Interview with Lou Rosenfeld, Part Two

In part two of our interview, we discuss Argus’ project with Borders Books and Music and the book Information Architecture for the World Wide Web.

Borders Books and Music

Borders Book Shop was founded in 1971 in Ann Arbor. By the end of the 90s, Borders had hundreds of superstores around the world. Although they launched a website in the 90s, in 2001, they began a relationship with Amazon to sell products through Amazon’s website. Although Borders ultimately ended that relationship in 2008, by then it was losing money every year, and Borders closed in 2011.

Argus’ project to build an ecommerce website for Borders represents a large missed opportunity for Borders.

Tell me more about the Borders project.
The sad thing was this: We were brought in by good people at Borders, and the engagement was to do two things: Build their first website, which we did, and build their first web store, which we did not.

Borders started in Ann Arbor. Store number one was literally the only store for years. They started really expanding in the late 80s and early 90s. They had this great reputation—a great company with lots of money. In 1995, the year Amazon launched, and we actually gave Borders a plan for a web store that out-Amazoned Amazon in many respects.

Unlike Amazon, Borders had the infrastructure to do all the distribution. They were already doing it. At that time, they were opening one of their superstores every three days at a cost of around two million dollars per store.

They wouldn’t open a web store because the web was this weird thing that they didn’t understand. I look back on it and I can think of fifty things I could have done differently, but the truth of the matter is that they sacrificed the project because nobody really got it. It was just a horribly political situation, and eventually we quit. Eventually, Borders became a tab on Amazon.

You know, the sad thing is that I remember being at a talk in Ann Arbor in the late 90s, where the CEO at the time, Bob DiRomualdo, had given a talk. There was a Q&A section at the end and someone said, “Mr DiRomualdo, Borders’ market cap is getting beat to hell because you guys haven’t jumped on the Internet.”

His answer was, “The Internet’s like CB radio—it’s a fad.” CB radio was a fad in the summer of 1976. This was the late 90s. I think the Internet had kind of proven itself to not be a fad by then.

Information Architecture and the Polar Bear Book

Information Architecture for the World Wide Web was first published in 1998. Although the term “Information Architecture” had been coined in the 70s and practiced in the years since, the growth of the World Wide Web made this discipline highly relevant. Rosenfeld and Morville’s book on Information Architecture was the first book to bring IA to a wide audience.

Was there a point where the “light bulb” went off on the concept of Information Architecture?
We were steeped in the idea that librarians were important. I took it seriously, because it was in line with what I was thinking, which was that there was information that needs to be organized and easier to use and find. For me it was just an obvious thing, but no one seemed to be focused on that.

I didn’t say, “Let’s go invent a new discipline,” or something like that. It was more of a combination of how things unfold naturally, plus naivety. When you’re naive and on the young side, you’re not important enough for people to tell you no. Nobody takes notice until suddenly it’s something. So you can just go under the radar, and with the Internet, especially when it was new, you could just do anything. It was the Wild West. All kinds of interesting failures as well as successes can happen in a setting like that.

For me, there wasn’t a single light bulb. I felt like we were on to something with the class I taught with Joe Janes as a doctoral student. That class was a huge success. Our students would spend twenty hours a week on just the one class for only two credits, working in pairs on these subject guides.

We were all pulling together the different skills we had learned in library science over the couple of years of graduate school, and applying them in a setting where we actually created a product that people used. This was radical.

I mentioned the pair that created the guide to personal finance. I knew we were onto something when one of them, Abbot Chambers, got hired by what was called the Global Network Navigator*, which was a kind of web service started by O’Reilly. Our student was hired to run the personal finance center for them based on his work from our class.

While he was still with O’Reilly, this student hooked me up with Dale Dougherty**, who wanted to set up a new magazine called Web Review. They wanted me to write a column and we came up with the name “Web Architect.”

I was a regular columnist for Web Review magazine, and Peter and other people working at Argus eventually became contributors to “Web Architect” as well. Then O’Reilly said, “We’d be interested in doing a book on this.”

I remembered that Richard Saul Wurman had this term “Information Architecture,” which was probably better because we didn’t want to be so tied to the format of the web. We called the book Information Architecture for the World Wide Web instead of “Web Architecture” for that reason.

We felt like Wurman IA was brilliant, but it didn’t really address multidimensional information spaces. Instead, it focused on two dimensional information spaces—printed pages, and so forth. In hindsight, I’m not sure that’s entirely fair, but I’m not sure it’s entirely wrong either.

I had actually gotten a contract with Wiley to write a book in 1994 or 1995, and I couldn’t do it. It was just too soon. Then Peter and I wrote it for O’Reilly, and it came out in 1998. It was good timing. People had done enough web stuff at that point that they were realizing it’s not just writing HTML; it’s not just creating good graphics; there’s actually this sort of connective tissue that makes things hang together in a way that worked, and that was Information Architecture.

The book gave them a language and a common vocabulary and concepts. People could have conversations about organizing information and making it findable, even if they came from different backgrounds. Suddenly, a developer and a graphic designer could have a conversation that was productive about this topic, because I think the book gave enough of a common starting point.

The first edition came out in 1998, and we are now doing the fourth edition which will come out this summer. It’s sold something like 200,000 copies, which is insane.

* Launched by O’Reilly Media in 1993, this was the first commercial web publication.
** Vice president at O’Reilly Media at the time.

The Information Architecture Institute

The Information Architecture Institute is a professional organization for Information Architects, founded in 2002.

Changing gears, let’s talk about the IA Institute. What is the value of professional organizations like the IA Institute?
Christina Wodtke* and I thought up the IA Institute in Baltimore at the third IA Summit**. We wanted to create some sort of community infrastructure for IA people, and we got a whole group together at Asilomar in California for our retreat. We co-founded this thing called the Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture, which eventually became the IA Institute.

In hindsight, I feel the problem is that most professional associations have zero value because they’re using an early 20th century business model to get people to work together as a discipline. I don’t think we’re that kind of discipline. In fact, I’m not even sure IA is a discipline.

I’ve been a pain for every IA Institute leader ever since because I’ve told them, “Don’t be a professional association. Don’t use that old business model. Be something else. I don’t know what it should be, but don’t try to become a member organization that charges dues and is constantly fighting for the $40 a year from people who are not engaged because they think they should get something for their money instead.”

I think Abby Covert*** is going to save it because she’s a special, unique person that can motivate people to get involved and do things. I still don’t know if the business model is going to work because you need some money, and I don’t think the money in contemporary communities comes from members. I think it comes from sponsors, from events, and other things, but that’s okay. You can’t just look at it in terms of money. You have to look at it in terms of energy, involvement, and engagement.

World IA Day**** is great. Revenue is up and there are more activities in general that the IA Institute is doing, but having tried for many years to help lift the IA Institute, and later on the User Experience Network† based on the backs of volunteers, I am highly pessimistic that you can only go with the volunteer driven path. I just don’t think it’s viable.

* Author of Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web (2003).
** An annual Information Architecture conference founded in 2000 by Lou Rosenfeld, Vic Rosenberg of the University of Michigan School of Information, Gary Marchionini of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, through the Association for Information Science and Technology (ASIS&T).
*** President of the IA Institute and author of How to Make Sense of Any Mess (2014).
**** An annual celebration of Information Architecture in February consisting of local events around the world.
† From 2001 to 2010, UXnet was an “umbrella” organization that tried to form bridges between professional organizations in the UX community. This topic is covered in the forthcoming interview with Keith Instone.