Information Architecture: Supply and Demand

In my first few years as a programmer I became aware of the problem then facing (what is currently called) IT management: the demand for software consistently outpaced the supply. Since then solutions have been proposed that invariably involved money: software to automate design and programming, software to automate testing, procedures, techniques, etc. Ad nauseum. And the problem remains. Now it has spread into the web space.

It's true there are several dimensions to the problem. IT management has certainly failed to make the most of what they have (the concept of re-using code is related to this). Worse is that too much of IT management does not have a deep understanding of computer technology, let alone the processes by which software is developed.

Regardless of the problems plaguing the supply side, increasing demand is a reality. The more software applications business managers get, the more they want. Why? And what implications are there here?

It is the nature of the beast for technology to change, to become more innovative, more specialized, faster, with more features and capabilities. More and new.

It is the nature of a consumer society to want the latest and greatest, to realize a need previously unknown that can be satisfied with a new product. We are a little like magpies, compulsively collecting bright and shiny objects.

Businesses are encouraged to be innovative in their products and services and to gather and analyze as much information as possible about their customers and competitors as a way to control costs and increase sales.

When you combine these three phenomena, you get business managers influenced by their personal inclinations to want what is new and to employ it to innovate products and services. As each software application is added to the manager's toolbox, he is able to first consider and then envision the next step. And of course he is aided by an army of salesmen egging him on. And do not overlook the importance of competition in the society of fellow managers: What one has or at least talks about the others will want just to keep up. This can become one-upmanship.

Ironically, the truly innovative products and services are often better in the imagination of their inventors than in their initial form—because the technology they need is immature. This is sometimes called the "bleeding edge."

Chris Anderson in an article titled "Film School" in the January 2011 issue of Wired magazine proposes "Crowd Accelerated Innovation" as the name for the phenomenon where street dance and TED talks have experienced "an upward spiral of improvement" made possible by online video. The rapid and worldwide dissemination of videos has made it possible for a "six-year old boy from Hawaii [to learn] all the moves of a professional."

My passion is for learning and teaching. I employ it in a corporate setting by designing websites for employees to learn the skills and technology facts needed in their work, to make them more productive and effective. My focus is information architecture, which is primarily the classification of information ("content") and its organization and access. Although this practice is at least ten years old, employees are still in the early days of adoption.

But I believe that as corporations continue to provide information-rich websites for their employees, the employees will increasingly "get it" and eventually begin to demand more and better. We need to be prepared for that eventuality.

Static site design, even with frequently new content, will become more of a problem than a solution. Employees, no less than managers, are attracted to the latest ideas and will want them incorporated in the websites. Corporations often make cost-benefit analyses that they use to deny proposed software on the grounds that it is not the best way to spend corporate funds. That approach may become a big problem. If you encourage employees to consume information-rich websites but keep them confined to an old cumbersome design, they may become so frustrated as to reject the websites as much as practicable. This is called shooting yourself in the foot. And this problem is likely more significant if the business product or service is technology-based.

So, we need to imagine information site designs that continue to attract users while those users become more sophisticated consumers. Perhaps we can build in some artificial intelligence that can analyze each user's needs and preferences and adjust the site design accordingly. Certainly we need to avoid a design that keeps us buried in the supply-and-demand quagmire.

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Written: 12-24-2010.