A talk given by Kaarin Hoff at World IA Day-Ann Arbor in 2016 on the value of the information architect's worldview.
The notes from her presentation are provided below the video.
1. Confident in Our IA Value Proposition
2. The theme of World IA Day 2016 is: “Information Everywhere, Architects Everywhere.”
The email I got described the theme further—it said, “Because of the ubiquitous nature of information, information architecture is not just practiced by specialists. Instead, we see information being architected by people holding all sorts of titles, coming from all walks of life.” This got me thinking about what makes an IA. Everyone does information architect-ING—you don’t even need a computer to do that! Far fewer people do Information Architect-URE.
3. And I’d argue that there is a toolkit difference, a mentality difference, a difference in the way of approaching the world.
4. When I say Information Architect, I don’t mean it like a job title. Your job title may be UXDesigner or Event Planner or Administrator or Product Owner—but the way you approach your world might be as an Information Architect. I mean “Information Architect” in the way people mean “Engineer.” When people say “Engineer,” everyone has a stereotype of what that is, and they think they understand the value of an Engineer. Dilbert is a great example of that stereotype. Engineer is an identity, a way of approaching the world, an affinity your friends and neighbors won’t let you forget.
5. Last year at about this time of year, my husband and I were sitting in the ultrasound room at the hospital excited to see our baby for the first time. Then the technician said, “There are two in here! You’re having twins!” I was speechless, lost for words like all the air went out of the room. But my husband knew just how he felt. He said, “Well, that’s efficient!” And every time I tell that story, perfect strangers will say, “He must be an engineer!” And he is!
At least, that is what his degree is in. He doesn’t describe himself as an engineer. It is not his job title. His day-to-day activities aren’t what you or I would consider engineering. Yet anyone who met him would guess he is an Engineer. There is something we associate with an approach that leads us to think of someone as an Engineer.
What exactly that is would be difficult to describe, but I think you could summarize like this: an Engineer approaches the world in a certain way. They have a certain mindset. And that mindset is highly valued in our society. Of course you need an Engineer on the project! No question.
We here at World IA Day events in 2016 are in a new-ish field that isn’t well understood by the world. It would be a relief to have our own stereotype—for people to say, “He must be an IA!” What might that definition, that approach that defines us, look like? What IS the IA value proposition?
6. We have to sell our skill set all the time. We are more than our deliverables. We have to sell our process. We have to defend our ability to do proper discovery—stakeholder interviews, content audits, user interviews, modeling. Many of you in this room work at companies where your tasks are rigidly defined and your time is closely watched. I’ve given a few talks on the value of conceptual modeling—of working out the problem space thoroughly before designing solutions—and after each talk, people tell me how difficult it is to make the case for conceptual work in their workplaces. The truth is, the activities that lead to deeper understanding and better solutions are also more difficult to explain—and more difficult to sell—than other more brass tacks activities like wireframes and specifications.
7. Many of you in this room are students at the start of your careers. You have a lot of knowledge gained through your courses, and that can make you feel like you should know the right answers. You hear questions like: What do you mean defining the problem? Why can’t you just build it? How many solutions could there possibly be? Why don’t you just know the right answer? It’s just a simple website, or app, or console, or on and on and on.
8. IA isn’t about having the right answers; it’s about having the right approach that gets you to the right answers. And I hope this talk helps you defend the right to have that approach.
9. We are the ones who care about figuring out why we would build something before building it. We are the gatekeepers that hold off the solutions, the How, until we know the What and Who and Why. And explaining that can be really difficult.
10. Many of you are probably all familiar with pace layers. It is a way of expressing rate of change. Everything changes, but at very different speeds. Here in Stewart Brand’s diagram, we see nature at the center. Nature changes slowly. Culture changes a little faster. And Fashion on the outermost circle changes quite quickly.
11. What would an IA’s pace layers look like? I think the desire to make the complex clear is our center circle. Clarity wins. For me, that means clarity of meaning. We are building digital places—places people go to and interact with. The only building material we have is information, and the meaning of that information changes that building material. You can build a wall out of bricks, but if suddenly the meaning shifts and one of those bricks is a pony, well, that’s no longer a very good wall!
Here at World IA Day 2016, there is a feeling of togetherness, comradery—that we all agree that making clear things—good things—matters. That’s our core: Clarity Wins. What I want to discuss is the next layer: Approach-Toolkit / Mentality / Orientation. The difference between us and the Engineer or the physical architect is that our approach doesn’t result in something physical. If there is a bathroom in the garage and none in the house, everyone knows something is wrong! And everyone can see why an architect would model before building: building a house costs a lot of money, takes physical resources and space! I would argue that our Approach is even more crucial because we are dealing with the meaning, defining the meaning of things. That meaning changes when it is related to other parts of the world. There are physics to meaning and structure, and it is very, very possible to do it wrong—to mess up. A door is always a door to an architect; a door is not always a door to us. We can spend an hour with a room full of stakeholder making sure we all mean the same thing when we say the word door, and that time would be very well spent! A project has spun off course many a time because no one had the IA approach of exposing the parts, making sure we know what we mean when we say what we say, determining a system, ensuring the integrity of meaning is still intact. But this skill we have, this Approach, is very difficult to talk about. So let’s try.
12. Imagine someone shows you a webpage or wireframe (this picture is intentionally vague). They ask, “What do you think?”
13. Well, there are plenty of things you could say about the Application—how it adheres to and differs from the norm.
14. You could recognize a standard layout and know they used WordPress or an Axure library.
15. There are plenty of things you could say about best practices: Way to put a picture of “people like me” front and center!
16. But when it comes to Approach you can’t say anything. You don’t know the answers to the What questions: What are the parts of your business? Purpose? Mission? Who are your users? This is what I mean by Approach. Sandwiched between our ideals about clarity and the practicality of best practices, what is our lens on life that encourages us to seek out answers to all the questions and compels us to sort them to reveal their patterns?
17. Let’s talk more about this Approach pace layer. There are three main chunks to this Approach. It’s not a linear thing, but a cyclical process: exposing the parts, asking the stakeholders, “Are these the right parts? All the parts? What else?” Then determining the system those parts suggest or form. Working out that system often results in discovering more parts. And discussing that system with the stakeholders yields further and further insights. Deciding together is the binding element of all the activities that occur within the approach layer. All of this is in service to defining meaning, which is in service of clarity.
18. To dig into these parts of the IA Approach, I’d like to talk about it at a high level by focusing on a non-digital project: fort building! We all have experiences with forts. We’ve played in them or even built them. There are many types of forts from cardboard to community playgrounds. Today let’s focus on the age-old backyard fort.
19. The project of building a backyard fort has a lot of similarities to any digital project. There are users to consider, stakeholders to consult, tools to utilize, time constraints to adhere to, risks to mitigate, and budget constraints.
20. Ok, so first let’s discuss “Exposing the Parts.”
21. How do you find the parts? Mostly by asking the right questions. That can take the form of literally asking questions in an interview, or by investigating questions on a website, or by performing a content audit, etc. In our example project, you are building a fort. Here are some parts exposed by interviewing your child and your spouse. They, of course, wouldn’t literally tell you these parts. They would talk on and on about how they envision the fort looking, and what they want to be able to do with it. There would be a lot of HOW, like: “I want a slide that looks like a dragon I can slide down, but it never gets hot like the one at Steve’s house.” Then it is your job, with your IA approach, to boil that down to Slide
22. Once the parts are exposed, you can all talk about the same things with the same words. This is an opportunity to ask more questions—the biggest one being: is there something missing? But also, this creates opportunities to get the right nuance: Affordable but not Cheap; Survey, not just Look. You can clarify further: “Tell me what swing means to you?” Ask, ask, and ask some more. In order to further the meaning, we often start conversations with, “I’m going to be dumb now in service to being clear—it’s really important that we nail down what we mean when we say what we say.”
23. After this process of refining the meaning, Look becomes Survey. Cheap becomes Affordable.
24. This spreadsheet shows an example from a digital project we did for a university. We interviewed lots of stakeholders throughout campus, and then extracted their goals, aligning them when we heard more than one group state the same goal.
25. In a digital project there is often more than interviews to pull parts from: there are also websites to scrape and other inputs like existing user research to consider.
Here is another digital project where we started collecting all the words we found the organization used—and some natural groupings started to occur. This is the natural progression of exposing the parts where you start to determine the system
26. Once you have the parts, you can group and arrange them.
27. Here we see the parts from our fort interviews placed into one sort of system. It’s showing the relative importance of the parts and the major groupings they fall into. The dragon slide you heard your child describe was overshadowed by the numerous times they mentioned climbing. You spouse didn’t have any overlapping parts with your child, so you can split the goals into two big, clear chunk: Play and Safety.
28. and 29. Once the system is determined you can discuss the relationship between those parts and the new meaning it creates. A stakeholder may see something like this and say, wow, I don’t like the priority we are giving to budget constraints. Or, oh, now I see how my team feels the way things have been running make a lot more sense.
30. The list of goals in excel we saw earlier was later turned into this set of prioritized circles just like in our fort example. These are all direct stakeholder quotes in relation to each other. This gave us and the client’s digital team a guidepost to check decisions against throughout the project.
31. You might also make a quick sketch of how these action goals relate to each other in sequence. Height is necessary to get to survey and hand and slide – so it’s natural to have climb lead to those parts. This particular action of determining the system would take you seconds, and would get your brain thinking in new and advantageous ways.
32. Here is a system of parts from a past project. Clearly there are hundreds of parts that fall into three main categories. There are further categories exposed through color-coding. And each part takes on addition meaning through its connection with other parts, forming a huge system that represents the client’s world. This might look like a tremendous mess, but its actually representing tremendous clarity. In one case our project got ended with this as the main deliverable and it lived on the client’s wall for years. They wrote us to tell us how often they referenced it when making implementation decisions or explaining the ecosystem to a new employee or determining where a new part fit into their existing world. This is not an ER diagram; it’s not about implementation. It is conceptual, much like the fort diagram.
There are systems at play. Almost like physics. You can do it wrong. You can break it’s meaning. EXPOSING IT is critical!
33. Deciding together happens throughout the project. Every example I’ve shown you today was shown to our clients as the work progressed. This ensures alignment and also shares the ownership of the decisions so that after we, as consultants, leave the project the stakeholders own their solutions. They know why decisions were made and why the structure is the way it is – making it more likely that the clarity we have achieved with endure.
34. Word of caution: “Each category valorizes some point of view and silences another.”
35. Criteria for making, criteria for what good is, criteria that determines is something works. Not an engineering problem
36. When there are tensions a great way of discussing them is through intension models. In our fort example there is discord between hide and surveil. You can’t see a hidden child, but hiding is part of playing. So where is the balance?
37. Here is an example from a digital project showing real results. The stakeholders anonymously answered the question, and then the nine answers were discussed. The group ultimately landed on medium global focus. Directionality on these tension points is required for a project to move forward. You can’t be all things to all people.
38. So at our core we have Clarity. And we layer on an Approach that respect the seeking of clarity. Once we’ve exposed the parts, determined the system, and decided together we layer on best practices, tools, and application—all the while respecting the pace layers that came before. This results in great products!
39. Maybe our final product would look like this.
40. And the client knows what they are getting because it all maps back to the parts that were exposed and the systems that were defined that we all decided on together.
41. Remember my ultrasound story? My husband was being a stereotypical engineer in his response, “that’s efficient!” When once I recovered, I was a stereotypical IA! I started thinking about the ramifications of having two babies. Being very budget conscious, my head first went to childcare. We were discussing it before we left the hospital parking garage.
42. So first we laid out the parts: We both planned to continue working, we had a budget for what we planned to spend on daycare. I actually had it all mapped out for Kid One in 2015 and Kid Two in 2017 and projecting costs all the way through when they graduated from college. I’m a planner. I’m an IA. Well, now I was having twins. So the parts of what I was considering about childcare weren’t changed: cost, schedule etc. But their meanings were certainly changed. Schedule now meant getting two babies ready in the morning. Travel now meant two car seats and two hats and two coats.
43. Our priorities on these parts also didn’t change when we found out we were having twins. But due to Cost being one of our biggest circles, daycare was out of the question. Daycare costs double for double the babies. A nanny coming to your home cost only marginally more.
44. This shift from daycare to nanny though changes the meanings of these parts! Travel no longer means my travel with the boys—now it means my nanny’s travel. Does she have a reliable car that can get to our house in a snowstorm?
Schedule is not longer 8-5 and we can’t be late—it’s more of a give and take where we respect each other’s time and have to flex to each other’s schedule. A daycare worker having to go to the dentist wouldn’t affect my schedule—but my nanny’s dentist appointment changes my whole week! We went with a nanny, and she is great.
45. I hope all of this helps you to be more confident in your IA value proposition. That you are doing amazing things in this world. Determining meaning in service to clarity. Making the world be good.
46. If I may add one additional point: We need to encourage and develop the IA tendencies in those around us. To grow those who do architecting into architects.
There is no need to be competitive about this type or work. We are not making paper mache angels—the market for IA work is limitless.
I strongly believe that if we became good at explaining the core of IA, and good at recognizing that core in others. If we got good at encouraging and complimenting those who are also trying to make the complex clear. If we do that there is no limit the the number of IA projects in the world.
47. Thank you for listening!
48. P.S. Often when people don’t see the value of IA, it’s because they view the project as simple. They think you are suggesting you need an architect to build a snow fort! Everyone understands you need a professional to build a business fort—this is an example from a children’s museum. Business forts have more requirements and higher risk (people sue!)
• Materials: Snow
• Audience: Maker
• Approval needed: None
• Risks: None
• Clean-up: None
• Who makes it: Anyone
• Materials: Wood, Nails, steal beams, steal cables, etc
• Tools: Crain, Drill, etc
• Audience: The public – all ages
• Approval needed from: Business, legal standards
• Risks: Huge
• Who makes it: Qualified professional company
“Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun. I take culture to be those webs and the analysis of it to be not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.” —Clifford Geertz, American Symbolic Anthropologist