Your Boss Works for You

Written by: Fred Beecher

This past June, I stood on the brink of achieving a major professional goal. The UX apprenticeship program I’d been working so hard on was going to begin on Monday. It was Thursday. On my desk lay a curious stack of paper labeled “Manager’s Onboarding Kit.”

Of all the things I’d planned for and anticipated about the apprenticeship program, becoming a manager was something I hadn’t even considered. It’s something I’ve consciously avoided my entire career. The apprentices arrived, and I awkwardly mentioned that “technically” I was their manager. But after working with them for awhile I noticed something that changed my whole perspective.

I was working for them, and I loved it!

Granted, my situation might be unique in that my express purpose is to nurture and grow the apprentices’ nascent skills, but I learned many lessons about management that other managers can benefit from. Each of these lessons revolved around ways in which I found myself working for my team.

I cleared the path

Long ago, Samantha Bailey told me that the role of a UX manager is to shield her team from the chaos above them. I’m glad that lesson has stayed with me for so long, because I was able to put it into practice with the apprentices. I told them that their primary goal was to learn new skills and grow them. If anything got in the way of that, they should come to me and I would make whatever it was go away. I helped them clear a path to their goal through the organizational jungle.

An unexpected but happy consequence of this was that my working hard for my team inspired them to work hard for me. If you work for a consultancy or agency, you’re probably required to fill out your timesheet daily. And you probably don’t do it. The apprentices did. I told them that I relied on their time entries to track their progress and needed them to enter their time, daily, and never once did I have to have the timesheet talk with any of them.

I told it like it was

I wasn’t born in Minnesota, but I may as well have been. I am rife with Minnesota Nice. Giving people feedback beyond, “Great job! Here’s some hotdish!” makes me twitchy. But my role is to help people with promise develop that promise into talent. To do this, I needed to extend myself beyond my comfort zone and give the apprentices feedback about things they needed to work on.

It wasn’t easy for me, but it did get easier as time went on. This was because my telling it like it was led them to trust me. That trust yielded results. One apprentice in particular would make a point of implementing the feedback I gave her. One week I’d awkwardly say she should work on something, and then the next week I’d both hear feedback from mentors about how she’d done that thing and she would tell me herself. That not only helped her grow; it helped me grow too.

I increased my say/do ratio

One of my early mentors kept track of her “say/do ratio” on the whiteboard at her desk. This is a personal metric that describes how reliably a person does what they say they’re going to do. I laughed, but she was serious about it. She was exceptionally reliable. I’m fortunate that this is another early lesson I retained.

When you work for your team, you need to do a lot of things for them. I’ve not always been the most organized person, but I felt was important enough to commit to making a concentrated effort. Working for my team would be no good if I didn’t do the things they needed me to do.

Being an interaction designer, naturally I designed a process to keep track of what I said I was going to do and whether I had done it. Often, apprentices would come up to me as I was at my desk. A to-do would often come out of that conversation. I use Things to track my tasks, and I keep it open at all times. With a simple key combination I could instantly enter a new task, leaving for later the classification of the new task. During our weekly one-on-one meetings, I left a section in the Evernote note that guided each meeting for me to keep track of new things an apprentice would need me to do. Each item had a checkbox, and after the meetings I’d enter them into Things and check off the boxes in Evernote. Once the item was completed, I’d check it off in Things. Maybe this seems excessive to you, but it works for me. Find whatever works for you and do it consistently.

I constantly sought feedback

At the very beginning of the program I let my team know that I had neither managed anyone before nor run an apprenticeship program. I told them I needed them to provide feedback on both me and the program for it to be as good as it could be. Sometimes they’d provide me with feedback I wouldn’t implement, but when that happened I explained why. Sometimes the things they needed me to do for them would take awhile. Sometimes the solutions to the problems they brought up weren’t obvious.

In these situations, I communicated with them about what was happening and I sought feedback on my proposed solutions. I consciously showed them that by giving me feedback they could make things happen. As it turns out, the apprentices and I improved the program together.

My favorite example of how we built the program together is the internal project they all worked on as a team. Initially, I was dead set against apprentices working on internal projects. To me, internal projects were something to keep interns busy. I felt that internal projects would be a waste of time for apprentices. The goal of apprenticeship is to learn UX design through actual client work.

The apprentices were getting that experience, one design method at a time. They’d do stakeholder interviews on one project, then user research analysis on another. What they weren’t getting was a look at how the design process moved from one stage to another, say from research to analysis and then design. After they brought this up enough times, I swallowed my pride and suggested they work on an internal project together, from start to finish, with me as their mentor. They jumped at the chance, did a stellar job, and learned what they’d set out to learn.

I was there

The act of being physically present with your team shows that you support them. I chose to sit right in the middle of mine. Not at one end of the desks, not in an office, but right in the middle of the apprentice team. We have an open floor plan at The Nerdery, where people sit in groups of 6-8 desks rather than in individual cubicles. Being right in the middle of my team made me easier to talk to because I was only a glance away from any of them. The result was that the apprentices talked to me a lot and used the support I offered.

I ran the numbers, but I didn’t let the numbers run me

Running an apprenticeship program for four apprentices takes a lot of tracking. I have to track their time, feedback on them, and feedback they’re giving me. I also have to track how much the program is costing and whether it’s hitting its metrics. If it’s not, I have to do things to move the numbers up. Yes, this takes time. But I did these tasks early in the morning before the apprentices arrived. When they did, I could focus on them.

With management comes administration, but administration is not the essence of your job. Your job is to clear the way for your team, and administration is just another thing you’re clearing from their path. Yes, it’s something you have to do, but it should absolutely not be your focus. Your team is your focus.

Problems I faced

Even though I felt exhilarated and energized by my new role as a manager, it wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns. For example, I was still on a project as a billable designer. Balancing the work I wanted to do for my team with the work I needed to do for my client was challenging. Sometimes, I just wanted to hide so I could focus on data analysis or sketching, but I resisted. When you’re physically present, you should expect to be interrupted. What’s helpful, though, is to remember that they’re not really interruptions; they’re your job. The really tricky thing is that you can’t ever predict your team’s needs, so always expect the unexpected and have someone who can support you.

My own managers and my project team were my supports. One manager had a knack for giving me feedback without pussyfooting around. I appreciated that in her and I tried to emulate it myself. When I talked with her about becoming a manager, she let me in on a secret. She was like that with me because that’s what I responded well to. Other people needed pussyfooting to accept feedback.

When I confessed my newly positive feelings about managing to my other manager, he beamed with a knowing smile. At that moment, I knew that he’d been working for me and everyone else all along. Now when we meet, he encourages me to keep working for the apprentices and he helps me break down any organizational barriers that arise.

My project team supported me by respecting the fact that I now had two jobs. When they needed my undivided attention, they scheduled collaborative work time with me. This helped me balance my client and management responsibilities. They didn’t schedule all my unscheduled time, just some of it. This allowed me to focus on the client for a time without being out of reach. I simply told the apprentices where I’d be.

What you can take away from this

If you are determined to avoid management at all costs, like I was, here’s what I want you to take away. Managing people doesn’t have to suck. It doesn’t have the obvious allure of design, solving problems and making things, but if you approach management as if it were a design problem, it can be incredibly rewarding. Think of your team as your users and their ability to achieve their goals as their experience. Good management is the continual, real-time design of your team’s experience. When you get the opportunity to manage people, take it. Don’t run away from it.

If you are already managing people, try putting some of these lessons I’ve learned into your own management practice. It will make your work more fulfilling. If you are already working for your team, that’s wonderful! Let’s hear what you’ve learned about it!

 

Learn More from our Archives

Erin Malone’s So You Think You Want to be a Manager

Christina Wodtke’s Career Choices for Designers

Brenda Janish’s Leading from Within

UX One-liners

Written by: Nathan Gao

A little background to start: I’ve had the honor of working as a designer-in-residence for General Assembly’s User Experience Design Immersive Pilot Program (UXDI) from June through July. Our team built, launched, and taught a UX course 5-days a week, 8-hours a day, for 8-weeks straight.  It was quite the challenging, yet rewarding experience.

However, learning from our approach, I found something about the way we bring people into the fold that we can stand to improve.

We instructors spent much of our early days teaching techniques by going through truckloads of slides. We sent students home to read more chapters and articles loaded with paragraphs after paragraphs of definitions and use cases.

Yet, when students have trouble with a particular technique or concept during their free practice time, we’ve always had to re-explain to them the crux of these ideas with piercing simplicity.

Why don’t these simple core ideas exist in a simple, more easily referenceable form?

Looking up any UX terminology in Google results in many results: incomplete lists long abandoned, or gigantic lists of terms with accompanying paragraphs–and that’s only if you’re lucky enough to avoid the full blown articles. At a time when Dieter Rams’ As Little Design as Possible is common advocacy, we can present the fundamental impressions of UX’s core capabilities as something much more succinct than a wall of text. I’d argue that we would want the same considerations for our own products and content.

I have a modest proposal. Introduce the essence of your techniques and concepts in a single sentence. Do it in a one-liner. If it goes beyond one sentence, make it shorter.

Understand that these one-liners are NOT meant to explain UX techniques or concepts as well as articles or lengthy discussions can. Likewise, the real substance behind any of these techniques and ideas will expand and change over time, context, usage, and the like.

However, my contention is that there should be a much simpler and more concise way for people to see to the fundamental core of a technique or idea. For any confusion and disagreements that exists within the UX community, one of our common goals is to better communicate our ideas and intents to our teams and colleagues so that we can better create.

Why not then reconsider how we communicate the most basic fundamentals of what and how we work?

UX has always had a rich tradition steeped in academia, which is often somewhat verbose. It’s only relatively recently that its relevance to the consumer world has been realized on a massive scale. As UX adapts to a rapidly shortening cycles of technological–and by proxy, behavioral–change, we need to consider simplicity and conciseness in introducing the rest of our world to not only the products we design, but also the universe in which we create.

There will be another session of UXDI session beginning in September. I’ll be preparing a list for the students to use. Would you do it for a class you taught?

Here’s to an improved UX of UX.

Here are some one-liners I think adequately communicate the focus of their associated techniques and methodologies. This is a start. Add your own in the comments.

Card Sorting Activity in which users organize a set of data in ways that they think makes sense.
Contextual Inquiry Ethnographic Interviewing technique where the user is observed using products in their natural usage setting.
Ethnographic Interviews Interviewing techniques combining one-on-one interviewing and extensive observation.
Facets Preset categories used to filter information/content into more digestible chunks.
Heuristics Quick rules of thumb used to streamline design decisions.
Metadata Data used to categorize other data.
Personas Description of fictional yet realistic persons that represents a target user group/market.
Scenarios A story describing a user’s problem situation and how she might use a product to achieve a solution.
Site Maps Modular diagram conveying your site’s page inventory and, to a lesser extent, categories.
Usability Testing A test conducted with end users to see how usable they find a product.
User Flow A path map highlighting what a user has to do within your product to accomplish his goals.

Emotional Design with A.C.T. – Part 2

Written by: Trevor van Gorp

Back in Part 1, we looked at how the emotions expressed by people and products communicate personality traits over time. We also learned that customers are attracted to things that have an aesthetic personality that’s similar to their own,1 but they prefer products that take on a complementary role during interaction.2

In Part 2, we’ll look at how relationships are formed when people interact with products over time, and we’ll explore how people experience the emotion of “love.” Then, we’ll examine how basic product goals like desirability, usability, and usefulness relate to the different types of love. Finally, we’ll explore the A.C.T. model, a user-friendly take on using existing frameworks for designing emotional experiences.

Designing relationships

People attribute personalities to products and interfaces and expect those products to interact according to human social rules.3 Our emotional responses to the marketing, purchase, and use of products combine over time to create emotional experiences, which further combine to create emotional relationships.4 The quality of these accumulated interactions can mark the beginning (or end) of a “relationship” between the person and the product.

Throughout our lives, we’ve all been exposed to different types of relationships, both personally and through media. We have acquaintances, coworkers, companions, friends, lovers, wives, husbands, and every combination in between. While all these relationships are important, the people we love tend to have a special place in our hearts and minds.

But even amongst those we “love,” there are a number of different relationships. Some relationships are short, passionate flings based solely on attraction or lust. Others, though lacking in physical attraction, are deep, intimate friendships formed through ongoing interaction and conversation. Others are simple marriages of convenience with a firm commitment, but little passion or intimacy.

Although these relationships might seem to be very different, the people involved might still call the emotion they share “love.” This suggests that we’re using a single term to describe what may be several different emotions. Because of this, it can be difficult to come to a mutual understanding of what the word love really means.

Some people, for example, will emphatically say how much they love certain products. But when they say they “love” products, what do they really mean? What exactly is required to feel love for a product? Is it different from the love two people might feel for one another? Is love an appropriate emotion for relationships with products?

We can gain new insights into the formation of human-product relationships by understanding how humans form relationships with one another. Let’s take a look at the different ways people experience the emotion of love to get a better understanding of what it means to “love” a product.

How do I love thee?

Sternberg5 has described human relationships in terms of three forms of love.

Forms of Love

  • Passion (Infatuated Love)
  • Intimacy (Friendship)
  • Commitment (Empty Love)

 Passion, Intimacy, Commitment
Forms of love
(Sternberg, 1988), diagram: (van Gorp, 2009)

Passion

Passion is based on aesthetics. We’re passionately attracted to certain people because of how they look, sound, smell, feel and taste. These aesthetic cues communicate information about health, reproductive fitness, fertility, and social status to potential partners 7 8. We generally evaluate these cues automatically without conscious consideration.

If a relationship had Passion but lacked Intimacy and Commitment, it would be called Infatuated Love, or lust5. This form of love would describe the quick fling or one-night stand. According to Sternberg5, relationships based solely on Passion tend to burn out quickly. We tend to be attracted to people who are about as attractive, wealthy, and educated as ourselves (i.e. those who are similar to us).

Intimacy

Sternberg5 defines Intimacy as Friendship, rather than sexual intimacy. Achieving Intimacy usually requires repeated conversation and interaction over time. You don’t really get to know someone well without spending time together in a variety of situations.

When we engage in conversation with another person, we make both unconscious and conscious evaluations of them. We judge whether our styles of interaction are complementary and comfortable, or similar and conflicting. Does the other person constantly interrupt when you’re talking? Are you always butting heads over who’s in charge? Does he or she give you the amount of respect you feel you deserve?

If all you had with another person was Intimacy, you’d probably be very close friends. However, you’d likely not feel much Passion or sexual attraction. If someone has ever told you that they love you, but aren’t “in love” with you, it’s likely that they were talking about feeling Intimacy without Passion.

Commitment

Commitment is a mutually agreed upon agreement. In marriage, an individual consciously enters into a public contract with another person. Even in long-term relationships outside of marriage, the majority of couples in the western world still commit to an exclusive partnership. And yet, without Passion or Intimacy, Commitment is merely an empty agreement. If the only thing you had with someone was a Commitment, without any Passion or Intimacy, you’d have what Sternberg5 calls “Empty Love.”

Depending on the context, one or more of the three forms of love can occur at different times in a relationship. In the western world, Commitment usually comes after we’ve had a chance to evaluate our levels of Passion and Intimacy. At that point, we’ve hopefully decided whether the other person’s personality is a good fit for our own. In other parts of the world this may not be the case. Arranged marriages are one example of a relationship that begins with Commitment, with the expectation of Passion and Intimacy developing later.

Design goals, types of reactions & triune brain

At this point, you may be wondering how all of this relates to designing emotional experiences that encourage relationships. To start with, we could draw some parallels between the three forms of love and the three categories of product requirements I mentioned in Part 1. Here’s a quick recap:

  • Desirable
  • Usable
  • Useful

(Sanders, 1992)

Useful, Usable, Desirable

Design Goals
adapted from: (Sanders, 1992), image: (van Gorp, 2012)

Discussions of emotional design often focus almost exclusively on the aesthetics or Desirability of a product. However, much like a three-legged stool, the qualities of Usability and Usefulness still need to be there for the product to stand on its own. For software and web applications, all three legs of the stool need to be there to support repeat usage and interaction.

The most primitive part of our brain (i.e. the reptilian brain), is automatic and generates unconscious emotional responses. The part of our brain that we share with mammals and a few other vertebrates (i.e. the mammalian brain), is also largely unconscious and creates our emotional experiences. The most highly evolved part of our brains (i.e. the neomammalian brain), is conscious and is where we form complex emotional relationships. These different levels of brain function can help us understand how relationships develop through small, repeated interactions.

Emotional: Responses, Experiences, Relationships

(Demir, 2008), diagram: (van Gorp & Adams, 2012)

Over time, simple emotional responses from the reptilian brain combine with the processing of social cues from the mammalian brain to form experiences, which combine with our thoughts and emotions from the neomammalian brain to create relationships.

Design goals, types of reactions, and forms of love

Let’s quickly examine how the different types of love relate to designing for emotion. The user is attracted to the product’s aesthetics, triggering the Desire or passion to approach. If the user finds the product Usable and easy to interact with, he or she may begin to feel greater connection or intimacy with the product. If the product then displays its Usefulness by reliably and consistently fulfilling its purpose, trust and commitment can result.

Design Goals, Forms of Love, Product Elements, Types of Reactions

Comparing Models

(Sanders, 1992)(Sternberg, 1988)(Demir, 2008)(McLean, 1990), diagram: (van Gorp & Adams, 2012)

Desirability is connected to product aesthetics. Usability is connected to the quality of interaction, and usefulness is connected to how well the product functions. For complex products, this process repeats itself with each use, continuing over time to form deeper relationships.

The types of love

Just as there are different types of relationships between people, there are different types of relationships between people and products. For products where the context of use is a short relationship (as with a disposable product), focusing on a single type of love (or a single leg of the stool) may be fine. Various combinations of the three forms of love describes many of the common relationships we see in our lives.

Types of love

  • Passion + Intimacy = Romantic Love
  • Passion + Commitment = Fatuous or Illusory Love
  • Intimacy + Commitment = Companionate Love
  • Passion + Intimacy + Commitment = Consummate Love

(Sternberg, 1988)

Ideal Human Relationship model

Types of Love
(Sternberg, 1988), diagram: (van Gorp, 2009)

Passion (Desirable) + Intimacy (Usable) = Romantic Love

When you combine the attraction of passion with the interaction and conversation of intimacy, you get Romantic Love. In human relationships Romantic Love describes physical attraction, along with a sense of deep intimate connection, without any formal commitment.

In relationships with products, we can envision attractive, usable products and services that don’t require long-term investments. Virgin Mobile, for example, offers attractive usable phones with no contractual commitment. The target audience is young and drawn to the idea of not committing to a phone plan. Even the marketing of the page–Why “Go” Beyond Talk?–could be taken as a metaphor for moving to another stage in a relationship.

Virgin Mobile

http://www.virginmobileusa.com/cell-phone-service

Passion (Desirable) + Commitment (Useful) = Illusory love

Combining passion and commitment without any intimacy generally makes a poor foundation for a long-term relationship. This may be why Sternberg5 calls this combination “Fatuous” or Illusory Love. One example of this type of relationship would be a “sugar daddy” style relationship, where one partner is involved purely for passion, and the other is involved purely for commitment and the financial rewards that come with it.

In the world of design, attractive but unusable products are one source of this type of Illusory Love. We may purchase a product, attracted purely by its slick marketing or pleasing visual design, only to find that although it looks good on the surface and functions acceptably, it’s difficult to operate and frustrating to use.

Intimacy (Usable) + Commitment (Useful) = Companionate Love

When we combine Intimacy and Commitment, we get a good companion, hence the label Companionate Love5. This type of human relationship would describe a couple who are not physically attracted to each other, but are friendly and committed.

When we think of Companionate Love in terms of product relationships, we can imagine more utilitarian products. They’re easy to use, reliable, and perform the task for which they were designed. However, they don’t create that spark of attraction and desire, so there’s little passion involved. An example of this type of love would be your favorite hairbrush. This brush might be the one that does such a great job of styling your hair, you don’t need any other brushes. You probably don’t think much about your hairbrush when you’re not around it. But like the loss of an old friend, you may only really appreciate it once it’s gone.

Hairbrush

Passion + Intimacy + Commitment = Consummate Love

Occasionally, human relationships seem to encompass all three forms of love. These relationships have achieved what Sternberg5 calls “all consuming” or Consummate Love. The people involved are passionately attracted to one another, have a deep intimate friendship, and a strong abiding commitment.

In human-product relationships, if a product has achieved trust by communicating a clear and consistent personality over repeated interactions, the user may be willing to consciously Commit and engage in transactions with the product. Transactions that lead to the formation of relationships leave us practically and emotionally satisfied in the long term. For interactive products that are used repeatedly, Consummate Love is what we are seeking to elicit from our users.

Designing relationships with A.C.T.

The A.C.T. model embodies the different forms of love, and can help you envision product development as a process of building relationships with users. The terms in the acronym A.C.T. were chosen to help designers understand the requirements they need to fulfill at each stage: Attract, Converse, Transact.

A.C.T. explores the relationship between Sternberg’s levels of love (passion, intimacy, and commitment) and product requirements to produce a model that is both more prescriptive for designers and more communicative for business stakeholders.

Ideal Product Relationship
A.C.T. Model

(van Gorp, 2009)

Let’s quickly summarize the perspectives embodied in the A.C.T.

Attract

  • Desirability (do users find the aesthetics appealing?)
  • Aesthetic properties of the product (i.e. look, sound, smell, touch, and taste)
  • Passion
  • Unconscious, automatic responses
  • Reptilian brain

Converse

  • Usability (i.e. ease of use)
  • How the product interacts with the user
  • Intimacy
  • Unconscious and conscious experiences
  • Mammalian brain

Transact

  • Usefulness
  • Whether the product fulfills its function
  • Commitment
  • Conscious relationships
  • Neomammalian (human) brain

A.C.T. Model

A.C.T. Model Comparison

adapted from: (Sanders, 1992)(Sternberg, 1988)(Demir, 2008)(McLean, 1990), diagram: (van Gorp & Adams, 2012)

Conclusions

We judge products by the personalities we sense through their aesthetics and style of interaction. It takes the skill and sensitivity of designers, marketers and user experience professionals to properly identify the personality that appeals to their target audience, and then consistently design, market, advertise and package that product with the appropriate personality in mind. The A.C.T. Model can help practitioners to more fully and systematically address the requirements that lead to successful products.

To explore this idea in depth, Edie Adams and I have written a book on creating better relationships between people and products. If you’re interested in learning more about emotional design, designing personality and the A.C.T. Model, pick up a copy of Design for Emotion. The book includes over 130 images and examples, interviews with industry experts, and case studies to help you do a better job of designing for emotion, personality and relationship. You can also get a free copy of Chapter 1 of Design for Emotion here.

– Portions of this post are excerpts from Design for Emotion, by Trevor van Gorp and Edie Adams –

References

Govers, P. C. M., & Schoormans, J. P. L. (2005). “Product personality and its influence on consumer preference”. Journal of Consumer Marketing, 22(4), 189–197.

Markey, P. M., & Markey, C. N. (2007). “Romantic ideals, romantic obtainment, and relationship experiences: The complementarity of interpersonal traits among romantic partners”. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 24(4), 517–533.

Reeves, B., & Nass, C. (1998). The media equation: How people treat computers, television and new media like real people and places. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Demîr, E. (2008). “The Field of Design and Emotion: Concepts, Arguments, Tools and Current Issues”. METU JFA, 1(1), 135.

Sternberg, R. J. (1988). The Triangle of Love: Intimacy, Passion, Commitment. New York: Basic Books.

van Gorp, Trevor. (2009). Emotional Design with A.C.T. Poster: 2010 IA Summit. Phoenix, AZ.

7Buss, David. (2003). The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating. New York: Basic Books.

Etcoff, N. (2000). Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty. Anchor Books.

Sanders, E. B. N. (1992, Fall). “Converging perspectives: Product development research for the 1990s”. Design Management Journal, 3(4), 49–54.

10 van Gorp, Trevor, & Adams, E. (2012). Design for Emotion. Boston: Morgan Kaufmann/Elsevier.

11 McLean, P. D. (1990). The triune brain in evolution: Role in paleocerebral functions. New York: Plenum Press.

Information Architecture’s Teenage Dilemma

Written by: Jeff Pass

Imagine if you will information architecture as a pimply-faced, malcontent teenager.  IA is eager to express and redefine itself. It wants to be an individual yet accepted by its peers. It is simultaneously aggravated and apathetic about its parents, mentors, and role-models. It is a bit of a mess, but a wonderful, beautiful mess with endless opportunity and potential.

The IA Summit (and information architecture) enters adolescence

The first IA Summit was held April 8-9, 2000, in Boston, MA, and was titled Defining Information Architecture. Now, fast forward to this year’s 13th IA Summit held April 3-7 in Baltimore, MD, in which the Summit entered the awkward teen years against the slogan “Observe Build Share Repeat.”

Taking the slogan to heart, a number of Summit workshops, sessions, keynotes, and discussions focused on reframing information architecture as a practice and as a field. Granted, IA is closer to 40 in chronological age (many date back to Richard Saul Wurman’s 1976 declaration “I am an Information Architect,” though personally I subscribe to Andrea Resmini’s Brief History timeline), but it is also experiencing adolescence thanks to a rapidly transforming digital landscape that makes puberty seem pretty innocuous. Consider, for example, the proliferation of:

  • Big data and open machine readable datasets (e.g. DATA.gov, and AWS Public Data Sets)
  • Content syndication, especially approaches like COPE (Create Once Publish Everywhere)
    • Plus increased use (and occasionally understanding) of taxonomies and metadata
  • Free and open-source:
    • Blogging and content management systems like WordPress
    • Content management frameworks like Drupal
    • Design tools like Twitter Bootstrap and hosting services like GitHub
  • HTML 5 and CSS3 with their improved capabilities especially around design and media
  • Mobile devices and technologies
  • Responsive web design in its various approaches and permutations

Like a teen whose body is changing faster than it realizes, so too is information architecture stretching and growing and developing. But information architects (at least most of them) have gone through puberty and should be able to adapt their practice and usher their field through this tectonic change.

Remaking information architecture

Coming of age is always difficult. It requires patience and introspection. It is uncomfortable, unpleasant, awkward, and is in many ways unending. But, it offers a unique opportunity to remake and improve information architecture in the face of change and to prepare for the next tools, technologies, and even modalities altering both the digital and physical landscapes.

This means making hard choices and invariably suffering missteps and setbacks. But when the IA community comes through it, it’ll be older and wiser with a better understanding and control of its body (the practice and field of information architecture). Then IA can start realizing the unmet potential of its youth. So what is the path ahead?

Define information architecture not as a concept, but as a practice and a field

For me, the highlight of the 2013 IA Summit occurred before the opening keynote. It was the pre-conference workshop, Academics and Practitioners Round Table: Reframing Information Architecture, moderated by current Information Architecture Institute president Andrea Resmini. The all-day session consisted of 30+ information architects working to identify the requirements that would lay the foundation for a common language, grammar, and poetics for IA.

While the proceedings of the workshop will be published in the Journal of Information Architecture, the real work will begin when the larger community comes together to define and formalize itself. This necessarily includes:

  • Defining what is and is not information architecture
  • Identifying and documenting the major IA schools of thought
  • Mapping out and understanding how IA relates to sibling (such as usability, information design), parent (such as architecture, library science) and extended-family (such as psychology, linguistics) fields
  • Agreeing on a basic timeline for information architecture’s intellectual history, including formative events that pre-date the emergence of the field as well as key technological and cultural events that shaped it
  • Codifying information architecture best practices and developing standards around key artifacts
  • Formalizing the requisite background, training, skills, and certifications for practitioners and then defining the various roles within IA, noting which overlap with other fields and how

Here it should be noted that individual IA practitioners, organizations, and programs have made strides in addressing the above. But until there is a confluence from across the information architecture community, these will be little more than outposts in the wild and may even promote schisms within the community.

Accepting some basic truths about the practice of information architecture

The larger discussion around remaking information architecture also includes coming to consensus around some important concepts that every information architect needs to understand. These are discussed in my April 17, 2013, Aquilent (my employer) blog post 2013 IA Summit Themes but are summarized here:

  • You cannot control device usage. Device usage will change and evolve faster than we can keep up, and it is a fool’s errand trying to predict or determine how users access content.
  • You cannot control content. Syndication and content reuse ensure that content takes on a life of its own, so it’s essential to understand and leverage taxonomy and metadata.
  • You cannot control meaning. It is not inherent or discrete and can’t be turned on and off; information architects can only share meaning and should consider a meaning-first approach.
  • To serve the users you must serve the content. Understand and leverage syndication, promote content longevity and usefulness, and consider targeted, accidental, and future audiences.
  • Sometimes you’re the architect, but often you’re the builder. We cannot always do dramatic and innovative work, but remember, the best information architecture is invisible.

There are, of course, many other concepts that are essential to the practice and field of information architecture will be identified and defined as its adolescence continues.

The time is now…

With the IA Summit turning 13 and information architecture in a time of adolescent turmoil and transformation, it seems clear that the timing is right to define and formalize both the practice and field of information architecture.

Heading into the 2014 IA Summit, members of the community need to open their minds and roll up their sleeves for the difficult, awkward, and emotional work ahead. And they should do so knowing that once information architecture enters its adulthood, it will open up new world of influence and opportunity.

Put another way – and paraphrasing B&A founder Christina Wodtke – be bold, take risks, and fail spectacularly. Now is the time to clearly define and state the communities’ vision for information architecture then set out to realize it.