Straight From the Horse’s Mouth with Tom Wailes

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banda_headphones_sm.gif Christina Wodtke traveled with microphone to the IA Summit in Las Vegas this year and sat down with some of the most interesting and accomplished information archictects and designers in all the land. Bill Wetherell recorded those five conversations, and now B&A is proud to bring them to you. Thanks to AOL for sponsoring these podcasts.

_*You Only See the Tip*_ In this cliffhanging podcast, Bill Wetherell wields the mic as he explores how Tom Wailes and his team at Yahoo! turned the normal design process on its head. They were successful, Wails posits, because they worked small and crafty while being inclusive in most useful ways.

If you are in a position where a new approach might reignite creativity and effectiveness in your organization, check out Tom’s thoughtful approach.

We discuss…

*Innovation at Yahoo!*
Tom talks about how his team at Yahoo! have completely reversed every day business processes to be more innovative and creative.

*KISS methodology*
Tom talks about the need to keep things simple and small; leading the process so creativity and innovation become part of the team culture.

*Being one of the cool kids*
Tom talks about the importance of involving everyone who wants to be part of such a team and how “Tiger teams” tend to intimidate preventing the whole team from realizing their potential.

*Less can be more*
Tom talks about the ice burg theory, how most of the work when creating brilliant design is unseen to the client. The best solutions are often the ones with the least amount of detail.

*Is it Bond…James Bond?”*
He goes on to describe how some parts of creating a design team involve communicating with everyone about the process; while other occasions merit a more stealth like approach around the office.


Announcer: This podcast is brought to you by AOL, now hiring designers in Silicon Valley, New York City and the Washington, D.C. area. Help us set the standard for what happens next in the Web. Send your resume to UI Jobs at today.

[musical interlude]

Woman Announcer: Boxes and Arrows is always looking for new thinking from the brightest minds in user experience design. At the IA Summit, we sat down with Tom Wailes from Yahoo!

Bill Wetherell: Hi, this is Bill Wetherell, I’m from AOL. I’m here with Tom Wailes from Yahoo! Tom, you gave a great inspiring talk, I felt, today, and maybe you could talk to us a little bit about what innovation is like on your project at Yahoo!

Tom Wailes: What innovation is like, I think, there’s a couple of key things that we were trying to get across in that work. One of them is that we’ve completely reversed our process in order to be more creative and more innovative. We used to do piles of documentation, all the traditional stuff, requirements, documents, spent ages going through those with the team and its rating; wire frames, flows, all the usual suspects.

But it is one that is tedious for everyone, so it’s just not much fun. I think perhaps because it’s not fun, it’s not conducive to creativity either which is very important. I mean, it’s not very energizing, so people in the team are not inspired, and if you’re not having fun, you’re not energized and you’re not being as crazy for it as you could be then you’re not going to do such a good work.

So we’re still working through this, like we said in the talk, we haven’t figured out “Here is the methodology, this is how you should do it.” So again, maybe I should emphasize more in the talk I think I’d encourage people to just play with the process, try new things. Don’t be afraid to try new things, mix it up.

But I think the important thing is first, obviously start with the customers and the users and really to try and understand their needs and whether that’s through field studies or market research or, in our case, a combination of different things. From that, then go straight into ideation and, as soon as possible, start visualizing those ideas.

So that’s really the core of what we’re talking about today, visualizing ideas in different ways whether that’s through storyboards to talk about from users perspective or approach typing and simulations to really show what the product feels like. It’s only after that once you’ve figured out what the core ideas are going to be and you got a good sense of the feel of those core ideas and the experience, then if necessary, you can go into detailing out all the edge cases and things, the wire frame and the rest of it. So that very much secondary documentation for us now, the primary documentation is prototyping and storyboarding and things like that.

Bill: During your experience at Yahoo!, do you find any opponents to the process or were there any people that maybe didn’t set too all with? Are there really ruffled some feathers?

Tom: One thing I should note is that this is just what we’re doing in our team at Yahoo! And at Yahoo!, there are many, many teams and each team has a different culture, a different way of doing things. So what we’re doing is not really like probably any of the other teams at Yahoo! And they are all a bit different, so it’s just one thing to note. I think that’s one reason why we decided not to really press too hard too early to go into this big ideation phase was to minimize the chance of resistance.

It’s all that fiesta, I don’t want to have to think whether I’m going to derail these other projects, if I’m going to have to divert resources. That was a big reason why we played it that way but it’s build over time, there’s this idea that we really should do something to clarify the big vision, the overall goal that we’re shooting for. So that was just the approach we took in that situation as well as those small successes that entail very little risk. You just take in couple of resources for a day or whatever it is. So it’s a much easier sale because, what the hell, it’s just the day.

Bill: Yes, you and Kevin talked a lot about doing small things and saying small things. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Tom: Yes, again, I think that was a reaction against what we’ve seen other people try to do where you feel like if you have a big idea, like in this example, we really need to change the whole roadmap of the products. We need to really figure out what the vision of the product is which is quite a big thing. Then when you have overall of this big thing, you feel like you need some big event where there’s a big presentation in front of key stakeholders.

The problem with that is one, I think you’re more likely to encounter resistance for a variety of reasons; and two, it just ends up inhibiting you as well because it becomes this big burdens on thing that you’ve got to create. Then it’s like, “When do I find the time? Oh, my God, I’ve got to get it just right because this is my one big swing for the fences” kind of things, so all these pressure on yourself which actually makes you fearful as well. “What if I don’t do a good job of it? I’ll just look stupid or I’ll miss my opportunity.” Again, there’s internal fears and pressures and everyone could come out with the laundry list of why they can’t do something.

So yes, I think, that’s why we want it to start small and then let it become part of the team culture because a lot of these is about fostering the right culture in the team to be creative, to be comfortable with creativity and innovation. It’s not just about the design that’s doing that, it’s about everyone participating in that process and having that culture like that.

Bill: Actually on that note, since you’re talking of culture, how do you decide or do you decide who is on this sort of innovation team or is everyone involved?

Tom: What we try to do in our case was involved as many people as possible, at least in some ways. For example, the brainstorms, that was wide open. We just used tweaky pages internally. So we used those sign up sheets and just spammed everyone with email about what we’re going to do and it’s already first come, first serve. You just sign up on the page and it was open to everyone. Of course, they’re sort of who is going to be key people that would really liked to get involve so you might spend extra time hounding them to make sure they show up.

But it was important to everyone on the team to feel like they had an opportunity to be heard. I think what is not conducive to really creating the right culture is if you start having these “awesome” team and this sort of elite tiger team that’s doing all the brainstorming and figuring out all the ideas and then there’s just all the production monkeys who are putting it into action.

The thing is it was like that opening session, the Joshua with the architecture stuff, where you really need everyone to be involved in the process because everyone is going to end up owning it, every engineer and every product manager to make the final product right. Everyone is going to have to be creative in problem-solving throughout the process until the final, in our case, pixel is delivered or the final line of code. So it’s not enough to just say, “Here’s a great idea” or “You, non-idea people, you go and implement it”. They’ve got to feel ownership to that idea and they’ve got to be applying their creativity to actually implement it.

Bill: There’s definitely been–it seems like a popularization of Scrum and Agile processes like that, where if at all, do you see what you’re doing in innovation, in general, fitting into that kind of a world?

Tom: I think this is definitely been a struggle for designers and user experience people working with Scrum and Agile. I’m not an expert in Scrum and Agile but my understanding is it really evolved out of more engineering needs for building products. There’s a lot of sense or reasons to break a project up into lots of small little parts that individually work rather than you sort of work for months and months and months and it’s all suppose to come together magically once in the day before launch, kind of thing which is quite risky. So it’s a way of minimizing risk.

But it’s a problem for designers for exactly the reason that we illustrated today, in that each individual piece might make sense, but there’s in this Scrum process that it’s not very clear often where you decide what the overall vision is. There have been people who’ve talked about Scrum Zeros and things like that where you–and this what we’ve done lately–set aside some time at the beginning before you go into this Scrums of really making sure you’ve got clarity of vision.

Then you can execute even from the design point of view as well as engineering as you go through this Scrum. So I think Scrum is useful for executing but you really need to start out without that overall vision so you know where it’s going and you know what it’s going to add up to. It’s got to be more in the sum of the parts to really be compelling.

Bill: It seems like you, guys, come out with less UI at the end and more storyboards or conceptual pieces. How do you see that in comparison to other process that you used to deal with where you’d deliver wire frames and deliverables. Can you explain the difference a little bit and maybe some challenges you see between those two worlds?

Tom: It’s funny that you said the last because that iceberg metaphor that you saw that came out of–we have various user experience team meetings for broadly across Yahoo! And we are presenting some of the work that we’d done in storyboarding as a little snippet of you saw today. One of the designers who wasn’t on our team–he was on the search team–and at the end of it, he said, “I don’t really see much design work there.” I was actually pretty astonished that the designer would say that. So I went a bit Basil Fawlty and do that whole iceberg thing on the whiteboard saying, “Look, this is what you’re seeing is the iceberg but there’s a ton of stuff and every designer knows this that goes on underneath the water to get to that thing that you see above the water.

So I don’t think it’s a problem that we have less output. I think, frankly, a lot of the output that we have, traditionally–whether it’s in consulting or in-house–is propaganda. It’s propaganda for designers or information architects. What it mainly communicates, if you’ve been harsh, you saying, “I’m really clever, you’re getting a lot for your money and you know that because you don’t really understand this document very well and you certainly don’t understand very well how it was created.” So, gosh, it must be worthwhile having me around, wasn’t it?”

That’s just bullshit. So, I don’t have a problem that those, quote/unquote, “less-designed” delivered at the end.

You know, the main goal should be creating the most compelling product over experience. And, really, how you get there is incidental. And, I certainly don’t think that it’s, that Y-frames and flows are a really good place to start that. And, there’s a place for them, I think, in the process, but, certainly, not at the heart of the process. And, that’s the problem that we had, and we realized that it just wasn’t working.

It wasn’t working creatively to figure out the problems. And, it wasn’t working in terms of communicating. So, that’s why we flipped it.

Bill: How much of this process at Yahoo was stealth? Was behind the scenes, or was it all? You talked about transparency. Did everyone know this was going on, or were there cases where you had to, I guess, play it a little subtlely as opposed, just to get it done?

Tom: I think there’s a bit of both. And, we did show a couple of different examples. Like, there were, there was that Design Day example and the Field Day example that were very public. They, we weren’t hiding anything and we were actively encouraging participation. That was, the point of those things was to involve everyone else in those processes.

And, also de-mystify it saying, look. OK. You think you can’t draw for the Design Day, for example. It doesn’t matter. You find a way. The only rule for that was you had to express your idea visually. No sort of long, wordy lists describing your idea. Just show it visually. Scratch out a storyboard, or show it as some rough prototype. Do something that visually conveys the idea.

The Field Day thing was, you know, the goal was not to convert engineers and QA people, PR people into expert ethnographers. It’s not needed. Really, it was saying, look, that it’s basic. It’s not rocket science.

This is just about, let’s get out and talk to our customers. And, see them in their own environment and see things from their point-of-view. That’s it. And then, the deliverable at the end, you know, you saw a little snippet of that, was just creating a poster. So, some of them were very public.

But then, there was the other example where Kevin had a little bit of, you know, kind of, slack time in his schedule. And so, that was the case. Well, let’s just take it. Why sort of ask permission? Is it OK? Let’s just do it. It doesn’t matter. You know, let’s go off for a couple of days and, you know, who cares?

And then, if it had been a disaster, if what we had come back with was rubbish. You know, if internally, if we decided it was rubbish. Well, then we do, just [swoosh sound]…

Bill: Right.

Tom: …you know, just sweep it under the carpet and no big deal. So, I think you can mix and match.

But then, there’s also the other big point about this starting small conversations which is really to start triggering ideas in other people. So, it’s not you bellowing a message to everyone else. It’s, you’re just transmitting the message quietly. And, letting it spread and grow. And, you can start reinforcing it more as time goes on.

But, in the end, hopefully, if the idea has merit, so, it’s a good way to test your idea. If it really does start blossoming in the organization in, like in our case, we have, we stopped talking about it. We didn’t have to because everyone else was saying, when are you going to do this? We really need to do it.

And, we didn’t have to do any big, fancy presentation. Or, you know, bang the table, or anything like that. So, I think you, I think, again, experiment with different methods. And, each situation is going to be a bit different. Each company is going to be a bit different.

So, try some stealth. Try some things where you just go do something and don’t tell anyone. Try small activities which are public and do involve people. And, try small conversations. Or, you could even try a big presentation if that’s, you know, for whatever reason, you think it’s going to work. So, just mix it up. And, don’t feel like there’s one way to do things.

Bill: Great. Hey, Tom. Thank you so much for talking to us today.

Tom: OK. Thank you very much for your time.

Straight From the Horse’s Mouth with Derek Featherstone

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iTunes     Download     Pod-safe music generously provided by Sonic Blue

banda_headphones_sm.gif Christina Wodtke traveled with microphone to the IA Summit in Las Vegas this year and sat down with some of the most interesting and accomplished information archictects and designers in all the land. Bill Wetherell recorded those five conversations, and now B&A is proud to bring them to you. Thanks to AOL for sponsoring these podcasts.

Christina talks with web accessibility and design expert Derek Featherstone about considering accessibility as a foundational part of the design process. By doing so, he argues, the software we build will have better structure and be inherently more useful for everyone who uses it.

This interview is a must listen if you want to learn about this emergent part of our practice that started as a grassroots movement in developer communities.

We discuss…

*What do IA and Accessbility have in common?*
Derek looks at the bigger picture when it comes to accessibility, believing that focusing on accessibility by itself will cause the web design to fall short in other important areas.

*Fashionably late?*
Derek goes on to outline the problems of brining accessibility issues to the table late in the design process, including impact on project scope. As Derek points out, better to measure not once, but three of four times before cutting…metaphorically speaking.

*Easy does it!*
Derek talks about specific examples of issues that have arisen when sites for the Canadian Federal Government have been found to be inaccessible and the consequences that follow.

*Heart and Soul*
Derek talks about the value in this work is knowing simply that he’s helping people with disabilities share in the same experiences as everyone else. “I don’t think I could even make an inaccessible web site, now!”

*Structure is at the Core*
He describes how structure (following HTML web standards) allows assistive devices to know what the page is communicating.

*Interaction Design and Accessibility*
Derek suggests trying to think about accessibility from an Interactive perspective. Using things like flow, and rhythm to convey meaning in something we read for those who can’t see.

*Flash in the pan?*
Derek thinks there are great Flash sites and use of the product. In fact Flash has a wealth of accessibility features at the developer’s disposal. The message is just not getting out there fast enough.

Straight From the Horses Mouth with Derek Featherstone.

Automated Voice: This broadcast is brought to you by AOL, now hiring designers in Silicon Valley, New York City and the Washington, D.C. area. Help us set the standard for what happens next on the web.

Send your resume to today.

[Theme music]

Female Voice: Boxes and Arrows is always looking for new thinking from the brightest minds and user experience design. At the IA Summit, we sat down with Derek Featherstone from Further Ahead.

Christina Wodtke: I’m Christina Wodtke of Boxes and Arrows and I’m sitting here talking with Derek Featherstone. I don’t even know the name of your company.

Derek Featherstone: My Company is called Further Ahead.

Christina: Further Ahead, I like that very much. So, Derek you are here talking to folks about accessibility and from what I hear, your workshop was fairly well-attended, pretty crowded in there. So tell me, what is it about IA and accessibility? I wouldn’t have guessed they have a lot to do with each other.

Derek: I think, for me, the way I see it is that they are both related because they’re both part of overall user experience.

A lot of people look at accessibility as this little thing that’s on its own but if you do accessibility on its own and treat it as its own component, it becomes like a second class citizen and so it’s not integrated into everything else that we’re doing.

And when you treat it as something that’s just kind of like the checklist training – that’s what everybody thinks of when they think accessibility is this checklist of things that we need to do.

It really becomes something that is removed from the overall design process and the build process, and understanding it as part of user experience on how people, actually, use the web.

Christina: What are some of the bad consequences of having it outside of the design process?

Derek: Well, I think the biggest problem that I’ve seen is that it just gets addressed too late in the process.

So I’ll have clients sometimes come to me two weeks before they are ready to launch a site and they know it needs to be accessible and then I’ll go through and I’ll do an assessment of it, will do user testing with it and will go back and say: “There’s a lot of things that need to be fixed, let’s make this happen.” It’s like they can’t go live or it goes live with a lot of accessibility issues in it.

So that’s, sort of, the most significant problem – is that it gets dealt with too late and then it cost money because you have to go back and retrofit.

Retrofitting a site is never fun and it can be a lengthy process especially depending on how far along you are and how complicated your framework is, what you’re doing on the back end in terms of code.

You might not be able to change things as easily as if you’d dealt with it up front and how accessibility is taken into account at the prototype stage.

So that’s the number one issue, I think – is that it just — it becomes an afterthought and then it’s seen as this button that you just end up with an inaccessible product because of it.

Christina: So it’s an old adage of measured twice and cut once?

Derek: Or measured three or four time and cut once.

Christina: OK. So what happens to those sites where accessibility problems go live? What happens when you aren’t as careful as you should be?

Derek: I mean, depending on who you are, you are kind of hope and pray that you don’t run into any issues where people — you know in Canada, for example, we have sites that may have accessibility problems that are federal government sites and people will launch actions.

They’ll bring that to, say, Canadian Human Rights Commission and they will say: “There’s this service that’s offered online that I can’t access because it’s fundamentally inaccessible. There is all these issues with it.”

So that works its way up the food chain through a process to get resolved. So that’s certainly one of the dangers in Canada.

You know, here in the states, it’s a little bit different although very similar as the Human Rights Commission, but ultimately Section 508 here in the states is there to guarantee or at least provide for a minimum of accessibility.

I’m not sure if people launch complaints with the governments or if it’s more dealt within a civil manner as we see all kinds of suits these days against companies in Texas and the National Federation of Blind launching their suit against Target.

I think the one in Texas was Oracle – all this legislation exists and if you’re not accessible then you’re, kind of, get caught with your past though.

Christina: So lawsuits and government action is at stake. Is there a carrot as well to encourage people to think about accessibility?

I’ve heard some people talk about, like, good code and good accessibility, meaning good search engine results; can you give us some advantages?

Derek: Yeah, I mean, that certainly is one of the advantages. There is a danger though in that being the motivation for it.

I think that biggest carrot is that we are doing this to help people with disabilities use the web. I see the web as, and I think a lot of people see the web, as great tool to level the playing field.

Having the ability to be somebody that’s, say, blind or is, say, confined to a wheelchair, they have the ability to shop online just like anybody else can.

It is an attempt or hopefully a mechanism to get that level of playing field and unfortunately that’s not reality. So the biggest carrot for me is knowing that people with disabilities can actually use the web the way it was intended to be used.

And I know that one of the things that I’ve always done that’s worked really well is for people that don’t necessarily know about accessibility or don’t know some of the advantages of it, just doing user testing with them or having them observe user testing some of the frustrations of using even their own websites.

Getting business owners and people that are driving groups – the owners of the websites to see it for themselves and to hear it for themselves really makes a big difference.

So that’s the carrot that I like to use although there are definitely benefits from a search engine optimization perspective. The foundation of accessibility, really, is that structured semantic underlying data and that’s the same for search engine optimization, so the two of those fit really nicely together.

You know, there are other things too like lightweight pages make it easier to download, things like that. So those are all these extra side benefits that may help people that want to browse on a mobile device. But I don’t see those as being, certainly — those might be like 10 karat and people with disabilities are like a 24 karat.

Christina: 24-karat carrot.

Derek: Yeah, exactly.

Christina: I like that. So well, luckily, you have all those carrots because I have noticed the business are not always altruistic as we might want them to be.

Derek: Yeah, it’s true. I mean, it is something where — I’m fortunate in that all the clients that I have and that I worked with, I never really had anybody that I’ve had to sell it to them and used those other carrots and especially when I’m developing sites and building sites.

This is just the way we do it now. I don’t think I could even make an inaccessible website. I mean, this is the way that we build sites now and that’s just how it is. There’s nothing to, really, sell in a lot of ways.

Christina: So you mentioned that you have more work than you can, actually, possibly do right now and that you’ve been doing this for awhile, do you think that there’s an increased awareness of the value of accessibility? Do you think more people are worried about it or caring about it in the past?

Derek: Yeah, I think some of the visibility or some of these lawsuits is having an impact. I think there is more awareness of it in general and I think a lot of people – there’s, kind of, a web standards’ movement among developers that just keeps growing.

So there’s a group of people that are just out there, that are just doing this because it’s the right way to do things.

So I think that it’s kind of a — is this grassroots movement that is helping to spread that vision of accessibility into organizations all over the place. So I think people are definitely more aware of it these days.

Christina: Earlier you mentioned the lightweight pages, are there some other core precepts of accessibility that you could share?

Derek: I think, well, I mean, the absolute based one is structure – having that structure that enables assistive devices to understand a little bit more about what the page actually is.

Christina: What do you mean by structure?

Derek: Just structuring your page so that you have —

Christina: The HTML? The —

Derek: Yeah. Yes, so using the right HTML for the job. So having headings, lists, block quotes – using the age-old sins of HTML was we to indent our texts so we’re going to wrap it all in a block quote or maybe two or three block quotes to bring both the margins. We just don’t do that anymore because block quote actually has meaning and there is a certain semantic to it.

A screen reader will announce that a block quote is a quote.

So if we have three-nested block quotes together to indent something on a page, it just doesn’t make any sense and that’s extra noise for a screen reader.

So, I mean, that’s just one example, we want to make sure that we’re using the tools that even though HTML is an overly semantic latent rich language, we want to use what we do have to its best.

So using lists properly on other lists and ordered lists, using tables properly, using headings, block quotes, all these different elements that we have for the right reasons.

Christina: So are there other ways to make pages a little more accessible?

Derek: Yeah, I think one of the things that I’ve been pushing a lot of people to do or to at least consider is to think of it from an interaction perspective.

One of them is — one of the ways to do that is looking at the visual languages that we create with our designs. We use color and we use actinography and we use things like rhythm and flow and similarity and size, similarity and color.

We use all that visual display to convey meaning to people that can see.

So how can we take that and translate that into something that is useful for our screen readers? So if we’re talking about things being the same size and having the same, sort of, weight then we should do that same thing in the underlying HTML.

So just taking that extra step to think about what you are trying to visually communicate and thinking about ways to communicate that in other ways to people that may not be able to see.

Another example is, you know, we might have sections of a page where we’ll have primary navigation across the top and secondary navigation down the side. We can visually see that based on the position on the page, these lengths are different from those links.

So there are other ways to try and convey that.

You might include, say, before your secondary navigation, you might include a hidden heading that says: “In the section” so that you can distinguish from the primary navigation links from the secondary just so that it makes it a little bit more clear as to what all these different components are.

So that taking that visual to translating into something that’s meaningful in some other way to somebody that’s consuming a page through auditory means.

Christina: So with the penetration of broadband to a much wider audience, we are seeing a lot more use of Flash and Ajax and streaming video, what, sort of, opportunities or challenges are you seeing these days?

Derek: It’s interesting because there’s a lot of belief that, well, because we now have this broadband penetration we can do whatever we want.

One of the main issues that I’ve seen with that is the use of Flash – I think that Flash is great, I think it’s got some really — some great uses on the web, but one of the things that happens is Flash developers don’t necessarily know all the accessibility features that are built in the Flash.

It’s not really well know, but Flash has, in some ways, better accessibility support than technologies like using things like Ajax.

Christina: Wow.

Derek: And that’s been there for some time.

I mean, Macromedia and now Adobe with Flash. They have been putting a lot of time and effort into making that accessible and that’s — they’ve got — right now, at this point, they’ve got better programmatic control over talking to, say, screen readers and through that accessibility architecture that’s built into your operating systems.

There is better support there for things that — for reaching that applications than there are in Ajax right now.

So that’s one of the big things – is with the proliferation of Flash, people don’t even necessarily know that it can be made accessible. The old story was, well, it’s Flash, so it can’t be accessible, but that’s not true. There’s a lot of things in Flash that can be made accessible and the principles are pretty similar to what we have in HTML.

You need to enable keyboard access, so all your buttons that you have in a Flash will lead to, say, save it with your online video, like things that YouTube or Google video or wherever.

All your buttons that you used to control, they need to have the ability to take the keyboard focused, so that you can tab through them.

So you need to label them so that they just don’t get announced as “button” by a screen reader because button, if you have five things that are all announced as “button”, it’s not clear what it is.

Christina: “Button, button, who’s got the button?”

Derek: Exactly. Exactly. So that’s a big challenge right – is encouraging other people. There are some really brilliant people working on Flash accessibility but it’s just not proliferating. We need to continue to get that word out that you can make Flash accessible.

Christina: Well, you know, Ajax is the flavor of the week and flick or flip completely out from Flash to Ajax and we’re seeing a lot of other new Web 2.0 items in Ajax.

What should people be thinking about is as you sit down to knock out the next most amazing project ever?

Derek: That’s a good question. I mean, in terms of accessibility – I know I have said this a lot now, but the underlying structure is almost everything. That gives you your framework.

So having good, solid HTML which most people that are building new applications are these days, really, what they need to do to take it to that next level is think of the interaction and think of that Ajax component as that final enhancement rather than the first enhancement.

A lot of people think about it – they start creating a new application and the very first thing they do is say: “OK, this is going to be Ajax-driven.” If we can avoid people thinking that way, let’s think of the core structure first, what are we actually trying to do in terms of our interaction?

Then how do we enhance what we’ve already got with Ajax?

Christina: Now, that does sound like information architecture and interaction design to me very much.

Derek: Exactly and the biggest thing that people don’t ask is should we even be using Ajax for this in the first place? And that question just doesn’t get asked enough. There are lots of examples out there where there’s really —

Christina: You mean [indecipherable] names?

Derek: No, I’m not even thinking of any applications in particular but there are situations where the assumption has been we need Ajax to do this but all these things that are happening in this Web 2.0-sphere that are all around tagging at social interaction and social networking, we don’t need Ajax for any of that.

Those ideas are really just concepts; it’s nothing to do with the technology.

We can use Ajax to make those concepts come to fruition in a much more usable manner and in some ways it’s almost more accessible to use some Ajax-type techniques because the fact that the page doesn’t refresh means we don’t lose all that context and have to wait for that page to reload.

So it’s quite possible that using Ajax to expand the nodes of a tree in a file view, for example, might actually be more accessible because it’s easier to maintain contexts; people don’t have to go through that refresh.

So there’s a lot of interesting things to think about that. We’ve only really just started exploring.

Christina: OK. So let’s say, you know, I am that little company and I will say I’ve built it, I didn’t think about accessibility, what should I be looking for just to see if I’m going to be in deep trouble with the law? Is there any quick way I can go through and see if I’ve got big trouble or little trouble?

Derek: I mean there are online checkers that can do a quick and dirty analysis for you.

The biggest problem with it right now is that a lot of accessibility even though there is a checklist to reliably and mechanically checks for those things in automated way, you can maybe hit 25% to 30% of the issues. So you do need to do a bit of a manual review.

One of the things that you can do though, and I do this all the time, is go out to the local college or university and get people from the center for students with disabilities and just get them to — you know, they’ll be more than happy, usually to volunteer to test things out for you.

Christina: After users?

Derek: Yeah, I know it’s crazy, isn’t it? Unbelievable. I mean, who would have thought?

Christina: You’re a radical thinker.

Derek: I know. I know it’s crazy. It’s crazy.

Christina: Well, this is fantastic. Thank you so much, Derek, any last words to the folks thinking about accessibility out there?

Derek: You know, the main thing is just keep thinking about it because that’s what we need – is we need more people thinking about it all the time.

Christina: Make good code and think about your users out there.

Derek: Exactly.

Christina: Sounds good no matter what you’re working in.

Derek: Absolutely.

Christina: Thanks, Derek.

Derek: Thank you.

[Theme music]

Straight from the Horse’s Mouth with Livia Labate and Austin Govella

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iTunes     Download     Pod-safe music generously provided by Sonic Blue

banda_headphones_sm.gif Christina Wodtke traveled with microphone to the IA Summit in Las Vegas this year and sat down with some of the most interesting and accomplished information archictects and designers in all the land. Bill Wetherell recorded those five conversations, and now B&A is proud to bring them to you. Thanks to AOL for sponsoring these podcasts.

Christina talks with Livia Labate and Austin Govella about the UX practice in Comcast and how they have created an environment where they are treated as colleagues rather than a service organization.

We discuss…

*Big IA vs. Little IA*
Livia describes “Little IA” as the bottom-up approach to projects looking at the structure and organization of content. While “Big IA” is about acquiring user and business needs and then converging these, taking content and structure into account.

*Defining the damn thing*
Does the role define the person or does the person define the role? Austin believes that job titles are not relevant any more. What matters is learning from other professionals to improve upon a product or create a new solution to an old problem.

*Ying Yang*
The need for “specialization” and the need for “collaboration” in business is a big challenge. These two important yet distinct elements are rarely looked at in harmony.

*What is IA all about…besides “herding cats?”*
Livia defines this process through their mission statement: “Balancing user needs and business goals to create a framework in creating positive user experience”. This helps them define the boundaries of Information Architecture.

*Looking through the Looking Glass*
Austin suggests reading business publications thereby changing the words you use to sell ideas to different members of the corporation. Dress code also impacts the kinds of conversations you have with the client. Know who you are presenting too, and dress the part.

*Describing Value*
Austin discusses the importance of talking to business leaders about design choices in their own language. For example, “this move will decrease our acquisition rate”…”decrease our ability to convert people”…”decrease our referrals.” In essence, know your audience and speak their language.

*Secrets to Success*
Christina sums up this conversation beautifully, “…learn the language, lose the agenda, be a resource, and dress better!”


Announcer: This podcast is brought to you by AOL, now hiring designers in Silicon Valley, New York City and the Washington DC area. Help us set the standard for what happens next in the Web. Send your resume to UI Jobs at today.

[musical interlude]

Boxes and Arrows is always looking for new thinking from the brightest minds in user experience design. At the IA Summit, we sat down with Livia Labate and Austin Govella from Comcast.

Christina Wodtke: Hi, I’m Christina Wodtke of Boxes and Arrows and we’re here talking to Livia Labate and Austin Govella of Comcast. We’ve been having some really interesting conversations here at the Summit about the importance of business to information architects and vice versa. So Austin’s is going to be giving a talk about that and so we thought we’d grab a couple of minutes with them and hear what they have to say. So Austin, what inspired your talk? Did it come from work?

Austin Govella: Yes, it came from work and it came from–like all the discussions we have, people have about big IA and now it’s inaccessible and, I think, they can’t do it or they’re not supposed to do it. I remember some of my experiences [indecipherable] the little IA that became big IA and I came on the idea that big IA is a way you work not the things that you do per se.

Christina: OK, some of our folks at Boxes and Arrows actually aren’t information architects and that’s a little bit shocking. So actually, Liv, can you explain the big IA, little IA definitions and how you see them at Comcast?

Livia: So generally, the way that I interpret that is little IA is really the bottom of looking at the content and building structure from it, so understanding and thinking about the more granular aspects of information and growing the structure and the hierarchies and things like that from that. The top-down big IA type of work is more looking from getting insights from user needs and the business needs and converging those things and then taking the rural aspects like content and other things into account but just from a different angle. I think it’s not a matter of one or the other, you actually have to work in both levels, and that’s something that we try to do. But it’s not like we have a formal way to do that.

But something that’s interesting in terms of business in IA is that often, I’ll get to the discussion of process, so thinking about “Who does little IA, who does big IA?” and how does that jibe with everyone else’s work? To us really what matters is servicing the business and so providing a service to the business and so the process needs to support that. So in many ways, we’re seen as top-down because we’re thinking about the goal aspects of the business and working with that to the more granular aspects of what we need to do.

Christina: A lot of people have said that the concept of big IA is really the job of a product manager or it’s something that they call user experience or UX. Your talk is to bring back big IA or at least defend it. Can you talk a little bit more about how it’s unique and why it’s important to Comcast or business, in general?

Austin: I don’t think it’s unique and I normally think necessarily it’s more important than other things so I think it is important. Even if you’re just doing a wireframe, something for just one screen or one product that maybe you’ve think only one user or need is something that’s to be driven by the business goals.

And that thinking from the goal of perspective like that, makes that one wireframe is sort of just being this one piece that isn’t in the [indecipherable] somewhere catapults that into something that’s part of the business’s conversation as a whole. And to me, that’s the kind of work that people should be doing regardless, like your work shouldn’t be just this one that doesn’t have any legs that should feed the business’s organism. So that’s the [indecipherable] I take.

Now, I don’t think it’s more important or less important than the business, but I do know like at Comcast, a lot of time people would tell me I’ll ask you a question or make a suggestion and I’ll say that’s not what IA does and I think that’s really humorous because that’s part of what I’ve been doing for years. I think it more matter that it doesn’t really belong to a specific job title. People just get together in a room and you do the work that needs to be done.

Christina: Do you think some people are a little too hung up on roles? I hear you say that’s not what IA does but you’ve been doing it for years. Does the person define the role? Does the role define the person? Because you do it does that make it IA? How do you see that relationship fitting together?

Austin: That’s a good question Christina and I’ve done a lot of thinking about this. [laughter] To me, in the new millennium, the concept of job titles and roles as silos is pretty much irrelevant. Everything is networked, everything is collaborative; everything feeds everything else.

So a lot of disciplines, they like to focus on one aspect of the entire experience. And that’s good because you need a specialist. But there are emerging disciplines or disciplines that have emerged, that bridge, that have lots of overlap like IA, like business analysis and architecture. And the overlap occurs not because they own those areas or that they own anything unique. They don’t even own the overlap but their focus is keeping all the small pieces aligned with the whole.

Now in an optimum organization, my opinion is, that you wouldn’t need IA, or an architect or business analyst because everybody on the ground would be going in the same direction but it’s like herding cats. So you need people to help you herd the cats.

Christina: So Livia, you’re a hiring manager. How does this philosophy jibe with your every day day-to-day experience, trying to get stuff done?

Livia: I think there is a very significant disconnect when we talk about those aspects of what is informational criteria, where does it fit and how does it jibe with the business. The need for a specialization and the need for collaboration are two different things. It’s collaboration of work and specialization of function. I think there is great value in specialization of function.

So I think yes! You do need an IA specialization. You need usability; you need business analysis. But the collaboration is a completely different level. The problem is that when we talk in terms of job titles, we’re not making any of those distinctions so you can interpret it in one way or another. So it becomes very convoluted to have a discussion about who is supposed to do what.

But we really should be having that discussion but it’s a discussion about process. Within the process you define roles and responsibilities but that does not at all eliminate the fact that you need to have dedicated functions. That should just exist. That should be part of the infrastructure. However, you are working your process or how rules are defined within the context of a product development process a maintenance process that is very contextual.

So it might be at one point in a particular project, the IA has a more overarching, organizing role like orchestrating what is happening. In a different context and in a different project, they have a more specific role that’s like figuring out taxonomies and categorization systems. And that is really the boundaries of the role.

So I think it’s important to have the function to indicate what is potentially offered by a function and but in the context of the project, a discussion about how the collaboration is going to work.

Christina: So I hear you say, “the business, ” a lot–“the business”–as if it was a very separate entity from Comcast or what you’re doing. How do you see the relationship of the business to your life as a Comcast employee, as your life as an IA at Comcast? How do you make that relationship with what do you say, satisfying the business or meeting that business’ needs? I think that’s the topic of your talk as well more or less.

Austin: I’ll let Livia take this first. [laughter]

Livia: I had it really good inside, during the Summit, with talking to some people because we always refer to what we do as a service to the business. After talking to people they’re like, “Why do you frame it this way? That might be the reason you’re so distant from the business.” And if you consider yourself just another business instead of the service organization that is servicing all these other business units, you’ll become an entity at the same level as them.

You may be doing the exact same kind of work, but just framing it differently might be a way to be closer to the business. So when I say, “the business, ” I mean the organization so I should probably be saying the organization and not the business. But, that’s something that…

Christina: So, it’s less than business people, it’s more Comcast, in general.

Livia: Yeah. So, when, so, we should really make the distinction of the organization and business units which are the people who are generating the initiatives that we’re working on.

Christina: OK. Do you have something further to say, roofing off of that?

Austin: Well, no, I think that’s important. And, that was one thing that, like, Adam, Adam Greenfeld complained once to me that every, all of the IA stuff is all about business. And, that makes some sense because that’s where the money is.

So, people want to kind of be close to the business talk. But, a lot of times we really do mean the organization. And that, and, if we, if we do frame it, if we were just more careful about how we framed it, then, then I think that opens, it continues to open more doors and also helps get us into other, like, other channels because it’s not just a business where you’re doing web stuff. You’re servicing organizations with experience.

Christina: So if I, it isn’t about business, then what else is it about?

Austin: Herding cats.

Christina: I think that’s project management.

Livia: So, one way, the way that we decided how do we address, how do answer that question for ourselves, and the reason why I wanted to do that is because if we don’t know what our team is about, how are we going to really be providing a good service?

So, the way that we define it, is we have a mission statement that says, we’re the field that balance user needs and business goals to create a framework to enable positive experiences. So, that mission statement defines what we do. And, we do information architecture and usability, but to us it’s a really good way to kind of define the boundaries of the responsibilities of information architecture.

Christina: So, you know, it’s always interesting to me when I hear people talk about we represent the user or we hold the user goals because I don’t know if you’re familiar with George Bull’s research but he shows that the company’s that are the single most effective are the ones in which every single person in the company are responsible for the company’s goals. So, how do you define your role in the company because you’re nodding, you know, you’ve seen this stuff, and you clearly believe it’s true. So, how do you, how do you balance both your direct responsibility to the user with the knowledge that that’s something that needs to belong to the entire organization?

Livia: So, one thing is that I explicitly ask the team not to portray ourselves as user advocates. We are user advocates. But, when we do that people have an expectation that they don’t have the responsibility So, yeah, just go to the IA’s guy, they know the users. And, that means that they are making all those, their decisions in the complete vacuum and they are not addressing those needs.

So, one thing that, I wanted to create some kind of mean that would kind of perhaps permeate the groups and kind of have the responsibility to the users in everyone’s hands. So, and I always go back to something that I heard from you Christina, which is you had those me-men, yahoo, which was every pixel has a job to make. And, I thought that was really good because in, regardless of the context, it was a good way to just kind of have that message out there.

And, we had a really big struggle internally about what is user experience in terms of which team should be called user experience. And, the developers wanted it. We wanted it. And, so, eventually, I said, OK, we’re information architecturing because really that’s what we do, but, user experience is everyone’s responsibility.

So, that became kind of the mean – user experience is everyone’s responsibility. And, I don’t know how far that has been dissipated. But, that’s something I’m trying to always bring up. And, some people have actually come back to me and said, Oh, I understand what you mean by that. But, how can I actually do something about it?

So, that allowed us to bridge some connections that we didn’t have, and say, here’s how we can help you. And, that role of user advocates, now, we can give something to them and they can be user advocates. So, it’s a work in progress. But, I’m pretty happy about where we’re going with that.

Christina: Leads can be pretty powerful, I must agree. So, to return to the sort of the concept of servicing business, how do you, how do you, what are some of the ways that you understand business and the businesses needs of the, the business needs of the organization, to use Lydia’s clarification. How do understand the business needs of the organization?

And, also, how do you help the business understand what you can bring to the table? I know that there a lot of young IA’s out there going, you know, they never talk to me. They bring me in too late, you know? How do you, how do you help them understand how you can help them?

Austin: Well, I think in terms of, like, specific skills, some things that I do that I’ve just picked up over the years of my experience is I read the business publications. Not so much so I know what all of the business people are reading. But, it changes the way you talk. You talk about things differently.

Another thing I do is just simple as dress code. If you walk into a room in T-shirt and jeans and you look designery, then, you’re the designer. And, you do, you do visual stuff, or you’re the user advocate, or whatever. But, if you walk in, walk in the room, you look like a business person, then, you’re having a business discussion because they automatically accept you in, and you’re having a different type of conversation. You’re talking about what the business model is. Or, what their goals are. Or, what type of, you know, market they’re trying to get into.

And, that’s the type of information that really helps you innovate good products and solutions. Like, knowing if they want a blue button does you no good.

Christina: Well, I’ve got to admit that looking at you two guys, I can easily picture you pitching the V.C. down in Palo Alto. You definitely are dressing the part. And, just for the folks at home that can’t see. So, you’ve got that sort of visual, business-casual thing down.

But, so to go back to it a little bit, that’s how you speak to them. How do you represent the value that you’re bringing, in particular. You can now put it into their language.

What sort of things do you talk about?

Austin: I’ll use an example because I’m trying to think, I’ll try to think of how to do this. We were discussing the header and someone wanted to put, do a link in the header back to the home page versus back to the sub-section page. So, it’s a very simple, they probably have this conversation in lots of places.

The response that I used wasn’t, you know, the users won’t like this, or blah, blah, blah. It was this will decrease our acquisition rate. It’ll decrease our ability to convert people. We’ll stop getting referrals from people. So, I couched, I couched the design solution in the business vocabulary because design solutions really are business solutions, right?

We talk about colors and experience, but those are fuzzy, abstract things. And, in my experience, couching it using the business terms has been, you’re just using different words. You’re still saying the same things, but they understand it better. They understand that if you, the link doesn’t work the way the user expects, that the business impact that you’ll have, you’ll have less advertising revenue, less traffic. The things that they can grasp.

Christina: OK. So, you’re saying, basically, that you become, in a lot of ways, the resource that they can turn to who knows about how design will affect their job and their life, and you speak to them in those terms. Because if you’re, you don’t own the user experience, but you can speak to an aspect of the user experience where you have a deep body of knowledge. And, you can speak to that in their language. Is that sort of?

Austin: Yeah. I wouldn’t have put it that way. Yeah. That’s probably, exactly what, I think that’s what I try to be is the, a resource…

Christina: Yeah.

Rather than, even more than just the service provider, just, like, a resource that can offer insight and…

Livia: And, that also, the way to do that was something that I struggled with for a long time because if, depending on how you frame it, if you talk, I noticed that whenever I talked about design, people lost interest. So, I stopped talking about design. And then, I started defining the types of things that we have to offer in different terms.

So, the way that we have, and there, we have our mission statement. And, we have like this dot Venn diagram that says, Discovery, Modeling and Validation. So, those are the three strengths that we bring to the team. And, within these three strengths, we have specific types of activities that we can do, like, Discovery and User Research, or Usability Assessments, you know, Task Analysis. Anything that, you know, tools of the design trade that we’re just framing as here’s, are the tools that we have to offer you, and these are the results that you can get out of it.

So, just framing in that way was very, also very helpful in getting people to understand what we do and understand how we can help them. So, they can, you know, it actually generates business for us because now they can come to us and they know what we do and what to expect.

Austin: And, I want to add something. One of the things that, sometimes, I’ll throw emails to Livia that, so that she can look at them and make sure that, you know, I know that I’m communicating, you know, the way I want to be communicating. One thing that she suggested was, not the exact words, but, just lose the agenda. Like, when they ask a question, just answer the question.

And, I think that when we talk about design to business people, we’re carrying our agenda with us. We care about design. We care about that language and that viewpoint, but they don’t care. They have a specific business question and when you answer their question then that’s, you’re solving the problem.

Christina: Great. So, learn the language. Lose the agenda. Be a resource. And, dress better. Secrets to success. Fantastic. Thank you, guys.

Livia: Thank you.

Christina: This was terrific.

March Conference Showdown

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“It’s spring break for designers!” Chris Fahey yelled in my ear. I couldn’t yell back, so I merely nodded. Day three of conversation over music and roaring crowds had left me with a voice that would make Billie Holiday jealous. I was now saving myself for concepts that couldn’t be effectively mimed or twittered.

This year was my first SXSW, a hoary old institution from the days of Web 1.0. My experiences of it until now were observing glassy-eyed but glowing back-to-back conference attendees wandering around the IA Summit in a happy daze of over-stimulation.

SXSW and the Summit are often only a week apart. Justification for attending both is a difficult sell to employer or significant other. This year I’d managed to both justify both. After the Summit, I would retreat to the Mohave with my husband and daughter to recover and make amends.

To those of you trying to choose for next year who haven’t done the IA Summit, let me say this: it is far better exercise for your brain. The Summit is an extraordinary 3-5 day thinker’s boot camp if you are a web professional of any sort (IA or not.) You will learn, grow, and be challenged intellectually. But its older cousin might be the choice if you have other skills to exercise. SXSW is a joyous networkathon blended with an insider’s glimpse into what will be cool and innovative next year.

In the Austin Conference Center halls, it’s telling that the floors outside the rooms are almost as thickly populated as the panel rooms themselves. In fact, it’s telling that panels comprise the entirety of SXSW. Panels are often thought to be the single worst form for disseminating information. Panels allow for moderators to coast with a list of questions, and panelists to show up unprepared, secure in their place as experts. Panels rely on improv; and these are web professionals not actors. Rarely do you get a scene out of “Who’s Line is it Anyway.”

SXSW, hindered with this structure, does a remarkably decent job of surrounding topics with insights. But the title on the program guarantees nothing about whether the panelists will fulfill a given promise; a brilliant set of panelists failed to deliver on the theme of “what to do when the next crash comes,” but did do a wonderful job of discussing the role of the audience in publishing. An early morning panel on the future of the book spoke more to failed promising technologies (and sadly, shilled for a 2nd tier P.O.D. service) than what the book will become next. An audience member who stepped up to the microphone worked for Google books—the man who knew where books were going was sitting in the front row of the audience, not at the table.

These anecdotes hint at the reality of SXSW. It’s a BarCamp with the brains to pose panels on “practical” topics as a front so you can justify the expense to your boss. The accidental or informal meetings create the real value of attending.

I sat down on the floor to catch my breath and found myself next to Annalee Newitz, intelligently speaking to microformat innovation. The publisher of SmithMag asked to me to help him carry a huge handful of margaritas to his group–and we delivered beverages to the publishers of Salon and The Onion, who then expounded on the challenges of integrating video content.

We on the web often don’t show our faces. At SXSW, we get to meet as people first, as icons second. I chatted with Joan Walsh for a good ten minutes before realizing who she was. She said “But you were at my panel!” I said “You were a high powered executive then! Now you look like a chick!” (Not my first margarita, obviously.) Once off the panels, everyone looks like a dude or a chick. Austin is hot, and even hotter in the clubs and bars we pack to the gills. A crowd never much inclined to suits dons jeans and slogan t-shirts grabbed free from the expo halls, then goes out and treats each other like people rather than vendors and buyers.

If you want to do business, Austin is the place to do your footwork. You can make those friendships that turn into grownup conversations when you get home. If you want to meet your heroes, it’s not hard. And do you want to ask people who have done it how to integrate video, do live broadcasting, hire journalists, engage bloggers, write an API, get funding or kill and I.E. 6 bug? They are there and happy to tell you over a beer exactly what they figured out.

This year what might have been private planning via IM become public twittering on the hall monitors: What’s tonight’s hot party? Where are you going next? Need to bag this panel–get a beer across the street? Saw (Jeff) Veen, (Robert) Scoble, Tantek (Celik) in the bbq line… you get the picture.

Three days at the IA Summit was like three months at Oxford. But I did my business far more good in three days at SXSW (though my liver will never be the same). If you can do both, do so. They complement each other. If I had to pick, well… spring break comes but once a year. This girl’s gone wild.

Career Choices for Designers

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Yogi Berra once said, “When you see a fork in the road, take it.” For designers (and engineers and others in the “service” organizations), the fork in the road often comes mid-career, when you finally feel like you are good at what you are doing. Suddenly you are offered—almost required to—do something that is 90 degrees away from what you have mastered. And that is pretty scary.

Fork one: Becoming a manager

You’ll get to understand in a very direct way the trade-offs one has to make between good design, good business, and good human relations.

Before you dismiss this out of hand, let me correct a few myths. Becoming a manager does not mean people will take you seriously, it does not mean you get to tell people what to do, and it doesn’t mean you don’t get to make things anymore. After about six months in my first managing jobs, I realized that I now was designing a place where design could happen. It’s a good idea to read up a bit about what a manager really does before looking into this path (or accepting it if your boss offers). Erin Malone has written an excellent article in this issue on considering becoming a manager; I recommend you take a look.

Beyond that, it’s wise to consider where becoming a manager will take you, and what the opportunity cost is. So often we think it’s a default decision: you get a chance to be a manager and you take it (demand it!). But management is only a good choice if it is something you enjoy, and if it takes you in the direction you want to go. Where do you see yourself in five or ten years? Running a design studio? Starting a small product company?

Becoming a manager will teach you a number of useful skills to get you there. You learn how to lead people; you’ll learn how to manage budgets and make choices in resources. You’ll get to understand in a very direct way the trade-offs one has to make between good design, good business, and good human relations. And don’t tell me they are always or never opposed—life has many happy intersections, but sometimes you have to bite the bullet and do things your team will never understand.

So I mentioned opportunity cost. This is a phrase common in business circles, less common in design circles. But I bet you understand the concept: you only have so many hours in the day and if you spend them one place, you can’t spend them elsewhere. If you love what you do, and you know you don’t enjoy being a manager, then don’t agree to become one just to get ahead. Not only is it a way to make your life less happy, it’s also hours spent learning management skills that you could be using to explore your area of interest more deeply, and becoming a guru on the topic…

Fork two: Becoming an expert

First, select the space you wish to be known for. It’s not enough to say, “I am a designer,” any more than you can say, “I am a musician,” and become a household name.

Sometimes your greatest goal is simply to raise your rates or get a higher salary. You love what you do, but you want greater respect and the money that comes with it. In this case, you may want to consider guruhood. No, that doesn’t mean you have to start making outrageous statements on mailing lists, even though sometimes it seems like that is how people do it.

First, select the space you wish to be known for. It’s not enough to say, “I am a designer,” any more than you can say, “I am a musician,” and become a household name. Sure, some rock stars move into jazz or country, but mostly they explore the outer ranges of their chosen genre. This can be translated to design.

You can specialize in web design, like Jeffrey Zeldman or application design, like Terry Winograd. You can narrow within that, and specialize in application or content design, like Alan Cooper or David Seigal (boy, that dates me). You can look at specializing in web genres, such as search, ecommerce, or communities. Or you can cluster your interests; for example, communities and search makes social search. I think you can easily see the advantages of being a communities and ecommerce solution if you wanted to work with companies like Netflix or Amazon. You can become a technique expert—be brilliant at taxonomies or personas. Materials, genre, technique—the important thing in guruhood is to be one of the three or four top-of-mind names in your space. You are a brand, and you have to learn how to build it, and not overextend it.

Like all choices, this one has its downsides also. This works only if your temperament suits it; if you are a dilettante learner, like me, you may find expertise is only fun when you keep adding new things to it. If you are a professorial type, you get joy in deepening and sharing the body of knowledge you’ve obtained.

You also do have the classic publish or perish problem—to reach the heights of guruhood, you need to speak, write, or find another way to be found out about.

Fork three: Become you 2.0

Intelligent and creative people see life a bit differently. And you are always you. You can be a project manager after fighting them your whole life; then go back to design if you don’t like it.

Finally, the path you may choose to take is one of reinvention. This can be a tough one. You give up much of your sense of self—how often do you say I am a designer, or I am an engineer? It doesn’t even seem like a job title anymore. It doesn’t seem like “senior product manager.” It feels like “artist” or “writer”—something inherent in your makeup that chose you, and you didn’t choose it at all. But don’t be fooled! A curious person of talent and intellect can end up many places. A rocket scientist could be just as easily an engineer, a theoretical mathematician, or a concert pianist. The left and right brain play nicely with each other in certain people.

Think of the places where you hit a self-imposed wall in the past: the opportunity to become a product manager, the time you took a programming class and loved it yet didn’t follow through. Was it because you were afraid of losing your sense of self? There is a simple exercise you can use to see how a major change might feel: speak it out loud.

  • “I used to be a designer, now I’m CEO of a fortune 500 company”
  • “I was an IA for some years, but now I run the product team.”
  • “I did usability in the past, and that has made me an awesome marketing vice-president.”
  • “I came from engineering, and now I’m an entrepreneur, and we just closed our series A.”

Out in the world, you don’t have to reject your past if you feel it might cause upheaveal (externally or internally), but sometimes in private, saying out loud can help you see if it’s something you want or if it’s something you are afraid of. You may find yourself quickly thinking, “Hey! Engineering taught me a lot that’s useful in securing funding.” You may realize it’s not at all a dichotomy, but rather just you taking things in a direction most people can’t see.

Intelligent and creative people see life a bit differently. And you are always you. You can be a project manager after fighting them your whole life; then go back to design if you don’t like it. You find suddenly find you have no enemies after the experience, just people who want to make good products like you but have different ways to accomplish it. Each path will teach you something, and as you choose one, the others are not closed off. Rather if you change paths again, you’ll do so with a new body of knowledge and insight.

The three lives of Thomasina

When I was a kid, I saw this Disney movie about a cat named Thomasina who had three of her projected nine lives without dying, but through transformative change. Who knows why, but that film stuck in my head, and I feel like I live out that movie. I’ve been the guru, the manager, and now Wodtke 2.0. And I may get to experience lives four, five, and six, while still enjoying the knowledge of lives one, two, and three.

I am not about to forget what I know about information architecture, nor what I know about working with teams as I learn about financial projections. I keep being the guru and the manager as I become the transformed. This becomes very clear as I give expert reviews of broken information architectures, or as I take a manager job while I write privacy policies for PublicSquare. The forked paths are really more like spaghetti strands, twisting around and around like the plate of pasta in another old Disney movie. You never know where they lead until suddenly you discover true love.

My advice is to be fearless and curious, attentive and passionate. Two will show you where to go, the other two will tell you how to get there.