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Mar 21, 2005: Happy Times for IA?

It's been a couple weeks now, but yet another IA Summit observation: just about everyone I spoke with who was even toying with changing jobs was entertaining multiple offers. And just about everyone I spoke to who was recruiting IAs--even from respected organizations like Yahoo!--was struggling to find talent.

It's certainly good news for the field, but are we simply in for another boom and bust cycle?

Surprise: I'm optimistic. The field seems healthier than it was four years ago for at least a couple reasons:

  1. The need to make an ROI case for IA seems to have diminished. No, it hasn't gone away, but the most evolved organizations seem to be in a hurry to hire IAs, not question information architecture's value. Perhaps this is an evolutionary trend akin to that experienced in other areas of initially unclear value, such as psychotherapy or even public education.
  2. There is a healthy balance--really a symbiosis--between IAs working in-house and those at agencies, consulting firms, and working solo. Four years ago, we all seemed to be outside our organizations; when things hit the fan, we ran inside for cover. Now both areas seem to be growing and supporting each other.
  3. There's obviously more content out there than ever before. And the content that was good a week ago has now gotten stale. IAs can help in both situations.
  4. Enterprise-class search engines, portals, and CMS are simply too expensive to install without human support and configuration. Not that it doesn't happen. But IAs are useful in these situations too.

Despite these warm and fuzzy thoughts, the field will certainly face challenges. For example, if we don't take the lead in figuring out how to integrate emergent approaches like folksonomies with traditional, controlled IA approaches, those traditional approaches--and we, their purveyors--might find ourselves marginalized.

Also, our professional association is facing the challenge of maturing. It's not yet clear how IAI will evolve from exciting cradle of new ideas to stable maintainer of useful services.

More on both of these issues in the coming weeks. In the meantime, if you're looking for work, check out the IAI Job Board.

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Comment: Livia Labate (Mar 21, 2005)

My 2c:

* Organizations already acknowledge IA - they just have no idea what the IA practice is. And we should stop trying to sell it. We sold the idea, it's been bough, now it's time to deliver

We can definitely expand on how IA is perceived and take IA to new heights (and that should be the IA Institute's role), but the fact that my CEO is discussing things in terms of IA deliverables and the need for taxonomies really shows me evangelization is not the end to it. Now it's time to make things work and prove the true value of IA.

* As a consultant that just turned in-house I couldn't agree more. The experience of being an innie really ads up to your skill set and opens new possibilities, both personally and to companies, like bringing outside talent to leverage specific projects.

* And that's what's most fascinating! Companies are actually realizing that installing a CMS is not the end of it. Isn't that brilliant? I can foresee lots of vendors starting to hire IAs as an attempt to make some sense out of what they sell...

By the way, I'm hiring. :) And it's been very hard to find what I'm looking for - not because the market is scarce with good IAs, but because all IAs seem to be unavailable interviewing with 10 different companies at the same time. But soon the market will be more scarce.

2005 is going to be a really good year for the information architecture practice.

Comment: anonymous because... (Mar 22, 2005)

You may not post this because it's anonymous, but I need to stay under the radar.

All this talk of hiring and multiple offers etc. I have a couple of questions:

1 - Is this activity concentrated on the coasts? I'm not perceiving this wealth of opportunities in the midwest. (read on)

2 - I've been looking more in the usability/user experience realm, which of course brings up THAT whole debate ... again. What are the skill sets being sought? And/or are jacks/jills of many trades appreciated? (read on)

3 - I have seen plenty of UI-type positions, but I'm kinda senior and may be at a dead end ... or cul de sac ... or precipice.

4 - And again, what about the Midwest? Coastal salaries would be eroded by costs of living.

thanks.

Comment: Dave (Mar 22, 2005)

Hi Lou,

I do see some changes for the positive all over tech. I was just telling a very depressed friend of mine who is a Tech Writer that tech is actually a good place to be right now.

Hmm? Who are all these people's w/ lots of offers? I'd love to meet them, or more importantly meet some of their suitor employers. ;)

But as somone who recently did a spat of hiring I can say that there are many available people but few are qualified. I don't mean that to be a snob, but very few "experienced" IAs know more than that they make Sitemaps and wireframes. Very few contextualize that in terms of a greater strategic and design oriented process, and most are regurgitating Jakob Nielsen quotes about standards.

Ok, enough of the curmugeoning. I do think though that education, mentoring, apprenticing, is key at this point if as Livia said we are really going to produce results, especially among us "innies".

Comment: Timothy Mills (Mar 23, 2005)

I'm in a similar situation to writer above listed as, "anonymous because..."--many years of experience, in the Midwest, etc. I wonder if there might be enough realization of the need for IA, UX, HCI, etc. to support a company along the lines of http://cooper.com in the Midwest? Or perhaps it already exists and I just haven't found it.

Comment: first wave IA (Mar 24, 2005)

another anon comment, sorry Lou...

Whenever I hear someone lament about not being able to find "qualified" IAs, I have to wonder if I fall into that category. I feel like I'm a product of our history, i.e., I'm one of the IAs who did more headbanging than IA-ing in an attempt to make a place for myself and my role in whatever company I worked in. In other words, I didn't get to do as much good work as I wanted to because I was too busy creating the opportunty for me or someone who would come after me to *do* that good work.

I wonder if that history is taken into account in hiring mid- to senior-level IAs, or if history has been rewritten in hiring managers' minds now that we 1GIAs have carved the niche, paved the way, yadda yadda, and us old fogies are going to have to start all over.

Any thoughts?

Comment: Lou (Mar 24, 2005)

Interesting point; we're soon going to encounter a new generation of IAs who actually went to grad school to *be* IAs. I hope they don't forget us old farts...

Comment: Dave (Mar 25, 2005)

Something a mentor of mine always reminds me as I try to move up the ladder is that this is a pyramid economy. There is less room towards the top. This means that it is just harder as you become more and more senior.

Also, as you become more senior the hiring becomes a lot more esoteric. "I'm sorry but you didn't have a mole on the right cheek. Left cheeks just don't cut it." At a certain point it becomes quite arbitrary.

The whole geo-location thing is also an interesting question.

To the person who ONLY did head-banging for all this time and doesn't have work to show for it ... time to get some work. Make up your own work if you have to, but we are a portfolio-based/case-study-based profession. You are what you've created. Basically, if all you did was "carve" then I don't think that's going to cut it.

Last point about the new grad students who are coming into play. I have often found in interviewing that a well-educated person isn't quite as useful as a well-experienced person. I respect the desire to be educated, but in a craft-based profession, I feel that almost all the IA and HCI programs fail to develop craft. What is the point of an IA program that's goal is not centered around developing an exit portfolio? Design & Architecture schools have figured this out for close to a century. What will actually be more interesting are those people who have undergrad degrees in related fields and build up a solid experience-base off of that education.

Lou, you aren't an old fart!

Comment: first wave IA (Mar 28, 2005)

I didn't say I did *no* work, just not as much as those who have been working in interactive agencies since the mid-90s. You're right about proving experience, and that is currently done via portfolio, but I have to interject and say that, as time goes on, I really resent being defined by my deliverables (not to say that you're doing this, Dave... or are you?).

As you said, an IA should be hired for their experience, and their craftsmanship. I think we (and hiring managers) need to be very careful not to allow the "craft" to become the making of pretty papers -- sitemaps, task flows, etc etc are merely representations of what employers are really paying us for: our expertise. Deliverables are tools. A means to an end. And a portfolio containing those deliverables is really only a vehicle for telling stories about the work we did -- they do not stand on their own. We are a services profession, where our end product is the client's product, not the blueprints used to get there.

Personally, I want to be hired for the expertise that allowed me to know which tools to use for a certain problem, and allowed me to draw conclusions and design solutions based on what I read between the lines. Deliverables are communication tools and working documents, not the payoff.

In other words, if one were to compare our profession to architecture (blasphemy to architects, I know... shhhh..), I want my craft to be compared to the work of the architect, not the draftsman.

Comment: still anon in the midwest (Mar 28, 2005)

Dave et al:

Your point about experience vs. education is interesting. I do not have an advanced degree, but I have several years of experience (across many UI-related activities).

HOWEVER, what I'm noticing these days is that lots of companies posting job listings are including REQUIRED -- if not at least highly desired -- masters degrees in HCI or cog. psych. or whatever.

Thoughts?

Comment: still anon in the midwest (Mar 28, 2005)

Dave et al:

Your point about experience vs. education is interesting. I do not have an advanced degree, but I have several years of experience (across many UI-related activities).

HOWEVER, what I'm noticing these days is that lots of companies posting job listings are including REQUIRED -- if not at least highly desired -- masters degrees in HCI or cog. psych. or whatever.

Thoughts?

Comment: Livia Labate (Mar 30, 2005)

This is a great conversation, thanks for bringing this up Lou.

In my search for IAs I am finding different kinds of people:

1) Those who are fresh out of school with no experience at all (some very eager to get it). The ones who understand IA is a craft profession do well because they understand their learning can be applied to an apprenticeship; but some think their education is the end to all problems. Those will make bad IAs, or will suffer trying to become good ones.

2) A few senior IAs with vast experience. Some very specialized (I feel like I'm interviewing nannies "I don't do dishes, only taxonomy!"), others with a more diverse background, IA generalists who have mastered different skills and worked in various niches. These are hard to get a hold of because they are interviewing for everyone (as the market is picking up and they become more valued).

3) Lateral movers; folks with experience in other disciplines transitioning to IA. I am very interested in these people because they generally understand business, their origin niche and some IA - method can be taught, life philosophy cannot. I already hired one and I am very pleased. Several of these have actually done IA work, they just never had the 'information architect' title.

4) The non-senior, mid-level, first-wave IA. This is a tricky one because they are stereotyped. Kind of like "oh, she's 40 and never married!" - it *shouldn't* matter, but some people think it's a big deal that they are not senior, like there is something fishy. The interview process needs to reveal what kept that person from advancing in the career and that they are competent in doing their job. Not everyone is aiming for CXO, and that needs to be taken into consideration.

* To Dave's point, we are a indeed a portfolio-based/case-study-based profession. And just as a portfolio shows the end result, an interview explains how the result was achieved. Recruiting/interviewing is really important (I wouldn't interview somewhere where I'm interviewed by one person for 60 minutes; one can't assess a life's work in that time frame).

* To mid-west anon, I recommend ignoring the advanced degree request. It's often put in job descriptions by default (most times because HR requires it). Go for the positions you think you'd be good for, regardless of requirements (this has been my view for many years).

* IA is process, not product. I don't want to start a define-the-damn-thing discussion, but that's the basic distinction that needs to be made so i) people can understand what IA is - methods and skills, not deliverables - and ii) we can evaluate how well a candidate knows IA.

Lastly, we have to learn how to write job descriptions. We can't keep emulating all other job descriptions. Most are boring templates of jobs of yore and don't reflect the needs of the positions we need to fulfill. The degree requirement is one good example of an inherited nuisance. We need technical knowledge, but we are not technicians, we need education, but that is generally not formal. In my job descriptions involvement in the IA community and personal interests hold much more weight than a degree.

One thing I'd like to see the IA community produce are:
- expectations about the IA roles in different levels (sharing of those expectations among hiring managers),
- ways to interview IAs and extract this kind of information (as a craft profession, what should one really ask in an interview?),
- help IAs in creating portfolios, most people don't have experience doing that.

Comment: Dave (Mar 31, 2005)

Livia, that was awesome!!! great response. A few points:

Portfolios:
Portfolios when done well tell a story (as any good design should). That story should include your process. Don't just show me the final web site, show me the deliverables that got you there. Also, a portfolio in our area, should be as much a case study as possible. What was the challenge presented to you, what challenges did you face, and how did your solution face those challenges. Oh! and most importantly, be specific about YOUR role in the case's development.

Something that is so hard to gauge when evaluating someone' portfolio are the constraints that we face as designers. Tell that story because it will tell your interviewer how you face constraint which is an important part of how you will work under their constraints.


Involvement in the IA Community (any UX community)?
This stuck out for me because my team of new designers are not involved, and I've noticed while interviewing lately that most people aren't. Livia, if you come back I'd be interested in what you feel is of value (or anyone else's thoughts) of involvement. Now you know me, I'm there. But what value-add does it tell you about a candidate if they are or they aren't?

Comment: Perplexed Portfolio (Mar 31, 2005)

Dave, you have mentioned about the portfolio and the deliverables at every stage of the project. But some companies/organizations dont allow(Intellectual Property issues) you to put up all the design details up on the internet for the world to see.
What you are saying makes a lot of sense for freelancers or open-minded organizations, but what are your thoughts on designers who work on commercial competitive designs who cannot detail out micro details or even for that matter low-fidelity protos to please the future employer.

Comment: Livia Labate (Mar 31, 2005)

Good question Dave. A couple of reasons why I find community involvement has high value:

* It tells me they are interested in futhering their skills, and that's a given if you want to be a good IA. As a craft profession you must always look for better methods and refining what you know.

* It shows me they participate in eventsm discussion lists, etc, and therefore are interested in sharing ideas, methods and solutions with their peers. This tells me a lot about their ability to communicate, respect and work with others - highly relevant to the IA practice as a bridge discipline.

* It shows me they are interested in contributing to something larger then themselves (the IA community), which speaks volumes about their ability to contribute to a project and make choices for the good of the project, not just their own (their own = deliverables, processes or whatever)

And because I value these things very much and have access to the IA community, I can tell if they are just saying it or if it's for real. Seeing how much they are involved in the community validadates whatever they tell me in their resume, portfolio, even in an interview.

The reason why we have to learn to write job descriptions is because we are not letting people know how important these things are. Here's my first attempt (see item #5): http://mail.asis.org/mailman/private/sigia-l/2005-March/012606.html

--

Perplexed Portfolio: blur out the information that is in the deliverables and still use them to explain the case.

Comment: Anonymous (Mar 31, 2005)

I am overjoyed when I see the increase in IA job postings that literally seem to be added on a daily basis to the various IA related job boards but somewhat discouraged when the majority of postings call for experiences between 3-5 years. I mainly freelance and willing to go anyhere but when I go on interviews I am considered the "first IA wave" or too old (I have 5-7 years and have held project
manager/leadership roles). I am encouraged however and know that I'll find a position commensurate with my "first wave IA" experience but wish there were more senior level jobs to choose from.

-My question is where do the "old/first IA wave practitioners go"?

-Is there a designated list, organization, leadership committee that caters to job postings, leadership mentoring for these practioners? I would be curious to find out the experience level for those receiving multiple job offers.

Great conversation and ideas!!

Comment: Perplexed Portfolio (Mar 31, 2005)

I find it very intriguing when I am given a design problem and based on my design I am judged. Few days back I was interviewed by a company who were looking for a web designer with IA skills. They said that they will like to see my UI skills so gave me a design problem which had around 60 pages of style guide and the job was to design the homepage and a secondary page. The problem definition was around 20 pages long. So I am amazed at people giving such long problems(actually it is a project in itself) and then after all the hardwork u put in u realize that u are not listed for the next interview.

Comment: Perplexed Portfolio (Mar 31, 2005)

I am an entry-level designer(although I have a masters and around 1 year industry exp.)and having lot of trouble finding a job. Anon. is on the other end of the spectrum and still having issues finding the right job, so my understanding is that people with 3-5 years exp. are the most in demand.

Livia and Dave, question to you. When you guys were fairly inexperienced in this field, did u guys have portfolios (not resume) of your own which detailed out the deliverables? If yes, we would love to take a look at it and pick up pointers.

Comment: Livia Labate (Mar 31, 2005)

The intent of giving an exercise during the interview process is to evaluate how the candidate handles the situation as much as how they solve the problem. I personally like to make the exercise concise and to the point, like figuring out a navigation problem, ask the candidate to rationalize the different implementations of a widget, etc. They're not being graded on the result, but the process (because that's what's relevant to me).

I think it's very unprofessional to present a problem that is too messy (and would require much more background for a reasonable solution) or couldn't be addressed in the time frame available to the candidate (yours sounded like it was a bit overwhelming, I would argue that it is much harder to make an assessment about a person's abilities when there is to much too judge).

That is not to say we should make the exercises easy. I just think that some companies misuse this opportunity to evaluate and force candidates to do work for free.

As for portfolios, I sold a lot of my work without a portfolio. I think a portfolio really depends on your career path. Mine was sort of like: school > my own business > selling business strategy work > embedding IA into that work > re-focusing my work from biz strategy into IA. I picked up IA tools along the way and the result of their usage became my portfolio, but I didn't set out to be an IA, I just kind of found IA along the way. A portfolio may be more or less relevant depending on background and career path.

As a hiring manager, I look for portfolios because IA as a practice has become a lot more 'consistent' over time; it is *reasonable* to expect a portfolio and it is easier to filter the types of people you are looking for when there is something tangible to compare. This comparison can be done among different candidates, in comparison to some of my own work, and industries references (tools, methods, theories, etc)

I wouldn't rule out a candidate without a portfolio though (how hypocritical would that be?), as long as they have enough to show for (community involvement for example!) and as long as they can talk their way through their past projects (ability to explain processes, etc). That's also where references (past employers, professors, colleagues, etc) play an important role, because you can make the comparison based on what the candidate and these people say, the same way you do with the portfolio (with luck, in addition to it).

Comment: Perplexed Portfolio (Apr 1, 2005)

Excellent points Livia. Does personal referrals make a difference when it comes to hiring? For example, people with whom u have worked with on conferences, publications, SIGs etc, do you hire or invite such people to apply for positions at ur organization?

Comment: Dave (Apr 3, 2005)

Portfolios:
I agree w/ Livia about "scrubbing". As for my own experience, I rose through the ranks of the bubble and played the line of design vs. technology until I found a position that finally allowed me to build a real portfolio. I think my earlier success was for 2 reasons:
1. Lots of opportunities
2. I'm a good story teller and that is the main point of a portfolio. The issue here is that I had something else that got my resume up to the top, whether that was a connection, or timing I don't know. But now, I see that most hiring managers are looking at portfolios as a high percentage of the lithmus test.

The Test:
I give a test. And I came up with a twist. I decided that a candidate should test themselves. So during a 2nd interview I will ask a candidate, "What design problem are you churning on?" Yes, I am testing whether or not they even have a problem they are churning on, and then like Livia, I'm more concerned with the process than the final solution.

I'm intrigued by the Cooper version where you send the test in with the resume. Google also has a questionaire as well.

Comment: Livia Labate (Apr 3, 2005)

Referrals sure make life easier - if X person whom I know tells me a candidate is good or bad, it helps filtering (doesn't decide) who's worthy of an interview and who's not.

I like to contact the referrals after I have already become interested in the resume/portfolio though; good karma from a friend is not enough to get an interview, a robust resume/portfolio is.

I don't have a standardized test, but I can see why Cooper, Google and others would, they must get tons of resumes and it must be really hard to filter what's worthy and what's not. I hope I have that problem someday :)

Comment: gabby (Apr 3, 2005)

I would be thrilled if I encountered some sort of test during an interview! I've been 'round to Sapient, Agency.com and several others in the past five months and each interview centered on two things: 1) deliverables/portfolio; 2) what methodology I've used. Of course, a bit of the standard behavioral approach was also present. None of these interview approaches provides adequate opportunity for someone to discuss how and why a particular navigation scheme was chosen, etc.

The focus on deliverables is, to me, very odd. I confess to being disappointed when the attractiveness of a wireframe is praised--it does seem to be missing the point rather entirely. No one has thought yet to ask me *why* I made the information design decisions represented.

Comment: gabby (Apr 3, 2005)

I would be thrilled if I encountered some sort of test during an interview! I've been 'round to Sapient, Agency.com and several others in the past five months and each interview centered on two things: 1) deliverables/portfolio; 2) what methodology I've used. Of course, a bit of the standard behavioral approach was also present. None of these interview approaches provides adequate opportunity for someone to discuss how and why a particular navigation scheme was chosen, etc.

The focus on deliverables is, to me, very odd. I confess to being disappointed when the attractiveness of a wireframe is praised--it does seem to be missing the point rather entirely. No one has thought yet to ask me *why* I made the information design decisions represented.

Comment: Anon in midwest (Apr 3, 2005)

Great discussion all around. Thanks to all for great points. Following are a few on-thread comments and questions:

1 - "Senior" vs "newbies": I'm a senior-kinda person. I get my hands dirty doing usability/design work, but I also manage a team. As I am striving to advance my career and earnings -- and as I see the myriad IA/UI listings these days -- I'm wondering: Do I stick to the managerial route? Or can I also advance by being a "do-er" -- not managing anyone?

2 - job listings: Recently read about and took a quick first peek at a site called Indeed.com. They gather postings from multiple other sites and at a glance had a boatload of UI listings. They also provide interesting tools -- like RSS for your searches.

Two others -- perhaps lesser known than the usual sources are: HFcareers.com and HCIRN.com.

Comment: Perplexed Portfolio (Apr 4, 2005)

Just out of curiosity I wanna know how much time on an average do Managers spend reading the stuff or scanning a portfolio?

Comment: Livia Labate (Apr 5, 2005)

Christina Wodtke said it better during her presentation for the leadership seminar at the 2005 IA Summit:

http://www.eleganthack.com/conferences/IAsummit2005/Paths%20for%20Designers%20&%20IA%92s.ppt

This diagram shows the different paths one could choose to advance in an IA/design career. The blue squares represent transitioning points and the red circles represent the end of a path.

As you'll notice, the initial breakdown is the choice between business and design, but comparativelly either choice will allow you to advance in the career. It's a really helpful way to view your possibilities in perspective and think about how high or how deep you want to go into the IA practice.

For job listings, I recommend the IA institute job board: http://iainstitute.org/jobboard/

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