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Jun 11, 2010: What would you like me to teach?

Ever since I left the Nielsen Norman Group "world tour" in 2002, I've been tag teaming day-long workshops with Steve Krug. For most of that time, I taught Enterprise Information Architecture, which is essentially about designing and operationalizing an information architecture within large, disparate, highly-political organizations. During the past two years, I've also taught Site Search Analytics, showing how studying what your users search for on your site can directly improve its design and performance.

I'll keep teaching those workshops, but something's telling me that it'd be a good idea to create a workshop simply on Information Architecture. Not necessarily for the enterprise, and not just about search. Just IA.

I've got a bunch of ideas on what I might cover, but before getting into them in detail, I'd really appreciate your suggestions on what you think I should teach. Here are the ground rules:

  • Format: Like my other workshops, it'll run a day long, with lots of discussion and hands-on exercises.
  • Audience: I'll target beginning and intermediate information architects.
  • Caveats: I'm not going to teach wireframing and sitemapping. There are a zillion better places to get these kinds of commodity skills. Besides, I'll likely include a copy of the polar bear book in the price of admission.

So: what are the critical information architecture concepts or skills that you (or your staff) need? Please comment here; I'll randomly select one of the commenters and send him or her a signed copy of PB3 (to be eligible, please make an actual suggestion). Thanks!

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Comment: Andrew Boyd (Jun 11, 2010)

Hi Lou,

I think that the really hard thing to learn is how to think like an IA:
- looking for patterns of needs and matching those to solutions without preconception or "the crap we got away with last time" best practice potted answers
- understanding that different people think differently and have different information seeking methods and therefore we need to think really hard about how we enable that
- understanding that people do stuff with things, and don't care one whit for anything clever that gets in the way of them doing their necessary stuff.

If you could teach these things, then the world would be a better place :)

Cheers, Andrew

Comment: Brenda (Jun 11, 2010)

How about consulting skills? I know that's sort of broad, but it does take some skill to 1)convince clients it's worth the time to understand users, 2)educate them on the process and 3)convey your findings and recommendations with authority.

Comment: Peter Ellis (Jun 11, 2010)

I think the idea of being able to construct an information architecture in a collaborative way is perhaps the most important - not just getting buy-in, as Brenda suggests, which is important, but talking about how clients need to be involved in the architecture's evolution.

I would also suggest that one of the ideas that is crucial is that there is no such thing as a "static" information architecture. As such, any IA work needs to be cognizant that changes can and will occur, and knowing how to deal with this is also important (heck, even making the IA get the point is important...)

Comment: Carolina Sandoval (Jun 11, 2010)

At the risk of sounds naif, even today,there are two main topics that are always at the top of our needs as professionals:

1)Why is the Information Architecture SO important?,
Why the company should spend money in adding this "extra layer" in their development process?
How will you convice to a CEO, to a finantial specialist, to a designer, to an IT professional, to a journalist, to a client?

2)Which are the real roles for an AI, (inside or outside of an organization).
where it begins, where it ends?

I've been working on this for years, and of course, nobody teaches you about those topics. I know the experience should answer some questions, but I'm sure it would be so valuable if you cover at least one of those topics in your courses.

Comment: Sarah Richards (Jun 12, 2010)

A simple premise all IAs should look at before starting: has the content been rationalised? The best IA in the world can be cluttered and suboptimal if there's conflicting/too much info etc. A simple question to the site's editor can make a great IA really work.

Comment: Mari-Carmen (Jun 12, 2010)

In my experience giving IA courses for mostly people with library science background I have observed difficulties to combine intuition and methods when evaluating or when designing an IA. They tend to follow their intuition and they make very subjective assesment forgetting methodology. Hence, I think the course should deal with *IA methodologies* and explain when and how use them.

Comment: Raj (Jun 12, 2010)

Too often my colleagues (who are not experts in IA) jump very quickly to the wireframing and sitemapping tasks, skipping some very crucial steps. I think it would be helpful to pick up some ideas about how to educate and convince people inside an organisation that there is a lot more to IA.

Comment: Russell Wilson (Jun 12, 2010)

Lou - I'm on business in Munich, so I have to keep this short, but nevertheless I really want to comment on this.

To reach a broader audience and to help those that don't quite get it, I would suggest focusing on something more identifiable and tangible, like what IA is applied to.

What I mean is that you may want to consider teaching a course on designing "good navigation" for websites or web applications.

This is a tangible, much needed, application of IA.

I say this because I would send members from my team (and myself) to a workshop on that very topic. But if I saw a workshop on IA, I would probably recommend that they just read the book...

Comment: Isaac Sane (Jun 13, 2010)

If I had the opportunity to attend such a seminar, would love to learn the following:
- Understand/find critical information from clients/business and the user/customer
(Work with clients to understand their business models and goals relating to the website/web app)
- How to gather key requirements, Analyse audiences and their information and functional needs
- Define site architecture and navigation that serve as a blueprint which can be further developed
- understanding of user experience concepts and how to apply them, including user research – personas, stakeholder interviews and target audience analysis
- How to analyse and measure success of the project


Comment: laurie kalmanson (Jun 13, 2010)

These are the biggest things that make UX/IA deliverables successful, in my experience:

On e-commerce projects:

-- Working with graphic artists, creative directors and business analysts at the place where experience design, interaction design and visual design meet to form the brand

On major rebuilds and redesigns:

-- Knowledge sharing/buyin from subject matter experts

-- How content and categories should change/stay the same; keep/discard/new

-- Tech considerations and discovering the right set of tools for a given project

Comment: Marcel Zimmermann (Jun 14, 2010)

I see two critical points:
(1) Getting the "job" started. If the ball is in front of the goal, there's no question about what to do. But what are the right "own" practical strategies to setup and calculate the project, what are the best ways to understand the coustomer needs and bringing that together with the user needs - especially in Enterprise IA.

(2) Justifing your work. It's not only a nice and friendly business. How do you design the "internal" communication to the tech-team and customer? how do you make sure that your IA-deliverables work for both sides?

Comment: Lou (Jun 14, 2010)

Thanks so much for the comments, all! Hoping for more; this is so helpful.

Comment: Dan Szuc (Jun 14, 2010)

Hi Lou:

Some random thoughts:

* How to discover/find critical content from both business and customers
* Understanding the business - sample questions to ask the business
* How to bridge into product strategy
* Developing a content strategy in your organization
* Bridging IA into key journeys, component placement and wireframes
* Iterating IA with product teams
* Moving deliverables from concept to finished product (and the conversations, culture, bridges etc required to that)
* Measuring success
* Removing content with the attempt to simplify and save on resources
* Sustainable and scaleable IA's that account for business/product positioning in year 1, 2 + i.e. where are we now and where do we want to be

Some of this comes fresh from some project work we are in the middle of currently ;)

Happy World Cup!

Comment: Steve (Jun 14, 2010)

Hi Lou - One of the most interesting and difficult aspects of IA I've found is planning and managing the people involved. Promoting user-centered design processes is often the hardest part of any project. We all hear about these hypothetical places to work where everything is perfect and there are dedicated teams who all believe in balancing business and user needs...but most of us struggle to convince our employers that a simple card sort is worthwhile. Some tips on breaking the barriers to change in environments that have had nearly zero user input would be great!

Comment: Caleb Brown (Jun 15, 2010)

Hi Lou! Great to read through all the insights, questions, bits of valuable life-experience above. Just hearing people talk about what to talk about is instructive.

2 quick things:

#1 - I attended your Enterprise IA talk in Boston in 2005, and thought it was applicable for me and other folks doing mixed-IA (at studios, small shops, consultancies rather than in-house at a big corp.). So you are still in the right ballpark...It's a big ballpark (with lots of quirky corners. Will you update your EIA Roadmap? Or create another diagram? I have found that visual to be inspiring and shared it widely. Unrelated: "Mixed-IA" makes me think of "Mixed Martial-Arts"...Are the two practices twins separated at birth?!

#2 - There is a fascinating conversation going on right now at LinkedIn regarding how the different things that an IA might be tasked to do at any given time delaminate to different roles in an organization...Also a good cross-section of how the companies/jobtitles might approach dividing the IA work and then merging downstream:
...What I like about this discussion is that it gets to the heart of why doing this work becomes so personal. Personally relevant, meaningful...The folks who have commented talk about their good and bad collaborations and how overlaps may be gracefully addressed. They also highlight "attachment" to deliverables, architectures, relationships within the org. Great fodder for thinking!
Anyway, Lou, I would devote some time to that stuff. What makes IA personal to different people who have overlapping jobs. How to expect and deal with overlaps/reduplications/reinterpretations productively with minimal ego. How to be a stakeholder without being to attached to outcome.

Thanks! Congrats on Polar Bear v3!

Comment: Derek (Jun 16, 2010)

That information architecture does not necessarily function like database design. The latter is optimized for a computer to access the information, while the former is optimized for people to access the information. And people think differently than computers - multidimensionally and from a variety of perspectives.

Comment: jordisan (Jun 17, 2010)

Something more specific about using *benchmarking* would be nice.

Comment: Mike (Jun 17, 2010)

How about a bit of time devoted to the short history of IA and what has and hasn't worked over that period? With the glut of how-to articles, tips and tricks blog posts, webinars, etc. as well and the cottage industry created around "gurus" and their advice, lots of IA best practices have been offered up, but not all have stood the test of time. It would be interesting to get a sense of what has proven itself over time, what has not and some reasons why.

Comment: Jenine (Jun 17, 2010)

How about covering something to do with augmented reality. I just came from a very interesting presentation, and it got me thinking about all kinds of IA/UX issues around the digital landscape.

Comment: Kaleem (Jun 17, 2010)

Far and away, the topic that needs to be addressed is everything that comes before the wireframe.

I see this over and over again with novice and intermediate IAs: the wireframe is not the end but an interim step in a much larger process. Too many folks don't spend the necessary time up front, which leads to poor IA and designs, which then costs time and money because the deliverables need to be heavily revised.

I think a strong focus on the thought, preparation, research and process before one ever starts a wireframe is ideal for the audience you want to address.

The second thing I think beginner and intermediate IAs need to learn is how to communicate and socialize IA and design to a client (and I use client broadly, including internal stakeholders within a company or in a consulting or agency relationship). Dan Brown does this exceedingly well, but having both the "before and after" in one workshop would be a boon for all.

Third, address the myriad roles that IAs fill and the many things that non-practitioners expect an IA to do, even though it's not strictly core IA.

Fourth, how to diagnose and address a client/organization, which is critical to project success. Understanding the environment you work in is at least as important as what you deliver, and has a real impact on the outcome.

Fifth, how to demonstrate value and measure success, particularly to those who are skeptical or know that "we need IA" but don't quite understand what that means.

I have more but for the sake of brevity I'll leave it there.


Comment: Alexandr (Jun 17, 2010)

I think you should tell about what IA is NOT, because a lot of people get it wrong. Sharing experience on proving good IA planning and research has to take place in pretty much any organization.

I've heard some thoughts about how IA research can stay in the way or even kill a new interesting start-up. Like there wouldn't be twitter, if guys did a proper IA research before launching it. They say it should come AFTER the first product launch in many cases.

What metrics and data can be used to prove your solutions are the best?

What disciplines can information architect learn a lot from?

Selling IA is also an interesting and important subject.

Comment: Lou (Jun 18, 2010)

...and that's a wrap. Thanks folks for the incredible input! This will be really helpful for me as I put together a new workshop. Look for news of this as fall approaches.

And as far as the free signed book, I just consulted with my random number generator (AKA Mary Jean Babic), and Caleb Brown (#14), you are the winner! Will be in touch via email.

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