Why licensing IAs is a certifiable idea
June 4, 2001
I guess it's a sign that information architecture is truly starting to come of age: the hand-wringing of those who argue that we should be licensed like building architects and other "true" professionals. Feh…

Some of this may be well intentioned (and in a bit we'll get to the reasons why it may not), but it's wrong-headed. Not that I think licenses and certifications are inherently a bad idea. I hold several sailboat certifications and having been studying for a commercial captain's license—which provides a useful comparison why certifications aren't a good idea for the field of information architecture.

These calls for licensing aren't unique, they've come up in the software engineering and graphic design fields over the years—most commonly when there's a sense of insecurity in the industry, such as when desktop publishers started competing with graphic designers over a decade ago, or when FrontPage allowed anyone to call themselves a webmaster. "If only we're certified," the voices went, "clients will know who the real professionals are." Feh. What people really care about is the quality of work that you yourself present them with—and your ability to demonstrate the value of IA to them.

Certification only means that you're minimally competent—not that you're any good. Sailing certifications are only supposed ensure that you're capable of returning the boat and the crew in one piece. It says nothing about whether you're a good sailor, let alone capable of winning the America's Cup (and believe me, there's pretty of evidence of this out on the water).

And this is in a field where the skills are well-defined and widely agreed upon, such as being able to come to a full-stop within a half boat-length of a buoy. Likewise, it's possible to narrowly define the conditions in which certifications are valid, for example, "local and regional waters, in sailboats 20 to 30 feet in length, in moderate winds and seas."

In contrast, information architecture is an emerging field that's being melded out of several converging others, and we're still sorting out what the best practices are. In fact we still can't even agree on just want an IA does. (Every time I've been to a conference of IAs, it starts off with at least a half-hour debate over what we do.) Some draw a "narrow" definition (something along the lines of Argus Associates meets Richard Saul Wurman), while for others information architects are the holistic problem-solvers of web development. I tend towards a "broad" view of information architecture that covers many areas [pdf] (although I prefer redefining this as "user experience," of which "narrow IA" is one part).

And we practice information architecture in a wide variety of situations. Small start-ups doing wireless plays. Multi-national corporations with sites of thousands of pages. Companies doing web-based applications. No one size fits all.

Another important difference is that sailing certification test only technical skills, while information architecture is a mix of science and art—just are software engineering and graphic design. One reason the creative skills are so important is because we're dealing with people—who have considerably more multi-variable complexity than building materials.

Testing only technical skills is problematic. And in fact, sailing certifications try to compensate for this. While you do have to pass a written test, you also need to pass an on-the-water exam—and put in a required number of hours in the boat. To get a commercial captain's license, the U.S. Coast Guard requires that you have a year's experience at sea before you're even allowed to take the written exam. Apprenticing is used as an alternate way of ensuring the intangible skills that are difficult to test.

But wait, aren't building architects creative and they're licensed? Yes, but their licensing exam focuses on the technical aspects to ensure that the building won't fall down. (In fact many applicants fail because they're "too creative" in the design portion of the exam, which is more concerned about structural integrity.) And obviously that's important. But if you hire architects, what you're concerned about is whether they can design an attractive building that meets your needs. What do you look at? The previous work they've done—just as you should for information architects.

Given all these, even a good-faith effort towards certification is problematic.

But there's some other major problems. Tom DeMarco (of the software-engineering-gurus Atlantic Systems Guild) raises an interesting concern: the real issue is about who gets decide who certified and who's not.

As DeMarco points out:

"Whatever the merits of certification, it has always been a big hit among those who get to do the certifying…"

"How about we appoint an august elite (made up of our own august selves plus some of our august pals) to judge. We will divide the world into betas, who will be allowed to work in the field and gammas, who will not. In the process we will be demonstrating that we ourselves are alphas. What a brave new world!"

Harsh words. Yes. But unfortunately all too true, based on what I've seen of past efforts promoting certification in the graphic design, web development and software engineering fields.

It's a particular problem for information architects because it's an emerging field—yet those who are pushing certification typically come from an established field, which "is just like information architecture." Feh. It's like calling something a "horseless carriage" rather than recognizing it's an automobile.

This isn't a problem at the professional certification level yet, but at the college degree level ASIS&T, American library Association, and other similar associations are the ones that have joined together to set up an external accrediting body to accredit existing and future graduate programs.

I have no reason to doubt their sincerity and obviously librarians have a lot to offer, but they're only one of several fields that information architecture draws upon. And so far as I know, no one's actually talking to those of us who are actually doing the work to find out what skills are needed in the real world. Information architecture draws on library sciences but it's not "just like it." This isn't to pick on librarians, because other fields are equally guilty, it's just that they seem to be the most eager to extend their professional turf to include IA.

But the issue of de-certification becomes even more problematic when you think about disbarring licensed practitioners. After all, a license is only truly meaningful if it can be taken away from those who show they aren't qualified. Unfortunately, the licensing practices of other fields aren't encouraging. It's difficult to get a captain's license from the U.S. Coast Guard, but once you've gotten it, you're pretty much guaranteed getting it renewed for life unless you happen to drive an oil tanker onto the rocks. Doctors generally have to seriously harm someone to lose their license, and a lawyer who slept through parts of a death penalty case wasn't considered bad enough to overturn the case, let alone disbar the lawyer. Are we really going to crack down on those who create incomprehensible site navigation? Somehow I doubt it.

While it both necessary and good to figure out a good curriculum to train future information architects, pursuing licensing is a red herring. My own rule of thumb is far simpler:

Who's a "professional" IA?A person who gets paid by clients to produce information architecture.

How can a client know that an IA is qualified to do the job? Look at the work that IA has done in the past.

Anyone call themselves an IA, but then again anyone can call themselves a writer, or an interior decorator, or a chef… But to know if they're good, then the proof is in the portfolio. ::

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