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Archive for September, 2008

IA Institute Board of Directors

How very awesome. I’m humbled by being voted for the Information Architecture Institute‘s Board of Directors; I appreciate it immensely. This means I’m spending the next year or two working with Russ Unger, Christian Crumlish, Andrew Hinton, Jorge Arango, Stacy Surla and Peter Boersma along with the great staff (shout-out to Melissa Weaver and Noreen Whysel!) and team of volunteers.

A lot has happened since the Institute started. The IA practice has matured, we defined the damn thing a few more times, the membership has grown and evolved, several IA Summits and other events happened. I moved to another country, got married and bought a house. Wow!

I am excited, but more than that I’m interested in working with you. Yes you, reader. Odds are that if you are reading this you are either my mother-in-law or you have some interest in information architecture. If you are the later, then some aspect of what the Information Architecture Institute does is relevant to you.

Our official duties start October 1st and I’m spending the next couple of weeks learning. I have been part of the board of directors before, I’ve been a treasurer, I led and contributed to the translations initiative, worked with local groups, I’ve mentored people and spent many hours chatting away on the members list. All the time I have spent in my life doing these things has made me a better professional and a more fulfilled person. I enjoy giving back to the community I feel such strong affinity to.

Again, that’s why I want to work with you. You are a practitioner (perhaps a scholar? less likely but still), information architecture is part of your day-to-day. You may call yourself an information architect, or an interaction designer, or a product manager, doesn’t really matter. I want to work with you to help further the IA practice. But why would YOU care?

I am not a fan of advancing the practice by focusing on the role of information architects. I think this really is indicative of how the practice has evolved and grown. At one point, information architects and information architecture were synonymous. To gain the recognition for one, you pretty much needed to push the other. If you were trying to do this job 5, 7 or 10 years ago you know what I’m talking about.

These days, I don’t feel the same way. I have seen a significant change in how people are hiring, building teams and collaborating across functions. In fact, I feel like it can be detrimental to the practice of IA to be associated ONLY with information architects. Before you freak out, I’m an information architect. And most of my close professional circle is made up of other people who identify themselves as information architects. I work in a team of 12 information architects. A.K.A I <3 information architects. My point is, not ALL contexts require or can AFFORD to have a dedicated individual whose primary concern is information architecture. With that, how can the IA Institute best serve its goal to advance the design of shared information environments, the practice of information architecture? We can’t afford to limit our reach and need to extend where and to whom this practice can benefit. To broaden our ability to be effective at this mission, we should focus on the practice, not the practitioner.

This is my personal and professional stance on what kind of role the Institute should play. That’s why I am saying I want to work with you. Why the <curse> would you care about information architecture? If you don’t have an answer for that today, I really hope you can take some time to work with me and the good people volunteering at the IAI to figure it out. If you do have an answer for that, ask that question of three people who work with you that have a different job title. If you get a blank stare, then come volunteer with me so we can make it relevant to them as well.

Just imagine the three people in your work situation (colleagues, clients or superiors) who couldn’t care less, or just don’t get it, or just don’t want to hear about whatever you are trying to put forth that’s associated with information architecture. Whether you are trying to get a card sort done or transform the way your business thinks about new opportunities or X, wouldn’t it be nice to have a community to turn to that has tried AND done all those things? (No, you are not a special little snowflake. Somebody has done what you are doing or something like it, that you can leverage or learn from in some way).

Well, we have that! I have no idea how many people in the world share these same values and struggles, but I know that there are at least 2000 worldwide who have taken a step forward to say a)I care about this practice and b)I have something to share and something to learn. That’s how I see the IA Institute membership. I want to welcome you and your three blank-stare friends to this pool.

I don’t know if you are an information architect, interaction designer, technical writer, product manager, UX demi-god or a webmaster. I will never find out, but – assuming your trade falls somewhere in the field of user experience – I fully expect you to become aware, knowledgeable and involved with the information architecture practice if you want to be successful in your trade.

And that’s also why I’m spending the next few weeks learning. Every year the Institute does more stuff than the year before. Every year our practice changes in some way. I feel like I need a two-week immersion to get up to speed and get perspective, so I can play the role I want to play in the Institute.

More than anything, being on the board for me means being a facilitator. The Institute is made of people (I know, Soylent Green anyone?). It doesn’t matter at all how stellar the board of directors is if you and your colleagues, are still not caring about information architecture. I want to see you and them engage in something with the IA community – going to a happy hour, attending a talk, participating in an online discussion, reviewing a book, mentoring a new professional, anything. I really don’t care what specifically, as long as you do something.

It’s like broccoli. You can’t say you don’t like if you haven’t tried it. Of maybe you love broccoli. It’s like kohlrabi – have you tried that? You should, you have no idea how good it is. But me telling you will make no difference and you looking at the Wikipedia description will not get you interested (It will probably detract you from it).

My hope is that my term as an official volunteer-with-a-title will help us all make information architecture more relevant to everyone. And hopefully in some time, you can ask that same question to your colleagues, clients and superiors, and they will tell you why IA is relevant to them. And their answer may be vastly different from yours, but they will KNOW what role it plays in what’s important to them.

Do, or do not. There is no try.

Today I was thinking about what it means to be transparent (after much discussion yesterday at the Open IAI Open Discussion). The Wikipedia entry on the topic is a good start: Transparency, implies openness, communication and accountability.

Transparency is commonly used politically as a reactive outcry in response to corruption, suspicious secrecy and privacy of what should otherwise be public. I wish it was thought of more as positive intent than a reaction to badness, but at least it’s more prevalent than it used to be. In the context of the IA Institute, I definitely want to frame the conversation about transparency in those different terms: Transparency as something to aspire to as an organization, a desire to be open, to facilitate and encourage communication and the courage to be held accountable – internally and externally.

It’s very easy to rally around this idea, but how easy is it to actually live that — or “implement” it throughout an organization? I’m trying to learn more about that through the Open IAI. From the moment Matt, Russ and I decided to do this, I committed to really focus on the specific actions that would enable this transparency.

So far what I’ve learned is that it certainly involves letting go and getting comfortable with the notion that you might fuck up. Really, if you are committed to letting people see what’s going on — how the sausage is made (damn, I hate this expression but it’s so useful) — then they are going to see stuff that you may not be proud of in hindsight. It may not even be something very big, probably something you’d just downplay because it didn’t really impact anyone. Hopefully, by being transparent about it, they WON’T let you slide and will point it out, and complain, and talk about it and this and that, and you’ll learn from it. Even if you learned from it before they knew or said anything.

For example, the chat we had last night. Just one announcement would probably have gotten a handful or people there and we could have had our one hour of conversation as planned. I would have considered that successful, but we spent time figuring out the best way to do it (video chat? something else? what’s the best video chat?), brought it up through all the different channels we had with the time available (Twitter, Facebook, IAI Discussion list, personal emails, acquaintances and work relationships – at least for me), spent 3 ours chatting instead of 1 because everyone was engaged and kept asking questions, tried to capture a summary for people who couldn’t be there, surveyed people who attended to find out how it could be done better and if it was valuable, etc.

I definitely think these steps make something as simple as a little online discussion a lot more relevant. It’s funny because it WAS just a chat. There was really nothing special about it as a chat. It wasn’t even amazing. It was fun and productive, but anyone could have this same discussion at any time. My hope is that people do see in this tiny little example, that a conscious effort to be transparent means a more valuable outcome for all. (That’s my hope in hindsight, my original intent was to first, have a good discussion and second, to learn from it so it can be even better next time and really practice what we are ‘preaching’.)

This is an attempt to take actions that allow for the openness, communication and accountability that a “transparent” group needs to take. Transparency for me is about a more human and direct engagement, not ‘bursts of communication’ (that’s a CYA approach in my opinion – it’s keeping people ‘in the loop’ enough that they don’t resent/hate/complain/ask questions). For example, I wrote down all these things we did for the Open Discussion above – sounds great, right? I didn’t mention that when I created a survey asking for feedback, I didn’t ask if I could share the feedback, if I could track their IPs (turns out the survey tool does that even though I didn’t ask! – don’t worry, I have no idea what to do with that) nor did I tell them what I was going to do with that info other than the generic “it will help us make it better”. With that:

For the respondents of the Open IAI Open Discussion:

Thanks for the feedback. Now that I’ve read it, I really want to share, but I never asked if I could. My bad, I will definitely do that next time. Meanwhile, I turned all your good thinking into an incognito cloud so I could share something without making you think I am evil/inconsiderate/oblivious:

Feedback Cloud

Ok, so this is so small that if you are still reading this you may think it’s insignificant. That was my first reaction, but then I stepped back and thought about how being transparent is about being forthcoming about what’s going on, not what you want other people to perceive about what’s going on. It’s still a small example, but I’ll be sure to share my bigger screw ups as they happen. Stay tuned.

So, transparency — how do you live that? What I’m learning with this is what the old master told us long ago (in 1980): “Do… or do not. There is no try.”

First Open IAI (Open) Discussion

Open IAI Discussion

Tonight Russ Unger, Matthew Milan and I organized an open discussion about the Information Architecture Institute via video/audio/text chat. If you were there, please take 2 minutes and give some feedback before you read my biased impressions.

Thanks for crippled technology there was to way to capture the text chat or video discussion – really, you had to be there so see the crazy mix of synchronous and asynchronous communication going on. I’m totally exhausted – it was 3 hours long and we had 15-25 people at any given time (web stats tell me about 160 different visitors came and went but I have no idea how accurate that is).

Technical note: This was a pilot exercise and we learned a lot. We went in knowing that Y!Live is not the best tool and has lots of UI issues, but we confirmed that it STILL is the best one around that allows multiple participants in two modes (audio and video). Get a bunch of UX practitioners using a tool like that and you can feel the frustration about fixing the problems and ‘solutioning’ going on in the room.

Here’s a quick recap based on my fallible memory (please add to it in the comments):

Matt kicked off the conversation by reading our Position Statement for the IAI Board of Directors election:

We are running on a common platform in the hopes of being able to make a more meaningful impact to the Information Architecture Institute, if we are elected.

We believe that the IAI needs to be a more transparent organization. We need to open a dialog with our members, encourage their involvement and find improved methods of making people aware of what is happening within the organization.

We believe the IAI should take a leadership role in educating our membership, people who are new to the workforce, new to working within our field and the companies that will hire them.

We believe that the IAI needs to get better at marketing and selling Information Architecture. We need to, as an organization, provide the services to companies who want to hire our members and begin practice areas where our coaching would be invaluable. Likewise, we need to train our members how to do this within their companies.

Finally, we strongly believe that the IA Institute should have a clear vision of its role within the User Experience community and more importantly how it contributes to the advancement of the field of Information Architecture. With strong vision comes strong capability, and we have a duty to our membership to provide this role.

There was some clarification and request for examples of concrete actions that we would take based on this platform. We discussed many! For example, sharing board of director minutes immediately after meetings, holding open meetings so that any member can join/listen in, do more of these ad-hoc online get-togethers to tackle an issue, figure out a good program to on-board new members when they join, leverage our relationships with people in other areas and organizations to help get things done for the IAI, make it incredibly easy for anyone to volunteer for anything at all, evaluate if developing a Body of Knowledge (like BAs and PMs have) will help the cause THEN do it, etc…)

We discussed some questions about what everyone feels is the core issue for the IAI today and the transparency theme emerged as a predominant one. It was definitely the big theme throughout the evening. For us, it was nice to see the basis of our platform validated, but the big take away from the evening is that for whomever ends up on the next Board of Directors, if transparency is not the #1 risk to consider when doing anything, then = FAIL!

Some really big (and surprising) questions came up: Does the IAI need a board of directors? (we need a president, treasurer and secretary to maintain our non-profit status); Do we need the IA Institute at all? (critical mass of people who keep pushing forward for an entity to advance the practice plus continued inflow of members seem to indicate yes); Should the IAI be a for-profit business? (turning initiatives into products was a suggested approach).

We asked if people feel like they get value out of their membership and sounds like the membership is actually undervalued (this is not a new idea, we are aware) – this led to conversations about other organizations and what value people get from them. It wasn’t clear how much collaboration is going on today between the IAI and other orgs (there were some references to past actions), but I particularly liked Erin’s point that AIGA has 100 years on us – are we learning from them? Are we learning from others?

I felt like there was a lot sharing of information about the IAI, like we were painting a picture together of what the IAI has accomplished recently. It blew me away that several people didn’t know about the monthly newsletter, but that really drove home the point about transparency and that we can pursue other platforms to (not just communicate things TO the membership, but also) have a conversation with the membership, in addition to communicating outside our current reach. In Russ’ words “we do a fantastic job of being at all of the places where we all are supposed to be. We need to get better at being at the places we currently are not at.”

From the conversations, it seems like there is a lot of wheelspinning at the effort level today. Many expressed frustration with the IAI not because they don’t see value in their membership, but because they don’t know how to contribute. There were several stories volunteered about past attempts to start an initiative or help move something forward that didn’t happen because there wasn’t support or the person didn’t even know where to start or who to ask about it.

Of course we talked about defining the damn thing. And you know in how many directions that conversation goes — however many opinions and complementary angles we look at that question, there was a very clear agreement that the IAI is expected to drive the dissemination of the practice and expressing its value and how it benefits people is a fundamental part of success in that direction.

In asking what people would like to see the new Board of Directors accomplish in its first 90 days we heard: defining clear roles for the directors and communicate what that means to the membership (accountability!), pick an agenda for the next year and execute against it (focus!), define the damn thing (see my comment previously), get rid of withering efforts that eat up the limited capacity we have, stop talking and do more stuff. It’s a tall order – but really drives home one of the comments about how the IA community has something about it that makes it unique and people gravitate towards it. We expect a lot from this smart group of people, so no surprise that the organization representing us is expected to freaking rock.

It was fantastic to see so many showing up, including current IAI directors, other candidates and many interested members. The energy, capacity and drive in all the people who came to discuss these things tonight can not only push the IA Institute forward, but in a direction that will truly enable it as an organization to fulfill its commitment to support and foster the IA practice.

And the best part, it was damn fun! Being part of an organization that’s driving the future of our profession should be fun! And rewarding! And inviting! And fruitful! I really hope we have a lot more of these.

This is too long and I’m falling asleep so if you remember nothing from what I wrote, remember this: We are all equally valuable and necessary for the advancement of our practice. It’s in the community that things get done. The IAI Board of Directors is a facilitator, period. A facilitator for the community to drive the IA Institute mission to advance Information Architecture.

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