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

Changing the Channel


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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.

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!”




*TRANSCRIPT*

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[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.

Posted in Case Studies, Interviews, Podcasts and Posters, Workplace and Career | 4 Comments »

4 Comments

  • Michael Beavers

    June 5, 2007 at 9:09 pm

    Nice and tidy interview, Christina. Excellent information for putting IAs in businesspeoples’ shoes–and clothes.

  • Matthew Doty

    June 11, 2007 at 8:05 pm

    Great interview! Very practical and informative… and brief. Great “ROI” for the 18 minutes it takes to listen to it.

  • Adam Polansky

    June 12, 2007 at 2:39 pm

    Well done. It’s a difficult reality that the needs of the business don’t always run true with what would empirically inform UX efforts.

    It’s the ability to manage those relationships – the compromises and the understanding of others goals, that moves projects into production. Yes, you might have to hold your nose as you identify ad space in your wireframe but you pick your battles. The consessions you make on one item result in the latitude to take a risk elsewhere.

    Hopefully, over time, you can influence business owners to see and belive that usable products DO generate more revenue and DO save costs!

  • Henrik Arndt

    June 14, 2007 at 9:45 am

    What information architects demand of a good website they should do themselves: Structuring and presenting information in the language and style of their target group (the client) and not insist on their own language and structure. If business people can understand what they get for their money, they pay for information architecture.

    Great interview.

Sorry, comments are closed.