Five Negative Perceptions About Information Architects And How To Defeat Them
This is a re-post of an article by Jonathan Lupo, the vice president of Information Architecture at Philadelphia-based Empathy Lab. He reached out to me, mentioning this article, and I thought it was very relevant to the conversation. Thank you Jonathan for being a guest contributor to Usability Counts. Note that Information Architects and Interaction Designers have a lot of overlap depending how your organization defines the role.
This is a very proactive article about how to affect cultural change.
Information Architects often struggle to stay relevant to business clients and internal project teams due to their academic approach to achieving business objectives. Way too often, Information Architecture presentations fail to resonate with internal and external stakeholders due to how methods, findings, and solutions are presented.
The following represent criticisms and challenges that Information Architects encounter on a daily basis:
“User Centered Design (UCD)” is a methodology that results in intuitive and usable interfaces for information retrieval and functional applications. When too much emphasis is placed on the process, however, a presentation may fail to resonate with business stakeholders. For real impact to clients, focus on connecting the dots between UCD services and the business value generated by the service.
Don’t over-emphasize the methodology; keep it simple.
The focus should be on the business and the end-user, not on the discipline of Information Architecture.
Too Much Focus On End-user Benefits
While the goal of User Experience Architecture is to understand and service the needs of end-users, IA practitioners for business clients achieve this goal in order to successfully accomplish business objectives. This point needs to be emphasized in every presentation made to business stakeholders, or the presentation will likely fail to resonate.
Make explicit the connection between satisfying end-users and achieving business objectives.
Too rigid with methodology
Fortunately for the discipline of Information Architecture, there are many ways to put the methodology into practice. If it was an inflexible science, it would rely on a ladder of dependencies in order to be implementable. Essentially, the discipline would become more ideological than practical. Creativity is needed, when applying the User Centered Design methodology to a business initiative, to develop an affordable and valuable set of services to clients. My previous blog post describes ways to indirectly gain intelligence about clients’ end-users when upfront, primary research is out of the question.
There are many alternatives to expensive services that can be utilized in the name of maintaining a healthy client relationship and project timeline, without putting the end-users’ needs at risk. Understand that if upfront research is not in scope, low fidelity design validation should be proposed. And if design validation gets cut, functional prototype testing should be proposed. If any flavor of usability testing gets cut, make a proposal to the client to deploy the product to a select segment or beta population to get some feedback prior to wider distribution.
Most importantly, don’t be inflexible. Listen to other proposals for approaching the project strategically. In fact, don’t rely on your own methods. Ask for alternatives in order to better understand the realm of possibilities that exist to better inform Design.
Information Architects get accused of micro-managing Strategy and Design simply because of the sheer amount of work that they are asked to do. IAs are responsible for informing end-user and content requirements through research, developing use cases, producing a Design concept and interaction model, as well as validating the execution of Design.
Ultimately, the perception that IAs micro-manage Design is only a reflection of the visibility and authority on a project that the Information Architect’s role entails. Therefore, Information Architects have a responsibility to cultivate a culture of openness and collaboration to combat this perception and to not give in to “the power trip.”
The simple truth of the matter is that no one individual has all of the answers. Ideas and Design improve when a group of talented Design professionals weigh-in and provide input. Struggle ceaselessly to make sure input is regularly solicited, and watch the perception of micro-management vanish. More importantly, watch the quality of the work steadily improve.
Constraining Visual Design
Interaction Design is held in high-regard by certain Information Architects and treated dismissively by others. I’ve actually heard IAs tell me that they aren’t interested in doing wireframes because the “real thinking” comes from the research and conceptual user experience strategy that results from the research analysis.
The problem with that sentiment is that clients want design and interaction models sooner in the lifecycle than most Visual Designers are introduced (which is, admittedly, unfortunate). IAs, therefore, need to illustrate the conceptual framework of the user experience and begin pushing the interface elements into the Design phase. Here is where good Information Architects seek the input of Visual Designers.
However, that pairing isn’t always possible.
When collaboration is out of scope, Information Architects should be pushing the interaction design and UI patterns of the User Experience as far as they can. Designers should not feel constrained by detailed UI documentation. Detailed interaction models are possible because of the rich insights that Information Architects gain as a result of primary research.
Designers should appreciate the framework and information hierarchy expressed by the Interaction Designer or Information Architect, but also challenged to improve upon these ideas. It is a sign of weakness when a Visual Designer claims that he/she can’t think out of the boundaries of a wireframe. Design is, by nature, constrained by business and user requirements that the wireframe illustrates.
If Design was without boundaries, it would be Art.