Saturday, November 06, 2004

T-model: Big IA is now UX

Do you remember Peter Morville's article Big Architect, Little Architect? In it he describes the Big Information Architect as "an orchestra conductor or film director, conceiving a vision and moving the team forward", a quote from Gayle Curtis. This would be a person at the "other end of the spectrum" from the little information architect who "may focus solely on bottom-up tasks such as the definition of metadata fields and controlled vocabularies".

In my opinion, it is time we re-label the field of Big IA into User Experience.

In discussing the future of AIfIA with AIfIA Board member Eric Reiss over dinner last week, I started sketching a model of my field, as seen from the perspective of an Information Architect.

The model showed a big "T", with the vertical line representing the field of IA with varying degrees of depth, while the horizontal line represented the width of related fields around us. We decided to call it the T-model.
T-model basic

The depth of IA ranges from shallow subjects that have clear overlap with the other fields to deep subjects that other fields hardly touch upon. Shallow subjects are navigation, labeling, and content that overlap with interaction design, marketing and copywriting for example. Deep subjects would be search, metadata, and controlled vocabularies. Peter Morville's little IA's live here, and each would have his own strengths.
T-model showing IA subjecs and related fields

Related fields, placed in the horizontal line of the T-model, have interests that overlap with our shallow subjects. Examples are interaction design, usability, information design, visual design, accessibility, copywriting, business modeling, markting and computer science. Big IA's know a little bit of all these fields to allow them to play the role of conductor.

Now, what if we look at this model from the perspective of, say, an Interaction Designer (IxD)? I am sure the subscribers to the IxD mailinglist have little IxD's and Big IxD's amongst them. They have their own T-model, with the vertical line standing next to "our" vertical line, but their horizontal line overlaps with ours! And the same is true for usability specialists, copywriters, information designers, etc.
T-model with IA and IxD

Now, as far as I can see, the horizontal overlap is the place where User Experience (UX) practitioners operate. They are likely to have a background in one of the fields (their private vertical line) but in their work they focus on the horizontal line, orchestrating specialists who operate in their vertical.
Big IA is now UX

Why would Information Architects be the ones to claim the "Big" label, effectively placing the related fields below IA instead of at its side. Do we posses a special skill that practitioners in the other fields don't? What is that skill? Is it related to one of the deep subjects or one of the shallow subjects? I cannot tell and I think it is wrong.

I am ready to give up the title Big IA in favour of User Experience practitioner, are you?

Update: the model has been expanded with an extra layer! See Shoulder IA: t-model extended with business layer (March 9, 2005)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Peter, I've viewed your site a couple of times, linking through from InfoDesign. The first time I was kind of disturbed at how awful your blog looks, particularly given your field of interest/expertise. Today I had the same issue, the text is barely readable, the title text is headache inducing. Then I twigged, I loaded the link in IE and no problems. I use and prefer Firefox for browsing and I'm just not going to be reading your blog much in its current form. I hope this info is of some value to you.
Dave Clarke

9:38 PM, November 07, 2004  
Blogger nickf said...

Peter, the site loaded and displayed fine in both IE6 and Firefox 0.8 for me on Windows. Perhaps this is one of those IE on Mac issues? I donno... just trying to help.

In regards to things not looking as good as they could be, I think the graphics in this specific post could be cleaned up quite a bit. I'd be happy to help. They seem over-compressed or something. I think this great post deserves a professional set of graphics so I am willing to help create them for you if you like.

2:41 AM, November 08, 2004  
Blogger beep said...

Based on the earlier comments, I've
(1) downloaded and installed FireFox to see this with my own eyes;
(2) tweaked the template, probably broke it, but now the pages should be more readable in bothe IE and Firefox;
(3) recreated the images

10:27 AM, November 08, 2004  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for fixing the graphics! How you can even use the term User Experience alongside the visual crud you had illustrating it is beyond me. What is user experience without visual design and information design?

4:12 PM, November 08, 2004  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Peter, looking much better now (fyi I am using Firefox 1.0PR on Windows XP). Now that I can read it I guess I can form an opinion on the content instead of just the presentation which presumably is the object of the exercise :-)

Dave Clarke

9:30 PM, November 08, 2004  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Peter,

Three things - I love the T-model applied to disciplines (I've often talked about it as applied to people - that whole knowledge management T-shaped person thing).

I don't have a better umbrella than user experience for the big picture things, but I'm not a big fan, even though I created this disciplines diagram with Lou Rosenfeld that puts UX in the center.

I think that the reason we talk about Big IA, or Dirk Kneymeyer argues for info design to be the 'conductor', or hear similar ideas from other disciplines is the fact that many people start with a narrow focus, and then expand. So if I was working as a little IA, and then started to do more strategic work, I might think IA is the right discipline to do strategy, when it's just my own personal growth.

Anyways, enough of a rambling comment - great blog.


Jess McMullin

6:43 PM, November 09, 2004  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think I must either be on drugs or living in a parallel universe (being trained in philosophy, either is equally possible) because I've always thought of "user experience" as encompassing all these sorts of disciplines.

And I thought that was how most people who work in these fields saw it (vain attempts at disciplinary one-upmanship as observed on various blogs around the place aside). Every explanation I've ever seen of UCD talks about multidisciplinarity, even pretty staid old texts.

Ah well, at least I don't have to give up anything. I never saw the field as comprising big anything, let alone big IA.


11:18 AM, November 16, 2004  
Blogger Keith Instone said...

The User Experience Network ( is promoting this same concept - UX as the umbrella term that we can all use to cooperate and collaborate under.

The groups and individuals from each of the "verticals" in your diagram that we have talked to are generally on board with the UX-as-umbrella concept. Getting people to agree that they should work together is easy compared to getting them to actually work together. But we are making progress.

3:23 PM, November 22, 2004  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've always thought the label "IA" was a stupid one.

Taken as a whole, the IA crowd seems seriously out of touch with the field of HCI / User Experience that is their disciplinary grandparent.

IA has always been just a component of architecting user experiences--albeit an important one. It just goes by a different name in HCI (ie, Object Model).

2:22 PM, January 14, 2005  
Blogger Andrew Hinton said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:53 PM, February 16, 2005  
Blogger Andrew Hinton said...

This generated a bit of discussion in my company, and I blurted out a reply that I ended up sticking on my own blog.

I dig the article, and I understand the desire to make all of this stuff make sense. I just don't want to lose the realization that we *do* need a new discipline to attend to the needs brought about by a whole new order of reality, namely these massively populated electronic networked environments (the internet, and other big nets).

9:58 PM, February 16, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Another way to look at how UX relates to other disciplines:

8:22 PM, April 28, 2007  
Blogger beep said...

Challis' model confuses me a little (see below) but says basically the same things as my T-model: User Experience (UX) happens where several other fields overlap, and each field has its own purpose or context where it is best applied (see the smaller diagrams on the right of his main image).

Funny enough the quote about UX on Challis' bio page ( you may have to hit reload a couple of times to see the right quote) is far more general: "User Experience - the sum of all perceptions resulting from every point of contact a person has with a company over time." To me (and this is where the confusion kicks in) that last one is a definition of the even wider field "Experience Design" whereas UX focuses more on the interactive systems through which a person has contact with a company.

Finally, I don't agree with the placement of the seemingly minor fields of Visual Design and Information Design. I think these together deserve their own globe, when at the same time Interface Design would fall under Interaction Design in my book. But hey, I'm just a blogger :-)

7:02 PM, April 29, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Your site is completely broken in IE7. The yellow banner extends down the entire page.

7:52 PM, May 02, 2007  
Blogger beep said...

As for my blog being broken in IE7, I believe I fixed that this evening. Thank you Anonymous!

11:02 PM, May 02, 2007  

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