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Back to Information Architecture

In Sense-Making theory, identity is a central priority. It assumes that who people think they are shapes their behaviors (how they enact and interpret events). I am an information architect; I have always identified myself this way professionally because it describes information architecture as my core practice, which I simply think of as making the complex clear (Wurman). It defines my professional and personal ethos – and it does so to an extent I was not even aware of until recently.

I, like many of my peers, went through various crisis as I matured professionally. First existential, wondering what my purpose and value were. Doing that while a discipline is starting to established itself is both a privilege and a curse. A privilege because you are both defining yourself and your broader collective without the shackles of traditions and ingrained habits, making progress easy and fast; a curse because when the vast majority of people “like you” are questioning what you are at the same time, it is hard to find the comfort and support that gives you the confidence to advance.

Peter Morville and Lou Rosenfeld wrote a book that described what the IA practice meant for a particular context. That provided enough confidence for five or six years of truly amazing development in the practice of information architecture. I am happy I was around. However, I have not been happy about my community of practice in the past several years. The level of energy, enthusiasm and possibility I felt and experienced in the first half of the 2000′s became marred by attempts to find a solution to a problem that was not ever really articulated.

Known as “defining the damn thing”, we talked ourselves into a circle trying to describe information architecture and its place in the world. In that process, I watched information architecture erode as a discipline. The forward momento became stagnant. When DTDT is described as naval-gazing, it’s because it accurately portrays information architecture’s adolescence. Our struggle with DTDT is because we were in effect, telling IA to grow up, “be a man”, when it was still a child verging on adolescence. That’s the second crisis, a crisis of identity. Unlike the existential crisis, value was not the core question: we learned our worth and felt (mostly) confident about it.

Identity crisis is the failure to achieve ego identity during adolescence. Psychology research (Erikson) has found that peers have a strong impact on the development of ego identity during adolescence. I, in retrospect unfortunately, spent most of my energy trying to figure out my identity and grow professionally while our collective identity crisis was taking place. I would have been a really happy diplomat. Or engineer. Or software developer. All of which I considered seriously at different points, but because I pursued this path, I needed to push myself in ways I could have never imagined and watched others do the same – and I spent several years frustrated with the lack of progress.

Information Architecture’s crisis of identity reflects our inability to change our self-image. I find it funny that the stage of psychosocial development in which identity crisis occurs, according to psych theory, is called the Identity Cohesion versus Role Confusion stage. Defining Information Architecture and being an Information Architect are different things. We spent years conflating the two. Since our daily reality is the work we do, this work exists in a setting that requires role definition. We thought that role was “information architect” and in trying to make progress figuring that out, we stopped making progress on what information architecture was becoming.

Many smart people have repeated over and over that these are separate issues, but to this day I see people not making the distinction. This is when User Experience Design won the battle. At the same time all this was progressing, User Experience emerged as a term to describe the intent of these efforts we were trying to figure out. User Experience seemed to me like a way to refocus from the dogma of User-Centered Design to a more meaningful overarching understanding that imbues various disciplines with meaning and purpose. I feel this has been wildly successful. But what of the IA discipline?

That’s when our poor framing of the question came back to haunt us. “What is information architecture and where does it belong” was now being asked in this larger User Experience context. And Peter and Lou’s definition for the context in which it was defined was not enough. Also, the same question was being asked of other disciplines. This is where Design with its deep and rich traditions emerged as a great foundation – as a practice – to form the identity that could deliver on this promise.

By declaring and accepting we are all User Experience Designers we embraced User Experience and left Information Architecture behind. Apples and Oranges. But – I hope it’s obvious now – taking the identity of user experience designers could/should have simply broadened the identity of information architect, not dismiss information architecture as a practice. Unfortunately for information architects, this amazing progress of the field (UX) happened while we were having a major identity crisis and extremely ill equipped to distinguish the two.

There is no conclusion to this. I see seedlings of the right sentiment starting to re-emerge in information architecture from people who are not interested in what we call ourselves. That problem will always get in the way and I have come to terms with it. I am an information architect because that’s a meaningful descriptor of my identity – TO ME. I don’t care if I need to describe that meaning as User Experience Designer so I can be understood, but I no longer struggle with the identity. The label is just a translation of meaning into different contexts. I absolutely embrace User Experience as the field in which I practice my work and I draw from a few different disciplines to achieve what I need to achieve. But information architecture is still the principal discipline that guides me. It took me a long time to realize I didn’t have to move away from information architecture to get to where I wanted to go. It is nice to know this instead of wondering about it.

Explaining our discipline succinctly in a context-agnostic fashion seems to be the holy grail for most – I feel ‘making the complex clear’ already did that over 30 years ago. Explaining the discipline in context-sensitive terms, well, that I can’t do and I don’t feel I need to. Describing information architecture (as in DTDT) is the top down way to answer our identity question. As an information architecture practitioner I know damn well that the most meaningful structures emerge from the content, so my base assumption is to continue expanding the boundaries of our practice by DOING THINGS and then calling them something when we need a name for them. That name may be information architecture. Or not. I don’t care – as long as we don’t conflate the practice development and our identity we can start growing again.

Kaboom

Yesterday I presented at the DMI Seattle conference and I bombed. As Scott wisely points out: “Everyone is polite and tells [speakers] they were great, even when they bombed.” You know when you bomb. [edit] In truth, it was not horrible, but it was not great either. I haven’t received any feedback so it is also hard to tell. My point is, if you feel it didn’t go well, no amount of reassurance will convince you otherwise. [/edit]

I was meant to give a talk sharing my story growing the UXD practice at Comcast for the past many years. I was excited to do this because I felt it could be useful to new managers and because it would help me be diligent about reflecting on that journey, which I wanted to do but had had difficulty committing to. Also, the timing was perfect. So what went wrong?

Bad choices all around

Things that contributed to the failed presentation:

* I was sick and feeling quite ill. 
I contracted a powerful stomach bug from something iffy I ate the night before. Cold sweats and trembling do not inspire confidence in your audience. I had also been on a panel the prior day and had already set an expectation with the audience on what my delivery style and energy level were. I could not live up to my normal. 

* I was intensely tired.
Because I was actively fighting the stomach bug all night long, I was unable to sleep and felt like my brain was in a haze. I was prepared and know the topic deeply, but I had a really difficult time recalling the order in which I had decided to expose the material and which specific points I wanted to make. The cues in my notes triggered nothing. It felt like having memory hiccups. Also, when I am excessively tired, English, my second language, doesn’t flow as well from my lips and I unknowingly omit words mid-sentence. I can’t hear it as it happens, but I know that must have happened.

* I took on unnecessary technical risks.
I prepared my presentation using OpenOffice and on my Dell Mini laptop. It was great for preparing but proved a poor choice when the projector refused to recognize my computer and the presentation would not display appropriately on PowerPoint on the computer I borrowed. All this happened 30 minutes before the presentation. I should not have experimented with non-standard technology since the visual aid was important, but not testing in advance in the final delivery space and setup is, always, a huge mistake (and I know better). Also, I did not have a plan B. Unnecessary anxiety piled on at the worst of times.

* I didn’t synthesize the story well.
This presentation did help me reflect on this journey as I wanted. I was able to gain perspective on the story in a way I had not seen it before. Unfortunately, I diverged too widely in analysis and ended up with less time to synthesize what I found into a cohesive story. I was sufficiently happy with where things were and it would still have been ok if the above factors had not added up, but they did, so the outcome was mediocre when contrasted with what I knew could have been done. Had I worked more on reducing it further to its essence, I could have managed the other issues better.

* Timing was disrupted.
Never allow external arbitrary inputs to break your planned delivery rhythm. Editing and being more concise in language on the fly are very doable, but only when you are feeling very comfortable in the flow of the presentation. I wasn’t comfortable, obviously, so when I was asked to wrap it up, I couldn’t figure out how and conclusion was completely derailed, which made the story seem like it did not have a real end.

I can’t have a do-over, so I’m going to re-craft this presentation and look for opportunities to give this talk elsewhere to see if I can tell the story I actually wanted to tell.

Make it happen 2011

Next week I’ll be giving a talk and participating in a panel at the Design Management Institute’s Design/Management Thinking “Make It Happen” conference in Seattle. I’m excited about this event because they’ve framed it as:

We know quite well the value of Design to business, and Design Thinking to problem solving. But what remains a bit fuzzy for many organizations is the distance between thinking and doing—the proverbial gap between strategic intent and execution. Or, how to make it happen. This year’s design thinking conference will focus on closing the gap—and moving from design thinking to design doing.

What one actually does. I enjoy the conversations about design thinking but they tend to lead to a lot of hand waving and I have found many designers and specially young managers struggling to grasp just what it is they need to do (not just talk about) to produce the positive outcomes discussed in this context.

My talk, which could not have been more appropriately timed, will be a journey through my work at Comcast between 2004 and 2011. I’m going to talk about how the UXD practice was established, how it grew, changed and evolved over the years, and what impact it’s had in the company culture and products.

What aspects of this journey would YOU be interested in hearing about? DMI is recording the video for this session so you’ll have the opportunity to see it later in case you can’t make it to Seattle. Please let me know what points in this story you’d find most useful learning about or any questions you may have.

I’ll post a summary after I’m back. Thank you!

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