else on their team. This is a huge demand and, inevitably, at the start of their career, IAs won’t know more than everyone else on a Web development team. But they should recognize that their career path should, ideally, lead them in that direction.
Note—This article is an updated version of an invited lecture that I presented at Architecture de l’Information - Colloque International, Écoles Normales Supérieures de Lyon, November 19–20, 2012.
 Fried, Jason, David Hansson Heineken, and Matthew Lieberman. Getting Real: The Smarter, Faster, Easier Way to Build a Successful Web Application. Chicago: 37Signals, 2006. Retrieved May 19, 2014.
 Spool, Jared M. “Four Essential Skills for Information Architects: An Interview with Donna Spencer.” User interface Engineering, August 27, 2008. Retrieved May 19, 2014.
 Master en Architecture de l’Information, ENS de Lyon. Retrieved June 9, 2014.
 Wusteman, Judith. “Learning to Be an Information Architect.” Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, 2013, Vol. 54, Issue 2. Retrieved May 19, 2014.