Fear of Design

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Not so long ago, on my personal site I posted a little entry on design. And a comment was made: “IA is not design.” This sentence has sat vibrating in my head for months. It speaks of bravado in the face of fear. But why should Information Architects fear design?

Every time we make something, we are leaping out of an airplane and all the research in the world is just us packing our parachute carefully. Information Architecture is design. We are afraid to admit it, but IA is surely design as much as Interaction Design is design, Architecture is design, and Engineering is design. In each of these activities we create.

The nature of design is to make, with its accompanying activities of refining, organizing and surfacing. We look at the world, we think, we call upon our trained gut and we make something. We then refine that little germ of a design through skills acquired over time, we organize the designs into a consistent whole, and we create a surface to make that whole palatable to the consumer. If you think IA has nothing to do with surfaces, think of labels or navigation structures. We may not always choose the color, but we are deeply concerned with surfaces because they are the final manifestation of our design.

Usability is criticism. It looks at the designer’s creations and says “I have evaluated on X, Y and Z and found it wanting in A, B and C” Then usability specialists are free to leave the room. They’ve done their piece; they can now sit back and wait for the next creation. It’s valuable, it informs and improves our work, and it’s safe – emotionally—for the practitioner.

User research informs design. You learn how people work, how they dream, their desires and fears and habits. A user researcher observes people’s behavior and then they write up a nice report: user x likes this, user y tends to do that. But someone has to make a leap from this information into an actual creation. Someone has to be ballsy enough to say “User Y tends to do that so the button goes HERE.” It’s the same with business analysts, or requirements gathering. However, at some point you have to leave the safe haven of information gathering into the uncertain grounds of design. At some time you have to screw up the courage and make something.

Why are we afraid of design? Because if we are designers, we will have to be responsible for our designs. Researchers and critiques can shrug and say, well those are the facts. But designers must stand tall and say, “That was the solution I came up with.” The designer and the design are not so easily separated. It takes an iron grip on one’s ego to take criticism on one’s designs, no matter if it’s a thesaurus or a front page of a website. Crafting a design is an attentive and loving act. It makes one vulnerable, and I suspect some IA’s think that by donning Jesse James Garrett’s Lab Coats , they can trick themselves into separating themselves from the design and getting emotional distance.

“I have studied this problem at great length and the solution is indicated by the data.”

My design is perfect.


The web is too new—heck, software design is too new—for us to say there is a clear and easy answer when we design. Every time we make something, we are leaping out of an airplane and all the research in the world is just us packing our parachute carefully. The landing will still be felt.

Graphic designers have fought this vertigo for years. They’ve learned to articulate a defense for their design in presentations, they learn to explain their rationale in hopes of slowing the free-fall and they even have protective gear for when they jump (lately seen outside a flash conference: a gaggle of designers all in horn-rim glasses and Italian shoes).

But they know and I know that bad landings happen. Designers get pulled off projects and their ego is bruised. Feeling hurt is how they should feel. If their ego wasn’t bruised, they weren’t trying hard enough. Professionalism means they don’t show it, but if they are good designers, they care. And caring means feeling pain sometimes.

So are we, designers of digital experiences, architects of information, ready to take on that potential pain in order to make good work? Are we ready to take in information, but not hide behind it? Will we be responsible for our creations, will we to put our ego in the plane?

Do we have the courage to design?

Moving from Flatland to Hyperspace: The “Evolution of a Mindset” Part 1 of 2

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The starting point
My personal journey from designing and writing for print media to becoming an information architect for websites conjures up images of Flatland, written by Edwin A. Abbott, an English clergyman, educator, and Shakespearean scholar (1884).2 The main character in this timeless story, A. Square, is a geometric shape living in Flatland, a two-dimensional world. Upon “Anyone who uses the web understands having a good web user experience—and having a bad one. The web is a flowing, two-way medium: it responds to your signals, either allowing you to do what you want to do—or not.”meeting a stranger from Spaceland (the Sphere), A. Square, a mathematician, experiences a series of revelations regarding the nature of his existence. The Sphere shows him Spaceland, a land of three dimensions, and allows A. Square to view his own world from this three-dimensional perspective. Overcome with excitement and curiosity, A. Square imagines worlds of four, five, six, seven-and even eight-dimensions.

Because of my fascination with the web medium, I tend to think of my days designing for print as living in Flatland. My entrée into the web world-Spaceland, or “Hyperspace”—was not a smooth one; in fact, it was downright mind-bending. Prior to designing my first website, I had worked for seven years as a graphic designer and writer, mostly producing simple print materials: logos, stationery, brochures, newsletters, advertisements, and the like.

One of my clients, a sign language interpreting agency, asked me to design a website that would promote its business, deliver news, and allow people to request and evaluate its services. The agency needed to reach three distinct audiences:

  1. businesses interested in its services
  2. deaf people who used its services
  3. interpreters who either worked for the agency as independent contractors or might be interested in doing so

Each target audience needed access to different information and needed to perform different tasks. There was also a significant body of information pertinent to all three groups.

I wrote lists, scribbled on index cards, drew rough page layouts, and sat on the floor trying to make sense of it all. I shuffled cards, cut and taped, and arranged and rearranged. As I struggled to envision pages connected to pages and links crisscrossing within the site, I actually got headaches. Fortunately, the WYSIWYG web editor I was using incorporated a simple site mapping tool that represented the site as a tree structure. That tool helped me immensely in organizing the site. Little did I know I was taking my first steps into information architecture.

About a year later when I was well into designing and writing websites for small businesses (generally no more than 50 pages), I heard the term “information architecture.” With that, my world took on a new dimension, and I have never looked back… until now.

How did we evolve?
Have you had a similar experience? Your own path to information architecture may have been less direct than mine; however, it is a fact that most of us lived in Flatland for a long time. Thus I have begun to ponder the transition from two-dimensional design to the multi-dimensional practice of information architecture. And because I no longer get headaches, I wondered how my mind had evolved to embrace the thinking necessary for designing complicated information structures.

In tracing the path from print to web, first consider the end product of the respective design processes. In both cases, the designers have different goals, work rules, and methodologies that are dictated by the medium itself and by the way users will experience that end product. The extreme difference between reading a brochure about loans and applying for a loan through a website demonstrates the depth and breadth of this transformation.

Two-dimensional designs
Print materials exist for the purpose of delivering a message. Books, magazines, newspapers, brochures, and advertisements all contain information we may choose to read and/or utilize. Someone or some organization wants to show us something, to give us some knowledge or advice. Included in this message may be a call to action: buy this car, try this diet, or read this book.

What does a person experience while looking at print materials? Jakob Nielsen, well-known usability guru and principal, Nielsen Norman Group, equates the experience to merely “seeing.” Compare this to browsing the web, which he terms “doing” since the web is an interactive medium.3 The print user interface is elementary: people are accustomed to conventions such as reading from left to right down a page, turning pages, using page numbers, and referencing indices and tables of contents. Nielsen says, “Print design is based on letting the eyes walk over the information, selectively looking at information objects and using spatial juxtaposition to make page elements enhance and explain each other.” 4 He also notes that print materials are generally linear in flow, intended to be read in one direction, rather than structured to provide interaction between pages.

By its very nature, print is a one-way, static means of communication. Interestingly, print materials are actually three-dimensional-able to be touched, folded, and handled physically. They are tactile. At their best, print designs communicate intended messages effectively through good visual design and writing. Edward Tufte, renowned information designer, speaker, and author, strongly asserts that the print medium is far superior to the web medium, largely because it allows for a much greater “information resolution.” 5 One has only to look at a detailed map to understand this concept: the detail and depth of information contained within a well-designed printed page greatly surpass what may be achieved using web graphics, which have low resolution and lack visual complexity.

“N-dimensional” designs 6
To the human eye, the web is fundamentally a collection of text, figures, and images viewed a few at a time as pages on a two-dimensional computer screen. Sometimes I envision it as a net of text linked together with web pages placed at critical intersections-the pages functioning much like road signs as they guide travelers to other web pages, information destinations. When viewed as a whole, the web’s level of complexity is so astounding as to be inconceivable.

The web’s essential purpose is to interact with users, creating an experience, albeit some websites are much more interactive than others. Says Clement Mok, Chief Creative Officer, Sapient, “So you’re not really going from screen to screen-it’s a fluid transition, from event to event. With the improvements in streaming data that will come over time, you will get that fluid state, where you’re not going from page to page but from event to event within that container.” 7 When browsing the web, we try to perform tasks, many of them related to obtaining information: we search websites, look up news and weather, book airline flights, and do myriad other things.

In contrasting the print user experience with the web user experience, Nielsen asserts, “After all, doing is more memorable and makes a stronger emotional impact than seeing.” 8 He calls web design “simultaneously one-dimensional and N-dimensional,” explaining that “one-dimensional” refers to time (the time it takes to load a web page with some elements appearing before others) and “N-dimensional” describes moving around the web or navigating web space. 9

Anyone who uses the web understands having a good web user experience—and having a bad one. The web is a flowing, two-way medium: it responds to your signals, either allowing you to do what you want to do—or not. Time passes as you browse, and content changes frequently, sometimes automatically. You hop from point to point, clicking and scrolling your way through web pages and pulling content from databases.

Roger Parker, author and design and marketing communications professional, compares the web medium to the print medium: “Functionality, as measured by the ease and speed with which visitors can locate desired information, is the primary measure of success, rather than ‘branding’ the site or creating a distinct visual image.” 10

In the same spirit, Mok observes, “In the print world, you can question the concept behind a design and ask, ‘Is it useful information?’ You don’t also have to take into account, ‘Oh, is it usable?’” 11 This crucial distinction between print design and web design spells out the basic purpose of each-and also explains the need for information architects. Parker claims that the transition from web designer to information architect, which is much more direct than the transition from print designer to information architect, “requires the evolution of a mindset.” 12

Information architecture: Born of “N dimensions”
Before the advent of the web, information architecture was not an established discipline. True, Richard Saul Wurman, esteemed information activist and author, coined the term “information architect” by declaring himself to be one back in the 1970s, long before the web revolution. 13 He later wrote to his peers on the InfoD listserv, “My passion is to make the complex clear.” 14 In this lifelong pursuit, he has analyzed many forms of information and information systems. The web represents but one of those information systems.

I will not attempt to define “information architecture” precisely because, as a fledgling community of professionals, we are still expending a great deal of energy doing this. In general, we agree that information architecture is a process of structuring information to make it usable, improving the user experience. Indeed it seems that we information architects know who we are. I would like to note that the concept of complexity (and complex systems) resonates throughout any discussion of information architecture. In fact, this complexity is the core reason for having information architects-and the N-dimensional web is the reason such complexity exists.

End Part One
Read Part Two

Meg Cole is a graphic designer-turned writer-turned Webbie-turned information architect. She recently joined the content team at the National Association of REALTORS®, which will soon begin a massive inventory and redesign of the association’s 400,000+ Web pages.

Why I’m Not Calling Myself an Information Architect Anymore

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I could probably put it in one simple word—respect. But if I left it at that, it wouldn’t make for much of an article, nor would it provoke discussion, in the squares & directions community, toward moving to an answer to the dilemma of industry labels.

To start, let me say that I learned so much about this issue due to my first real “Information Architecture is not the same as interaction design or user experience design.” set of industry conferences (back-to-back). The AIGA: Experience Design forum was an amazing get together that took the seeds that have been developed and started turning them into saplings. I feel very energized by what I call a movement in our sphere. The CHI conference for me was a loci where practitioners and researchers came together, not to listen, but to talk. This was a tremendous experience outside the papers, panels and demos that helped shape a lot of what I’m going to put forth.

At the reception on Tuesday night I had the opportunity to step into a guru’s conversation about her first attendance to the IA Summit. This person has been around since there was something to be around, and I very much appreciate her contribution to the field, especially around field research and usability. She was speaking with others, who are more old school than myself, about the IA Summit and she was explaining her surprise at how the IAs want to “own the process.” Her surprised stemmed from her previous understanding of IAs as library scientists interested in facets, categories, vocabularies and maybe, at most, navigation. She never thought of IAs as those who make layouts, design behavior, do usability or field research, etc.

It was at this point I interjected my feeling that IA is what she thinks it is, but because of the history whereby IA is also what Richard Saul Wurman expressed it was, that many informally (and formally) trained designers have come to feel at home within this title. It is a title that seems to generate understanding among clients where “user experience” and “usability” have left clients confused or seem too widely or narrowly focused. It’s just what worked and has built up, especially in the consultancy community, a big following that can’t be ignored.

Of course there was the usual cry from those of the old STC, UPA, HCI school, “but we were doing this for centuries” and more discussion ensued. They have been doing this for a long time. But only if you think “this” is user-centered design. But IA isn’t user-centered design. IA is IA and it was with this that I was convinced. Actually, convinced is not the right word. Turned—yes, I was “turned.” I don’t think there is anything I can say about her argument that actually convinced me of her position, but it was more a feeling I got about the state of IA and what people need it to be, if we are going to move our field forward, that changed my thinking. That feeling is clarity. Clarity was missing from the Experience Design group, and that wasn’t good, but the ED group is not trying to define a title or a discipline but a philosophy (in my humble opinion), so the lack of clarity isn’t really an issue.

But this is not just about clarity. As I said, the single word is respect, and clarity is just one way of expressing that respect. I know I am not an Information Architect because I know what Information Architecture is, and I respect those that can do it. I also want to make sure that those who can do it, aren’t obscured by those that can’t.

Information Architecture is not the same as interaction design or user experience design. The line is very clear and the only reason we allow it be blurred is because early adopters from different disciplines within the field coopted the term and have applied it to a broad swath of responsibilities.

Does this mean we are all clear and cozy? No, it doesn’t. There is still a definition, an early definition, of IA that is out there that needs to be reckoned with. As noted above, Richard Saul Wurman coined the term in 1972. He used it in a great and informative way for its time (for all time in fact) by saying that the writer and graphic designer need to be one. He felt that the visual display, layout, texture, surrounding iconography, etc. that set the mood and set context for words directly affect their inference by the reader. This sets in motion (IMHO) the idea of user experience in the print world. But how do we reconcile this early use of the word IA with that which is taught in universities? The IA tied to the library science community that discusses organization and classification (of which RSW spoke about, but did not focus on), and is within the digital and interactive domains.

What I suggest here is that Information Architecture is an arrow in an interaction designer’s quiver. Sometimes that arrow is a whole other human being, who works beside an interaction designer, and that person is known as an information architect. But it works both ways. An information architect should also have interaction design theory as an arrow in their quiver, and sometimes that arrow is a person called an interaction designer (or similar).

I would say the same for a usability engineer. Usability is both a set of theories and a person who specializes in those theories that add support to the creation of interactive digital experiences.

What is important to me is that Information Architecture doesn’t get lost. at CHI, I attended a paper presentation by an HCI researcher and it was so obvious to me that most of the answers this person needed, to fill in her admitted holes, were already known by the Information Architecture community—the official one. Not the one that allowed me to take that title without any knowledge of thesauri, facets, and classification theory, but the one that the Polar Bear book was trying to teach people about, get them excited about, and entice them to join in.

So respectfully, I remain a member of this community, but I revoke (retroactively) all titles I ever held that included Information Architecture in them.

I believe that those who hold this title have more to gain through its controlled use, than through it being drowned out in the debates raging for what should we call this evolving genre of designing human-centered interactive computer experiences. It’s really a battle that is a waste of time (as Alan Cooper said at the Forum). And I believe that IA would win more by not joining in.

David Heller, is currently a Sr. User Interface Designer at Documentum. His current projects include new web-based clients to Documentum’s currently powerful set of Enterprise Content Management solutions.

Just How Far Beyond HCI is Interaction Design?

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While reading a new textbook, “Interaction Design: Beyond Human-Computer Interaction” by Jenny Preece, Yvonne Rogers and Helen Sharp, I recognized my own reactions from several recent conversations, talks and “My concern is that the book misrepresents the field of interaction design and hence limits its potential.”papers. The feeling was familiar: the authors were adopting, and adapting, the “design” label a bit too loosely. The academic field of human-computer interaction (HCI) has strong roots in the traditions of behavioral science and engineering. Re-labeling it as interaction design does not in itself move it “beyond.”

Interaction design is a fairly recent concept, albeit growing steadily in terms of professional practice, higher education and even job descriptions. It clearly owes part of its heritage to HCI, even though the turns within established design fields—such as graphic design, product design and architecture—towards the digital material are every bit as important.

There is no commonly agreed definition of interaction design; most people in the field, however, would probably subscribe to a general orientation towards shaping software, websites, video games and other digital artifacts, with particular attention to the qualities of the experiences they provide to users.

The word “interaction” in interaction design captures the time-based, and at the same time, nonlinear nature of the digital, a quality that sets it apart from most if not all other design materials. “Design” is of course a word with multiple meanings, but some typical connotations in more mature design disciplines and in design theory include the parallel emergence of question and answer, the activity of exploring possible futures, the synthesis of reason and emotion, the intervention on many simultaneous levels in a design situation.

The scope of interaction design opens up possibilities for genuinely better user experiences of information technology. HCI has contributed a great deal to the elimination of obvious problems for the users, but its focus on goals, tasks and usability makes it rather limited in terms of positive innovation. My concern is that the book misrepresents the field of interaction design and hence limits its potential.

In the book, there are some excellent interviews with prominent representatives of the interaction design field. In one of those interviews, Gitta Salomon states that (p. 33) “interaction design is a design discipline.” This observation is not taken seriously in the book as a whole. Many issues taken for granted in HCI need to be rethought in an interaction design textbook.

In the preface, the authors define interaction design as “designing interactive products to support people in their everyday and working lives.” But does it make sense to say that a computer game supports people? Even if it “supports” the player’s assumed goals of experiencing excitement or challenge, how does it “support” the player’s boyfriend’s desire to see a bit more of his girlfriend? Is a teenager’s experience of spending time in an online chat community primarily a “supportive” one? Does a piece of techno-critical digital art, such as the work by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, “support” the viewer?

My point is not that “supporting” is necessarily bad, only that it implies a certain ideology: an HCI perspective of goal-driven users whose use should be made as effective and efficient as possible. Interestingly, the same paragraph goes on to quote Terry Winograd’s suggested definition of interaction design as “the design of spaces for human communication and interaction.” The difference between the two definitions would be worth a book of its own.

On the nature of design, the authors (p. 166) rely on “the definition of design from the Oxford English Dictionary [which] captures the essence of design very well: ‘(design is) a plan or scheme conceived in the mind and intended for subsequent execution.’” This notion of design as a plan-then-act activity fits well with the software engineering approach permeating most contemporary HCI, but perhaps not so well with design theory. Planning is rather viewed as performed through acting, expressing, communicating. The execution is the planning; the planning is the execution. Together, they are part of the evolution known as design. The prominent design theorist J.C. Jones gives the following advice:

“First, recognize that the ‘right’ requirements are in principle unknowable by users, customers and designers at the start. Devise the design process, and the formal agreement between designers and customers and users, to be sensitive to what is learnt by any of the parties as the design evolves.”

The implications of this view for practical IT development are substantial and largely unclear. That is precisely why gifted researchers and writers should devote their efforts to it.

There is also the question of what to design. A HCI perspective encourages the view of adapting new technology as painlessly as possible to existing users and practices (p. 5): “one can be more principled in deciding which [interaction design] choices to make by basing them on an understanding of the users. This involves: taking into account what people are good and bad at, considering what might help people with the way they currently do things, thinking through what might provide quality user experiences, listening to what people want and getting them involved in the design, using ‘tried and tested’ user-based techniques during the design process.”

But design is innovative; it is about exploring possible futures, where the users as well as the technology are different from today. In some situations, it even makes more sense to think in terms of designing the users. As Terry Winograd points out in his interview (p. 71): “one of the biggest challenges is what Pelle Ehn calls the dialectic between tradition and transcendence. That is, people work and live in certain ways already, and they understand how to adapt that within a small range, but they don’t have an understanding or a feel for what it would mean to make a radical change, for example, to change their way of doing business on the Internet before it was around, or to change their way of writing from pen and paper when word processors weren’t around. I think what the designer is trying to do is to envision things for users that the users can’t yet envision. The hard part is not fixing little problems, but designing things that are both innovative and that work.”

Consequently, I’d like to make three assertions:

First, interaction design is a design discipline, which means something other than the science-and-engineering perspectives of HCI.

How, then, can we approach the question of quality in interaction design? How can we tell good from bad, and how can we devise development processes and cultures of practice to increase the chances of reaching good designs?

The HCI answer (p. 19) is to express quality in terms of measurable usability goals and to address “the rest” as we please: “Usability goals are central to interaction design and are operationalized through specific criteria. User experience goals are…less clearly defined.” But taking the approach suggested by the authors to address these less clearly defined user experience goals results in equating a desktop video conference system for distance learning with an online community that provides support for people who have recently been bereaved (p. 20).

A more well-grounded design approach would offer better ways of approaching the quality issue. Some useful starting points may be to view design as knowledge construction within a community of practice, to consider design-theoretical approaches to articulating the languages and meanings of products (so-called product semantics), and to consider product or use genres as knowledge-organizing systems.

An issue of particular interest is the possible role of critics in interaction design. One can imagine a field of interaction design criticism in analogy with more mature design fields such as architecture or graphic design. This appears problematic from a HCI perspective (p. 182): “Finding measurable characteristics for the user experience criteria is even harder, though. How do you measure satisfaction, fun, motivation or aesthetics? What is entertaining to one person may be boring to another; these kinds of criteria are subjective and so cannot be measured objectively.” However, it is possible to talk about good and bad interaction design also in broader contexts. A few examples exist of more relevant interaction design criticism, but there is clearly room for much development.

Secondly, the notion of quality in interaction design is not well developed. Neither are the social structures needed to develop and sustain the notion. A HCI perspective is not the most appropriate starting point.

The emphasis on usability and task support also carries a notion of aesthetic qualities as equivalent to visual embellishment. On the topic of simplicity in web design, the authors state (p. 27) “A certain amount of graphics, shading, coloring and formatting can make a site aesthetically pleasing and enjoyable to use… The key is getting the right balance between aesthetic appeal and the right amount and kind of information per page.”

But if aesthetics concern the sensual and perceptual qualities of experience as a whole, how can there be a tradeoff between aesthetic appeal and the right kind of information? “Right” is an aesthetic judgment in this context. In another interview in the book, Gillian Crampton Smith makes the following observation (p. 199). “Obviously there’s the aesthetic of what something looks like or feels like but there’s also the aesthetic of how it works as well. You can talk about an elegant way of doing something as well as an elegant look.”

Separating the usability of a system from how it affects its users, factoring out ”the aesthetics” in terms of “pleasing shapes, fonts, colors and graphical elements,” is problematic. Every interaction involves feeling as well as intellect; aesthetic qualities reside in the overall interaction, which is determined above all by the functions, structures, social action spaces and temporal qualities (the dynamic gestalt) of the system.

Third, it makes sense to talk about aesthetic qualities of interaction, even though we lack an adequate language as yet to do so. But the language of HCI is not the best place to look for inspiration.

To conclude, I think the book discussed here represents a larger movement within HCI towards design. My point is that this movement involves a shift in philosophical foundations as well as professional practice. The book is a very capable presentation of contemporary HCI, covering relevant technological developments as well as the growing insight that HCI “users” in fact do their (effective and efficient) work in social environments. It is pedagogically well structured and presented, and would be an obvious recommendation for any foundational HCI class.

But it does not go beyond HCI. More specifically, it is not a book about interaction design. Taking the philosophical and practical shifts more seriously will involve dealing with the issues I’ve raised if we truly want to go “beyond HCI.”

For more information:

AIGA Experience Design – Past, Present and Future

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Clement Mok, widely considered one of the early leaders of the IA/UE movement, is the current president of the American Institute of Graphic Arts. He served as a creative director at Apple for five years before he founded Studio Archetype interaction design and branding agency in 1988. When Sapient “Can those who design experiences find a useful, lasting home within the age-old AIGA?”acquired Studio Archetype in 1998, Mok became Chief Creative Officer. Now consulting, he continues to shape Sapient’s long term strategy as Chairman of its Innovation Advisory Board.

Terry Swack, a 20-year veteran of the design profession as well as a leading digital strategist and designer, is the AIGA Experience Design national chair and serves on the AIGA board of directors. Formerly, Terry was founder and CEO of TSDesign, an Internet strategy and product design firm acquired by Razorfish in 1999. Terry now consults independently, is a contributing reviewer to Internet World’s Deconstructing column and is writing a book on the impact of experience design strategy on business.

In 1998 Terry and Clement, organized the Advance for Design Forum, an initiative of the AIGA. Its purpose was to ‘create a forum for the advance of experience design in the network economy and to define and build a community of practitioners who will shape and advocate for the role of design in a world that is increasingly digital’. In 2000 it formally became the AIGA Experience Design community of interest and now has a national membership with groups established in major US cities and London.

The two are uniquely qualified to elucidate the evolution and future of AIGA ED and to answer the important question: Can those who design experiences find a useful, lasting home within the age-old AIGA?

They recently talked with Erin Malone of Boxes and Arrows:

B&A: What was your original motivation for beginning the Experience Design community of interest?

Terry & Clement: Like many design practitioners in the mid-’90s, Terry and I were thrust into developing and evolving our respective design practices for the growing needs of online initiatives by our clients. Being early converts, we found ourselves in conferences, workshops and seminars preaching the Internet gospel and sharing insights and methodologies on creating order out of the inherent unstructured nature of the Internet.

Repeatedly, we found ourselves with other like-minded practitioners in hallway conversations comparing notes. We rarely had time to see each other’s presentations or have meaningful discourse about the challenges of advancing the practice and the profession. Each of us were making the same mistakes and essentially inventing the same methodology only with different labels. Terry and I were fed up with these chance meetings, and we were hoping someone would organize a conference that will bring together people who we admired and respected from afar, but we didn’t know what organization would do it.

Coincidently, Ric Grefe, the director of AIGA, approached both Clement and I to see if we wanted to develop ‘New Media’ design programming for AIGA. Despite the large number of AIGA members who worked in this arena, we felt this new community and practice was more than just media involving the integration or the complimentary use of different design processes with varying emphasis on different visualization and behavioral manipulation skills and disciplines. There was no obvious home for this community, but we had to start somewhere.

AIGA was willing to incubate this group as Clement and I envisioned it. The attendees of the first Advance for Design summit in Nantucket in 1998 were drawn essentially from our personal Rolodexes. They were from a range of design and design-related specializations: designers, clients and educators from corporations, agencies, user research firms and new media/Internet consulting firms. The background of the attendees represented the composition of the community we wanted to build-eclectic and diverse with a common passion for (big as well as little) design.

Interestingly, the attendees were surprised AIGA would sponsor Advance for Design, but it was clear these practitioners felt equally disconnected from ACM SIGCHI, IDSA (Industrial Design Society of America) or AIP (Association of Internet Professionals). So we opted to define our own community and appreciated the AIGA’s support. !!!!!

B&A: Why was it called Advance for Design?

Terry & Clement: It was not a conference or a meeting. All participants were presenters and attendees. The goal was to figure out how to learn and share knowledge among us. In short, to advance the profession and the practice of design … hence the name.

B&A: The AIGA Experience Design community of interest began over four years ago. Why has it taken so long to come into the mainstream IA/UE/UI community?

Terry & Clement: Yes, we’ve had four Advance for Design summits, but the group really did not become an official part of AIGA until after the third meeting. That’s when it became apparent that “Design”- the creating of form, the process, as well as the commitment to human-centered design and user experience-was the common thread. We all contributed to the design of experience. AIGA had already demonstrated its willingness to help develop the group, so we made the affiliation official and gave the group a name. So we see this as a two-year-old organization rather than four.

B&A: Do you feel change, inclusion and acceptance of this practice and organization is happening fast enough?

Terry & Clement: It’s relative to one’s perspective as to what’s fast. Behaviors and beliefs don’t change overnight. It changes at the speed of habit (that’s a Paul Saffo quote). We also don’t believe the practice and the organization are one and the same. Things happen at different speeds out in the world relative to the speed of a volunteer organization. 😉

B&A: How do you reconcile the notion of an Experience Design Community of practice with being sponsored/supported by the AIGA, which has a reputation out there of being solely the home of graphic designers?

Terry & Clement: AIGA has been around nearly a hundred years because it has adapted to the regular transformation of the design profession. “AIGA uses the term “Experience Design” to describe a community of practice-not a single profession or discipline.”AIGA used to be an organization about printing (graphic arts-the GA in AIGA). It changed into an organization about typographic design and publication design. It morphed into an organization for graphic designers in the ’70s and now it’s out to earn the reputation to be an organization about Experience Design.

Those who perceive AIGA as a home of graphic designers may want to look closely at its activities, membership, conferences and competitions. In recent years, it has become a leader in a number of areas that are not part of its traditional perception-visual culture, design for film and television, converging media and brand strategy.

And lastly, for those who simply have problems with the name, AIGA is not unlike SPRINT or IBM. Those companies chose to keep their historical names-through the use of acronyms-despite how they’ve changed over time. I’d wager to say that many people have never heard a mainframe computer referred to as a ‘business machine’. IBM is now the name of the company that invented “e-business”.

B&A: Do you think AIGA ED will ever branch off on its own, as a separate organization?

Terry & Clement: Simply put: AIGA has 12 staff and 17,000+ members. The organization is the membership. AIGA has put no limitations on who the community is or how it evolves. The Experience Design community’s growth is purely a function of who has chosen to be involved and what they believe is important-and it is largely made up of IA/UE/UI folks.

Despite this, we think the more important question is which institutional characteristics will serve practitioners best in achieving a sense of community, the ability to share information and the means to develop effective communication programs that will enhance understanding and respect for the role of the practitioners. These are the needs of a profession. We think the organization should have sufficient infrastructure to survive the ebb and flow of volunteer energy and be able to reach out to those in allied fields who share teams and who will advocate for the highest and best practices. Within this structure, one can be as introspective as one wants without becoming self-limiting on the reach of this new community. At the moment, it appears these conditions are better met within AIGA than on one’s own. There are many organizations with great intents yet no critical mass or influence.

B&A: The concept “A Community of Practice,” which was discussed at last year’s Summit, has a lot of value. How are you evangelizing this notion to the greater field?

Terry & Clement: AIGA uses the term “Experience Design” to describe a community of practice-not a single profession or discipline. Designing effective experiences requires many different types of professionals with a broad range of knowledge.

However, we now better understand the difference between a community of interest and a community of practice. This distinction has become an important question as we move forward in the community’s development relative to other user-experience professional organizations.

Posted recently to the SIGIA-L discussion list was link to an article titled Communities of Practice, by Martin White:

‘A community of practice is a way of developing best practice in a given area, established by members who wish to develop their specific expertise through open participation in the creation and exchange of knowledge. Of course best practice changes with time and with business circumstance, and so these communities will also need to adapt …

…. To be successful, online communities must show prompt and relevant benefits to both the employer and the employee. Communities constantly evolve and must be managed to keep them fresh and alive. Every community has a life cycle of infancy, maturity and death. It is possible however with good community management to prevent the death of a community by constantly evolving it with the changing needs of its members, and introducing new functionality, topics or subgroups.’

Martin’s article was written for a business audience (i.e., communities within one organization). This perspective helped us realize the statement’s relevance to us-how we should be looking at the communities within AIGA Experience Design.

It also distinguishes the two terms: community of interest (COI) and community of practice (COP). At the risk of contradicting ourselves, by this definition, AIGA Experience Design is really a community of interest made up of many communities of practice.

We are continuing to examine how AIGA Experience Design can support and advance the causes for discrete types of COPs, and which ones. A clear start are the role and knowledge presentations presented at the 4th Advance for Design, in 2001 (visit http://www.aiga.org/content.cfm?contentalias=fourthadvancefordesignsummit to download these presentations – which are all listed in the right column of the page). We will continue to refine those definitions and add tools, models and processes to support them.

B&A: There is a lot of work being done by both of you, by Lou Rosenfeld and others, to create a community that embraces the new collaborative discipline. Do you feel that the AIGA is the right home for this or should there be some sort of triad (AIGA, ASIS, CHI) coalition or even an organizationally agnostic new group created?

Terry & Clement: Given that experience design is about collaboration, we value the opportunity to participate in the group to determine how we collectively can serve the needs of the community. The group will have several meetings in the coming months with the goal of defining some actionable strategies.

That said, we started AIGA Experience Design specifically to build a community that draws from a variety of disciplines. Practitioners will be attracted to organizations that reflect the narrowness of their interests and/or their ambition for broader reach-and this will allow a number of institutions to fill the need. We believe that the interdisciplinary nature of experience design as we see it and the commitment to developing educational and professional standards, as well as communication and advocacy programs, is well supported within AIGA. Rather than agnosticism, we believe that an organization that can advance the community’s interest is the predominant attribute we are seeking. B&A: Recently there was an interesting discussion on the AIGAED discussion list that criticized the Graphic Design field for perpetuating the “Designer as Stylist” perception, through annuals and awards and the cult of personality that is so often showcased in the magazines. What is your reaction to“AIGA Experience Design is the community that brings all types of Experience Design practitioners together to focus on larger issues of business value and collaborative practice and methods.” this? How do you think the ED SIG can help change people’s perceptions of Design and the AIGA?

Terry & Clement: Design having a balanced focus on behavioral, social and visual esthetics is what’s important to us. There will be always be practitioners who will work at the extremes. It will require practitioners, educators and professional organizations to shape and redefine the new center of gravity for design. It’s hard work and it needs to be done if our profession will have any credibility in the marketplace. The ED SIG can’t do it alone. It requires changes at all level. AIGA is the only organization that has the critical mass and numbers to make the meaningful changes.

B&A: Do you think the party is too big? Are we fracturing the discipline too finely? The list on the AIGA ED page consists of:

  • Design planner
  • Design strategist
  • Business strategist
  • Brand strategist
  • Visual systems designer
  • Brand applications designer
  • Creative director
  • User researcher
  • Usability specialist
  • Information architect
  • Information designer
  • Interaction designer
  • Software designer

Terry & Clement: To the contrary- the party is not too big by virtue of being inclusive of those who tend to work together on teams to accomplish a solution within the practice of experience design.

AIGA Experience Design is the community that brings all types of Experience Design practitioners together to focus on larger issues of business value and collaborative practice and methods. Because of this, AIGA Experience Design members are designers who are interested in exploring new boundaries of their professions as they are evolving across multiple disciplines. This includes people who belong to other professional organizations, as well as people who don’t identify with a traditional profession and are looking for a new “home” community.

The list above is from last summer’s summit when we examined experience design ‘roles’ people might play in their organizations or on teams. The words serve to summarize skills and knowledge required to play them. As many of these roles have overlapping skills and knowledge, it’s not as important what they’re called, as long as we know what they do. You’ll find on our new Web site, coming within the next month, an even more inclusive and expanded list of skills-not roles or titles-found in the AIGA Experience Design community (following are just the headings for each section). Members of this community have skills from:

  • the online and digital industries
  • the software industry
  • the communication design and broadcast industries
  • the marketing/research/advertising industries
  • industrial design
  • exhibit design
  • the environmental/interior design industries

B&A: What happened to the Graphic Designer? Is this title good enough anymore? Is it too loaded within the software, IA, HCI field to be a respected member of the team?

Terry & Clement: The titles software engineer, programmer, information architect and HCI specialist are also loaded, so why single out graphic designer? People who call themselves graphic designers might also use terms like designer, visual designer, communication designer or communication strategist to describe their current roles. But in the new Web site text, you’ll find the term graphic designer. 😉

B&A: The joint forum with CHI at this year’s CHI is a great start in embracing the related disciplines. How has the CHI forum been received?

Terry & Clement: Anecdotally, the CHI2002 / AIGA Experience Design FORUM is being received quite well. People are happy to see more design at CHI, and we’re collaboratively happy to accommodate. We’ll know better when the rubber hits the road and we know the final attendance numbers!

B&A: What outcomes are you hoping for when it is all over? What events, conferences, seminars are next?

Terry & Clement: There will be further collaboration, which we expect to discuss at the FORUM.

B&A: Is there anything like this planned with the ASIST community? Was there an official AIGA presence at the ASIST IA Summit in March?

Terry & Clement: I (Terry) attended, but the timing was difficult for others simply because of the scheduling of AIGA’s national design conference the following weekend in DC. A challenge of logistics not interests. As far as collaboration, I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out of the planning group you asked about a few questions earlier.

B&A: Where do you see the AIGA ED community going in the next few years?

Terry & Clement: We plan to continue to execute on our mission “to build an interdisciplinary community of professionals who design for a world in which experiences are increasingly digital and connected” by continuing to address the most relevant issues of the community.

B&A: At last year’s summit, there were a lot of design educators there. Has AIGAED been working to develop a recommended curriculum for universities and art schools for this new community of practice?

Terry & Clement: Yes. AIGA is the institution that works with the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD) to develop accreditation criteria for four-year and graduate programs in design. In this capacity, we have developed with the ED community a set of criteria for an effective program (focusing on outcomes). The involvement of educators in the community and the publication of Loop, AIGA Journal of Interaction Design Education, are attempts to work with the education community to stimulate thinking about curricular issues.

B&A: How is it being accepted?

Terry & Clement: NASAD and the schools it accredits welcome the guidance. Acceptance in the educational community, however, is not as important as their engagement. In this regard, AIGA and the ED community are attempting to enable the community to become engaged around critical issues to the professional community (and its needs from the educational community). This takes time, but there do not appear to be other comparable efforts going on.

B&A: As a hiring manager myself, I have found the well-rounded skills needed for this role are often lacking in fresh graduates-or they have two degrees and have spent too many years in school. Are there any schools with something acceptable in place?

Terry & Clement: Schools are in dire need of overhauling their curriculum to reflect the realities of the marketplace. This is not a criticism of design schools but also of computer science programs, business schools and engineering schools as well.

B&A: As the AIGA ED gets off the ground, sponsoring conferences and seminars beyond the small Summits, what’s next for the two of you?

Terry & Clement: Clement is the president of AIGA and Terry is a national board member and chair of AIGA ED. We have our hands pretty full, not only planning this year, but also working with Ric and the rest of the board to determine where the organization is going. For more information than that, you’ll just have to get involved and contribute to what you’d like to see happen!

We’d also like to thank you for inviting us to participate in Boxes and Arrows!

For more information:

Erin Malone is currently a Product Design Director at AOL in the Web Properties division. She has been a practicing interaction, interface and information designer since 1993. She can be reached at .

Unraveling the Mysteries of metadata and taxonomies

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Christina Wodtke of Boxes and Arrows interviews Samantha Bailey (former Argonaut and current lead IA for Wachovia Corporation’s Wachovia.com website) about Information Architecture, her dream process and the mysteries of metadata and taxonomies.

B&A: Let’s get meta – you come from the Argus LIS-flavored school of IA. What is your definition of Information Architecture?

SB: I’m going to pull this answer directly from an article I just wrote: “While it is unlikely that any two practicing information architects will give identical definitions of the term, there is consensus that information architecture has organization at its root. Basing my understanding on Morville and Rosenfeld’s approach, I define information architecture as: “the art and science of organizing information so that it is findable, manageable, and useful.” This definition is a “I think good IAs (like many good librarians) are often generalists at heart-people who have a love of learning and a tendency to be interested in practically anything that comes their way.”content-intensive interpretation, indicating my bias that information architecture skills are most critical in content rich environments. It also draws on the information retrieval roots of library science, emphasizing the importance of being able to find that which one seeks, whether known or unknown. Finally, information architecture is a user-centered discipline, understanding that usability is at the heart of a successful information based interaction.”

B&A What skills does one need to become a good IA?

SB: On an ongoing basis and in terms of basic personality traits, good IAs need to be inquisitive, problem/solution oriented, and dedicated to continual learning. The field is so new that there isn’t a set body of knowledge that you can learn in full and then have “mastered.” I think there is certainly a body of knowledge that an IA needs to pursue and absorb, which lays a foundation upon which to build.

In terms of the fields that I think most profoundly influence IA and are the best fodder for ongoing learning: Library and information science (my bias, obviously), HCI, cognitive psychology, ethnography and linguistics are among those I consider most critical.

Additionally, all of us need sales/marketing skills so that we can promote the field and continue inserting information architecture practices into processes that have been around long enough and are well established enough that it can take some work to make room for the IA piece.

B&A If someone wrote you having just gotten their BA-perhaps in English or philosophy-and wanted to become an IA, what would you tell them?

SB: I actually have a BA in philosophy, so it doesn’t appear to get in the way of pursuing IA too much. I guess I’d recommend reading as much as possible; there’s such a rich reading list now, and so many people with great insights. When I first became interested in IA, Lou [Rosenfeld] & Peter [Morville] hadn’t written their book yet, and IA was more nebulous. The ambiguity was appealing to me, as I was attracted to being part of something that was in the process of being formed. At times it also felt somewhat insubstantial; we were making it up, and sometimes there was a lurking sense that it lacked legitimacy for the very reason that it hadn’t been codified.

In addition to the reading, join the SIGIA listserv, find a discussion group, look for a mentor. And of course there is working on actual information architectures: your own site, volunteer projects, student projects. I wasn’t clear about what I wanted to do, career-wise, immediately after college, so I worked for several years. I’m really glad about that, as it made it easier to be confident and to be taken more seriously. After I got my master’s degree and my first “real” IA position, I had real world life and work experience. While it’s important to have rather specific skills in classification and user-centered design methodology, I think good IAs (like many good librarians) are often generalists at heart-people who have a love of learning and a tendency to be interested in practically anything that comes their way. I recommend throwing yourself in the way of whatever learning opportunities strike you as even remotely relevant.

B&A You recently joined a large financial institution. What are some of the differences you’ve seen between being a consultant and being an employee?

SB: There are both similarities and differences. Perhaps the biggest surprise has been in the area of sales/business development. As a consultant, I was never fond of the part of my job that involved business development (e.g., marketing the company, bringing in business via sales calls, structuring projects to enhance future business opportunities, etc). But I knew it was a critical part of my role as a consultant and, more particularly, as a consultant in a small start-up. So, when I joined a very specific department in a large company, I thought my bus dev days were behind me. And, indeed, I no longer have direct sales responsibilities. There aren’t calls to sit in on, RFPs to respond to, proposals to defend, etc., but my sales/marketing role remains a critical part of my new job. In this role, I’m selling something a bit different. Instead of selling a specific company/group of individuals, or a specific methodology or “secret recipe,” I’m now selling information architecture as a discipline that is critical to successful web design and that can be successfully fit into the company’s existing processes without too much pain. So, I’m changing my attitude about business development; from something that consultants or folks in small companies do to something that everyone has to do, in some way or another, all the time.

There is also, of course, the innie vs. outtie issue, that has been discussed on SIGIA. As a consultant, you see the pros and cons of being an outtie depending on the nature of the project- e.g., it can be a benefit to be removed because you’re not bogged down and swayed by existing politics, and yet it can also be a negative, as you may not fully understand the complexity of the environment and can put your foot in your mouth past the ankle before you even realize you’ve goofed. As an innie, there are pros and cons as well, and they’re often of an opposite nature-you have your finger on the pulse of the politics but you may not command the respect that a consultant’s “outsider” status conveys.

The biggest thing I miss about being a consultant is being able to “go home” both in the course of the project and at the end of the project. It was fascinating to be able to see, and sometimes even be part of, radically different organizations, as a consultant, knowing that in the end I was associated with my own, comparatively comfortable and particularly well-loved company. It could be bittersweet at the end of long, successful projects, but I’ve made great contacts and friends from those projects, and it was always fantastic to be able to finish up a project where the personalities hadn’t meshed as well and sink back into my own “family” of colleagues.

The thing that I’m most looking forward to, as an “innie,” is the issue of ownership and follow-through. As a consultant, I frequently left a project after the design phase and before implementation. That impacted the sense of pride and ownership of the final design, as well as the opportunity to influence the implementation process (in essence “eating our own dog food” when design elements that seemed strong on paper or in concept prove weak in action).

B&A What are some of the unique challenges financial sites offer?

SB: There are several. Security and issues of trust exist on virtually all sites, especially e-commerce sites, but with an online banking environment issues of security are paramount, and security needs that impinge upon the technological back-end supercede other drivers.

Another challenge I’m facing is the extremely complex nature of this site due to the fact that Wachovia is the nation’s 4th largest bank. We have both “retail” (the personal finance related banking you and I do) and “wholesale” (complex corporate and institutional banking) elements. In addition, Wachovia Securities is our brokerage arm, so from both wholesale and retail perspectives there are brokerage-related issues beyond traditional banking services. For example, our site is supporting both the features you’d find in an online bank and the features you’d find at a site like Schwab or Vanguard. This size and complexity issue leads to a number of impacts. The two most pressing are 1) it is quite hard to accurately define our users and narrow them into discrete personas and 2) it is very challenging to navigate the internal features of the bank (e.g. wanting to default to the bank’s organizational structure as the site’s organizational structure before gaining clarity as to what the bank’s organizational structure is and how it functions). B&A What’s the relationship between knowledge management and IA? (if any?)

SB: It depends. One thing it depends on is how you define knowledge management. I define knowledge management pretty loosely, first as the pursuit of maximizing your organization’s functionality by enhancing communication “Modern” methods of taxonomic classification are attributed to Linnaeus, who introduced his methodology in the 1700’s. Linneaus was a botanist, and taxonomy is generally associated with biology and systematics.”about and sharing of both tacit and implicit knowledge and second as the process of codifying this into a system/repository. The communication and capture piece may be the most critical aspect of KM, and I don’t know how much of a role IA can play in this aspect of KM. When it comes to codifying knowledge into a system, of course, IA will play a critical role in creating an information system that functions as well as it can.

B&A Can you tell me the difference between metadata and keywords?

SB: Metadata, at its broadest, is descriptive information about information. In the traditional library world, metadata is most commonly thought of as the big 3 from the traditional card (now online) catalog: Author, Title, Subject. But there are other fields as well-year published, publisher, shelf list number (administrative info for the library). In the online world, we use metadata for administrative purposes (to know when a document is “stale” and needs to be updated or deleted or to know the nature of a file so we know if we have the correct software to open it) and for retrieval purposes (the subject or keyword).
There are roughly 3 kinds of ways to think about, or classify, metadata:

  1. Intrinsic – information that can be extracted directly from an object (e.g., file name, size)
  2. Administrative/Management – information used to manage the document (e.g., author, date created, date to be reviewed)
  3. Descriptive – information that describes the object (e.g. title, subject, audience)

So, metadata can be quite varied-it may support retrieval (author, title, subject), it may support administration (call number, stale date), or both. As you can see, these categories are not mutually exclusive-administrative data could be used for retrieval purposes (if the system supported that usage) and we could debate as to whether “author” was administrative, descriptive or possibly even intrinsic, as with a piece of artwork.

That leaves us with keywords-what are they? Well, they’re a kind of descriptive metadata, generally describing the nature of the information. Keywords may be extracted directly from the text or they may be extrapolated-selected because they describe the text (subject, topic). The context in which keywords are selected and used is important for this reason. Keywords are by their nature fairly granular-a specific word applied to a specific item, often a narrow subset of a document (like a page or a paragraph), but even this granularity can vary in specificity (e.g., does the keyword describe the element in question specifically or generally?). Keywords are typically used for retrieval, as opposed to for administration.

When keywords are applied to html pages-which is generally done for descriptive and retrieval purposes-they are typically applied via a metatag. This may be what has led to some confusion around the difference between metadata and keywords. The metatag fields in HTML were meant to capture all sorts of metadata; and some are used to capture quite a wide array of information. Keyword seems to be the most commonly used/known of the meta field tags.

B&A How about the difference between taxonomies and hierarchies?

SB: Ah, taxonomies vs. hierarchies. Near and dear to my heart – I’ve just written an article on the uses (and misuses) of the term “taxonomy.” You probably know this, but just in case I’ll give a brief history lesson. Taxonomies have been around for a long time – they are hierarchical schemes for classifying things. Aristotle developed a system of classification in 300 BC. “Modern” methods of taxonomic classification are attributed to Linnaeus, who introduced his methodology in the 1700’s. Linneaus was a botanist, and taxonomy is generally associated with biology and systematics. Other disciplines have borrowed the term taxonomy from the hard sciences to describe their classification systems, so it wasn’t a completely novel act when folks working on the Internet stumbled upon it as a good term for describing what they were doing online. I first encountered the term in 1999 while doing some work with Ernst & Young.Management consulting seems to have been enamored of the term in this context early on- and was completely baffled, as I had only been familiar with the term from my biology courses and had never encountered it in my library science/information science work or reading. Doing more exploration, I concluded that when people were talking about taxonomy on the web they were often talking about the traditional LIS definitions for classification schemes, controlled vocabularies, or thesauri. (I went on a brief mission to convince the Argonauts that we should educate our clients about the LIS terms, but it was more or less a failure, so around 2000 I caved and began using the term taxonomy myself. Now, the terms has become so used, I think it has genuine validity of its own on the web.)

On the web, we tend to play fast and loose with terminology, and that’s true here as well. A strict interpretation of the definition of taxonomy would demand that the scheme be a pure hierarchy with one to one relationships. (Items can be in one place and one place only in the scheme-think of the animal kingdom or a family tree – but I’ve met people who are very comfortable with the concept of polyhierarchical taxonomy. Polyhierarchy being the concept that something can “live” in more than one place in a hierarchy. The most common example of this is “piano” in a scheme of musical instruments; it is both a stringed instrument and a percussion instrument.

Here are a couple definitions:

Traditional definition:

“Taxonomy, a sub-field of biology concerned with the classification of organisms according to their differences and similarities, still uses many of Linnaeus’ original categories. Today the major categories are kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species.”

Taxonomy on the web:

“A correlation of the different functional languages used by the enterprise to support a mechanism for navigating and gaining access to the intellectual capital of the enterprise.” (One of the more carefully justified definitions of taxonomy comes from research done by Alan Gilchrist and Peter Kibbey of TFPL, a leading taxonomy consulting firm. The definition can be found in the executive summary of the report “Taxonomies for Business: Access and Connectedness in a Wired World.”

B&A What about categories, where do they fit in?

SB: Categories are groupings of like elements (often by subject, but also by other criteria, like form). The groupings that make up taxonomies and classification schemes are categories.

B&A So where does the thesaurus come in? “Right now it’s a very thrilling time – we have a new medium and a new discipline, and a lot of work ahead of us teasing apart what it all means.”

SB: You won’t be surprised to find that I have a classic IA’s answer to this question: it depends. 🙂 A thesaurus is an information retrieval tool that excels at making connections between concepts. Information retrieval thesauri are almost the opposite of the way we think of the thesauruses we were introduced to in elementary school. Those thesauri took a word and exploded in outward, so that when we got absolutely sick of writing “brown” we learned that we could substitute the more exotic “sienna.” An information retrieval thesaurus at its most basic relationship brings concepts together, grouping and clumping like terms. Subsequently the document that mentions the brown crayon and the separate document that discusses the sienna Crayola are both pulled together in the information system that has a thesaurus applied to it.

There are 3 primary relationships that thesauri clarify: equivalent relationships (synonyms, variations; as with brown/sienna above), hierarchical relationships (broader and narrower-or more general and more specific), and associative relationships (related terms). In the classical sense, you only had a thesaurus if all 3 relationships were explicated, but on the Web people have been open to using the word thesaurus when they’re talking about just one or two of the relationships.

B&A Can you get all these things to work together in some way?

SB: Yes! There are a variety of different ways (some of this may be semantic, of course, depending on how strictly you want to interpret the terminology). Here’s an example: you might have a site that employed a high level taxonomy or classification scheme (think Yahoo!). If the taxonomy is polyhierarchical, thesaural relationships could be employed as part of the taxonomy (e.g. Movies: see Film). The thesaurus might also be used to show associated relationships for individual records (e.g., Final Fantasy, see also: Japanese anime). A thesaurus could also be used behind the scenes to enhance the search technology-for example, the taxonomy might only display movies and film but the search engine might use the thesaurus to tell the user who searches for “movie” that the results returned were based on documents indexed by the preferred term “film.” Conversely, the search engine might also use the thesaurus to create search zones-returning results for searches of “8mm” from the documents indexed as relating to film before the other documents.

B&A Does every site need all this stuff?

SB: No, definitely not all this stuff. These are concepts that can be leveraged as tools to support classification and retrieval. It’s basically the same as with search-not all sites need a search engine, for example. Barring the religious war between Jared & Jakob there is the reality that some sites seem to work quite well without search engines (e.g., Gap.com) while other sites are greatly enhanced by them (e.g., Amazon).

But every site needs some of this stuff, perhaps. It’s very difficult to have a functional site that doesn’t have some kind of approach to organization-usually in the form of a classification scheme-regardless of whether it’s a hierarchical taxonomy (a place for everything and everything in one place only), a polyhierarchical taxonomy (a Yahoo!-like scheme where items can be placed in more than one category), or a flat classification scheme (as with the simplest brochure sites), etc.

B&A What about software-can you think of software that could benefit from architecting their information?

SB: A topic worthy of a book, undoubtedly. When I’m looking at information architecture for content I tend to focus on classification, navigation, labeling and search, and there are certainly aspects of most all of these in software programs. Labeling is a huge issue in the functionality of software products, especially because we tend to be dealing with extremely narrow and deep structures with software. Good labels (even in the form of rollovers for icons) can make a significant difference in the users’ ability to understand and use the tools. (An interesting side note here is that generally novice or infrequent users have more success with broad and shallow schemes, something that doesn’t tend to work especially well with software interfaces.)

B&A What is your dream process for creating an architecture?

SB: Dream process, hmmm. Well first it begins with assembling a great team. I’d need to have a sense of the parameters to know what size team to go with, but at Argus we had great success with fairly small teams even for rather significantly sized projects. The best teams are a mix of skills, experience and personality. I tend to be drawn to the bottom-up elements of IA (e.g., content analysis, vocabulary control, indexing, etc.) so I tend to look for people with top-down skills (strategy, heuristics) to balance my approach.

After assembling the team, my dream project would have a dream context -clearly defined scope and goals with clients who value information architecture and are prepared to be advocates in their organization (this would be true whether I was an innie or an outtie; there’s generally some kind of client and stakeholder who can pave the way). But don’t go thinking the dream project would run perfectly smoothly-it would still have enough challenges to keep things interesting. I like projects that are daunting but not impossible.

So, let’s see: team, clients. Then I’d have the team sit down and hammer out a process that had a mixture of things we were comfortable with/had done before and had a high degree of confidence with and a few things we wanted to try out/experiment with. And once we had a rough road map we’d dive in and do the work.

B&A There is a lot of talk about semantic webs and self-organizing systems-automated IA, in other words. Meanwhile our community is talking about getting into Experience Design or getting MBA’s… can you see a future where there are no information architects, just machines and people who know what they do?

SB: I recently had a conversation with Matt Jones, IA for the BBC (his weblog is http://www.blackbeltjones.com/) about this very topic, in a more here and now way. Matt was arguing that he didn’t want information architects at the BBC, he wanted multidisciplinary staff members who were skilled in the discipline of information architecture. I took the position that in a world of ever increasing specialization, coupled with corporate environments that ask people to take on ever more responsibilities, with restricted schedules and budgets, we desperately need an individual in the IA role, both to look out for the IA particular issues and to evangelize. A sort of Lorax role-I am the Information Architect, I speak for the…labeling scheme and the organization structure and the search/browse system and so on and so forth. But that’s today, and you’re really asking about tomorrow.

In the library world there have long been whispers that automation will replace the need for librarians-it was even part of Autonomy’s ad campaign a few years ago. I think that there is a human tendency to both intrigue and scare ourselves with the idea that our creations will make us obsolete. And it is true that automation results in dramatic change. However, instead of making librarian’s obsolete, my experience has been that technology and automation often tends to replace the routine tasks, leaving the more subtle, often more interesting, challenges to be performed by people. So, in the big picture, I have no doubt that automation and technical developments will change the nature of our work as information architects over time. But people have been bending their minds to the nature and need for organizing information for a long, long time, whether as librarians or records managers or database administrators. Right now it’s a very thrilling time-we have a new medium and a new discipline, and a lot of work ahead of us teasing apart what it all means. So, yes, I think our work will evolve and change dramatically, but I don’t think the role is going to go away anytime soon.

B&A So what is the future of Information Architecture?

SB: The gazillion-dollar question that leaves me tongue-tied and tempted to blurt out “heck if I know!” But I think your question about semantic web and self-organizing systems hints at the answer-the immediate future requires stabilizing our role in the academic and business communities and identifying the key challenges and problems that we want to solve in the next 10 years. I think we’ll continue to see a weaving of old, new and newer-advancing technology with respected, well understood concepts and evolving thinking. Whatever the future of Information Architecture turns out to be, I’m excited about being part of the work as it unfolds.

Christina Wodtke is the founder of Boxes and Arrows. Her day job is Partner at Carbon IQ, a small user-experience agency in San Francisco, where she designs information architectures and conducts user research in the quest to create more usable, effective and profitable products.

What’s in a Name? Or, What Exactly Do We Call Ourselves?

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Get us together for a cocktail hour, a conference or on a mailing list and the question inevitably arises: So what exactly do we call ourselves? And for every dozen people, there are probably two dozen opinions.

Boxes and Arrows was no different. Defining our audience involved some discussion, and like the community-at-large, deciding what to call this audience sparked the most heated discussions. Continue reading What’s in a Name? Or, What Exactly Do We Call Ourselves?

The Making of a Discipline: The Making of a Title

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This year I published a book, titled ‘Experience Design‘, based on not so much an emerging field but an emerging mindset: a growing awareness that the most powerful experiences cross traditional professional boundaries, and that we as designers of experiences must pursue our work with the big picture in mind. Indeed, effective Experience Design encompasses myriad fields, from online to desktop, from print to exhibits, from interaction design to copywriting, from brand management to theme park ride design.

Information design was clearly a brave, new field—and the new titles—“instructional designer” or “interface designer”—sounded perfect for the future of the Information Age.

The shining examples of pan-media experience design—Disney, Nike, Coca-Cola and Star Trek to name a few—might make this seem straightforward. However, many people who work within the design field have had a hard time assimilating the full scope of Experience Design—and a harder time accepting their niches within it. The reasons for this resistance uncover much about the state of design as well as the state of identity—that’s personal identity, not corporate identity.

A title is born

A little history might help here. Around 1989 or 1990, back in the days before an interactive media industry—yes, before QuickTime even—there was a very small community of information designers. Most of these people came from the print world. They worked on a variety of projects, including complex signage, directories, catalogs and information systems. Many of these designers bore the titles “instructional designer” or “interface designer.”

The larger design community had trouble understanding and accepting this field, as it was decidedly more obscure and conceptual than traditional graphic design. However, information design was clearly a brave, new field—and the titles sounded perfect for the future of the Information Age. The more savvy traditional designers learned new techniques and applied them to these new concerns, but many others simply adopted the titles without learning much of anything.

Unfortunately, this was not the last time designers would update their business cards without a commensurate upgrade in skills.

The information design community owes its founding largely to Richard Saul Wurman. He was the first to identify the issues of clarity, meaning and understandability in the print world, as well as some of the techniques designers could use to organize data and create information (as in informing). He communicated these principles both inside and outside the design community, and he firmly established information design as a measurable benefit to both communication and business. Through his company, TheUnderstandingBusiness (which was established in 1987 and where I was fortunate to work for a few years) he and his designers defined many of the techniques and processes that would become information design.

The inclusiveness of the term Information Architect was illustrated by the diverse collection of media, styles and techniques in Wurman’s book by the same name.

To be sure, there were others practicing what can be considered information design. Siegel & Gale, a design firm based in New York City, was redesigning and rewriting documents and forms—even tax forms—to make them easier to use (they called this approach “plain English”). Edward Tufte had written the successful book, “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information,” and Massimo Vignelli had declared himself an information designer as well. Things were looking good—or maybe “clear” is a more appropriate word here.

However, fairly quickly, many visual designers who merely wanted to decorate data (think chartjunk) also declared themselves information designers. As I remember, the information design world was fairly accepting. If there had been an information design table, places were available for everyone who wanted a seat. Information designers didn’t exactly equate visual styling with hard-core information design, so they might have seated visual designers at the end of the table. But at least everyone was included at the table.

About this time, Wurman started using the term Information Architect, a rearrangement of the phrase Architecture of Information, which he coined at the 1972 Aspen Design Conference. In terms of skills, practice, process and expectations, the term Information Architect described the existing fields of information design and visual design. It was simply a new label invented for the purpose of elevating the profession as a whole in the eyes of a population that wasn’t particularly design savvy. The inclusiveness of the term Information Architect was illustrated by the diverse collection of media, styles and techniques in Wurman’s book by the same name.

About this time the internet started commanding the majority of work in the interactive industry. Luckily, my company, vivid studios, as well as a few others (such as Clement Mok Designs) had already translated our information design skills from print to interactive media. Information design was already part of our development processes. Of course, we had to teach every client what information design was, what it accomplished, and why it had to be in the budget. We published widely on our sites not only our job descriptions and processes, but also our theories. This is how information design crossed into the interactive world, where it was wholeheartedly accepted and has been firmly rooted ever since.

Gold rush

It didn’t take long for people with innate skills and applicable experience to find their way into the interactive field, but it was still one of the rarest of professions since no one could find classes, let alone degrees, in information design. Eventually the flood of dotcom startups required so many information designers that anyone who could draw a flowchart was soon hired and given the title (to the eventual dismay of many clients).

It’s a sad state of affairs when each company—and potentially each freelancer and consultant—reinvents a new vocabulary simply to call their own, while further confusing clients and the world-at-large just at the moment we should be clearly communicating who we are and what we do.

I guess it’s inevitable with a fast-growing field that the very people who were pouring in from other places began to rapidly mark not only their turf, but everyone else’s as well. About two years ago, the slight schism between visual decoration and information design opened into a gulf between the information architects, who claimed the best, most strategic and most cognitive aspects of information design, and the information designers, who were relegated by these titans to follow tactical instructions, perform menial tasks, and, generally, make the least contributions to the structuring of information and experiences. Make no mistake here, this was a political and strategic attempt to elevate a strata of people who would, hopefully, become the elite of the information designers: The architects were to designers as traditional architects were to interior designers.

I have witnessed many times the attempts of information architects to trump information designers simply by title alone—as if anyone actually understands the difference between the two. In fact, almost all processes, techniques and tasks are shared. (The only useful differentiation between the roles occurs at the personal level, where each person’s skills must be weighed against a project’s requirements. This, of course, is exactly the point where differentiation makes sense.)

There seems to be an opinion that information architecture applies exclusively to online media, that offline media can’t possibly pose problems as complex or as important. For sure, many large online projects can get complex, but I have yet to encounter an online project as complex or important as some of those I saw at TheUnderstandingBusiness. I also see information architects rushing to define the field in steps and techniques that are tactical at best. Most of the designers I worked with—and was taught by—at TheUnderstandingBusiness still approach problems from a higher conceptual level (and generate much more sophisticated and original solutions) than most of the architects in a hurry to separate themselves at the top of the profession. And most in this former group still go by the title, information designer.

That brings us back to Experience Design—or is it Architecture? For a field that is barely even two years old, the exact same egomaniacal process is starting but, this time, with even less substance. I sat through a presentation last year of Experience Architecture which, as far as I could tell, had no new insights, processes, or techniques to offer other than what would already be covered (or uncovered) in Experience Design. The only reason for this title was to differentiate this one company’s offering. It’s a sad state of affairs when each company—and potentially each freelancer and consultant—reinvents a new vocabulary simply to call their own, while further confusing clients and the world-at-large just at the moment we should be clearly communicating who we are and what we do.

Can you imagine a group of Fashion Architects declaring their supremacy over Fashion Designers? Yes, that’s what we’ve come to. We don’t yet have enough respect as it is from clients and engineers and we’ve almost completely lost the ear of corporate leaders. Imagine if they found out how shallow and vain the profession is turning?

While IA and ID battle each other for dominance, Visual (or Graphic) design seems to have already lost. Case in point, at the fourth annual AIGA Advance for Design workshop last year the following roles were identified for discussion:

  • Design Planner
  • Brand Strategist
  • User Researcher
  • Visual Systems Designer
  • Information Architect/Information Designer
  • Interaction Designer
  • Usability Specialist

You will not find “Visual Designer” or “Graphic Designer” in that list. The closest thing was Visual Systems Designer, which the organizers insisted is far more elaborate than mere graphic design. To make matters worse, the role of Visual Systems Designer was quickly perverted into Visual Information Designer, which became nearly synonymous with Information Architect, a separately identified role.

This circuitous examination may be pointless, but at least it isn’t frightening. What’s scary is the fact that there were no defined places for visual/graphic design, animation, interface design, typography, videography, sound design or any of the other important fields that synthesize all of the decisions and breathe life into the interface. At least one visual designer there started feeling there wasn’t a place for her at all in the community. Perhaps, in our need to define new horizons, we’re forgetting our roots.

What’s in a name

As a field trying to define ourselves, we’ve already elevated our status so far that we don’t have time for tactics or work. Only the most strategic of activities and the most important thoughts warrant our attention.

I hate the word “creative” as anything but an adjective modifying a noun worth modifying.

OK, it may not be this bad yet, but it’s certainly the direction we’re heading. Imagine discounting the joy of visual expression—the satisfaction that comes from balancing the cognitive, engineering, and emotional goals of a project so well that their recognition falls away and all that is left is a powerful visual solution. Imagine telling audio engineers and videographers (also key partners in the creation of many experiences) they aren’t a part of the process unless they can describe themselves as audio strategists and video systems designers. Now imagine trying to finish a project yourself after these professionals have left in disgust.

We started calling our “creative” group at vivid the Experience Group in 1994, partly for these reasons. We adopted the new name because it had the right mix of ambiguity and newness that stunned people long enough to hear our definition, and it avoided many of the problems with other names—especially “Creative Group.”

I hate the word “creative” as anything but an adjective modifying a noun worth modifying. When used in this sense, “we need to get some creative” or “we should hire some creatives,” the word marginalizes and devalues the contributions that front-end and “artsy” people make. When people actually refer to themselves as “creatives,” I pity them. I learned a long time ago that everyone in a company better be creative and that the most creative person at vivid was the CFO.

All of this reminds me of my experiences at the CHI (Computer Human Interface) conferences. CHI is a special interest group within the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery). It was nearly impossible to get a design-oriented paper, panel, or speech accepted as part of the CHI program.

For the most part, the only people deemed fit for the program were a) well-known members who happened to be designers or researchers and b) interface specialists who were now turning their attention to “design.” Courses, papers, and panels reviewed by the CHI leadership routinely came back with comments like “is this important?,” “isn’t there a better conference for these issues?,” “this doesn’t seem to be in the scope of CHI,” and “there isn’t much of scientific value here.”

I stopped going to CHI conferences in 1990. It was apparent that the ruling class not only couldn’t recognize new fields and techniques in design, but wouldn’t.

Experience Design is threatened by the same sort of shortsightedness and exclusivity. Are we going to succumb to infighting, name-calling, and endless arguments over definitional minutia, or are we going to expand our sights—and our boundaries—to include all of the elements we need to create dazzling—and valuable—experiences?

The most eloquent description of Experience Design I’ve read comes not from the design world but from a New York City restaurant reviewer named Gael Greene. In an interview with Matthew Goodman in the June 2001 issue of Brill’s Content, she said:

“I thought a restaurant review should describe what your experience was like from the moment you called to make a reservation. Were they rude? Did they laugh at you for trying to get a table? …”

That’s what it’s all about: the complete experience, beginning to end, from the screen to the store, to the ride and beyond.

Lee McCormack assisted with this piece. He is a writer, editor and information architect/designer/whatever. He currently plies his trade at AltaVista.

CEOs Are From Mars…

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I’m pretty much a professional half-breed. You see, with both a television production background and an M.B.A., I have spent the past 20 years trying to bridge, heal, soothe, mend and otherwise repair the pervasive gap that divides “suits” and “creatives” in the business world. Along the way, I’ve played a number of roles including ringmaster, referee, coach, ambassador and even secret agent.

In an ideal world, both sides would meet in the middle and split the distance 50/50. In reality, many business managers are simply unable to reach across more than 20 or 30 percent of the distance.

What I’ve learned is that the antagonism, hostility and resentment often felt on both sides of the equation is the outgrowth of a basic failure to understand what makes the other side tick.

What we have here is a failure to communicate
I used to believe that hard-core businesspeople actually understood their Photoshop-toting colleagues but chose, proactively and aggressively, to dismiss their skills, capabilities and talents as inconsequential fluff. The truth is much worse: many businesspeople simply don’t have the slightest idea what separates “good creative” from “bad creative.”

I’ve had executives admit to me that they couldn’t tell the difference between two competing portfolios, designs or layouts if their lives depended on it. At the same time, it’s fair to say that many designers are equally oblivious to the underlying business issues that drive decision-making in their organizations.

But, here’s the catch: design teams are the ones most likely to lose out when business requirements clash head-on with design imperatives. Because executives must stay focused on bottom-line results, aesthetic elements that seem indirectly related to the company’s business goals are easily dismissed in the corner office.

The hard part is that these design imperatives are, many times, a large part of the bottom-line results. To bridge the gap that divides business and design teams, it’s important that IAs and designers:

  • understand and respect the fundamentally different world views that separate them from most business managers,
  • commit to meeting business managers halfway (or more) when it’s time to define and articulate project goals and expectations, and
  • commit to educating themselves more completely about business issues, ideas and trends.

The view from the corner office
Try to put yourself in the CEO’s natty suede loafers for a moment: As the keepers of the fiscal flame in an organization, most executives are, understandably, more focused on the more quantitative elements of a corporation’s daily life.

They’re tasked specifically with both generating revenue and saving costs. And, at the end of the day, will be measured and compensated (or penalized!) by results that are summarized at the end of each quarter on a spreadsheet. Qualitative factors including user experience, design, content strategy and customer experience are considered a means to reach end-of-year financial goals, not an end unto themselves.

In fact, compared to complex quantitative calculations and projections, design and content architecture issues seem relatively straightforward and simple. With no spreadsheet to consult, final decisions about design, customer experience and navigation elements might seem to be based on personal preferences, favorite colors and an armchair quarterback’s appreciation of what’s stylish and hip.

Most quantitatively-focused managers simply don’t comprehend the relationship between business strategy and customer experience, or how design and content architecture serve to facilitate and articulate strategic corporate goals in the marketplace. And, without a clearly articulated business rationale to support IA and design priorities, they never will.

Finding the middle ground
Most deadly of all is every businessperson’s deep-seated allegiance to their own creative point of view. As I learned in business school, you can never convince a “qualitatively challenged” M.B.A. that a) they can’t write, b) they have limited people skills, c) their PowerPoint slides are dull, or d) they have no creative aptitude.

Redefining user experience issues in terms of business impacts and “domino effects” empowers business managers to defend and explain initiatives to other senior managers further up the chain of command.

Make no mistake: when it comes to design and customer experience issues, most business managers have stretched themselves as far across the divide as they’re capable. In an ideal world, this would mean meeting their IA teams in the middle and basically splitting the distance 50/50. In reality, many business managers are simply unable to reach across more than 20 or 30 percent of the distance.

In this context, it becomes imperative for IAs and designers to take action to close the gap. And while this may mean that design teams have to take on more than their “fair share” of the burden, it’s important to not lose sight of the overall goal: delivering the best work possible.

By learning to frame creative issues in business terms and to draw meaningful connections between design efforts and the corporation’s bottom line, design teams and their projects are more likely to survive the corporate gauntlet.

The intersection of art and commerce
First, it’s important to take a close look at the organization from the inside out. Understand who’s writing the check for the project and what results they are being held accountable for. Ask:

  • How do project goals connect to the overall mission of the organization (if at all)?
  • Who stands to benefit from the project’s success?
  • What expectations—right or wrong—are associated with the project?
  • How long will it take the organization to see a return on their investment in the project?
  • How will the projects success and/or failure be measured at a corporate level?

For example, many corporate websites are created, primarily, to reduce costs associated with customer service (e.g., call centers, product documentation, software upgrades). To that end, the extent to which call center volume decreases and use of web-based tools or FAQs increases provides management with some indication of the site’s effectiveness.

Then, consider your project and the organization from an “outside in” perspective. Ask:

  • Are internally-driven corporate goals aligned with real customer needs?
  • Which customer needs is the project meant to address?
  • How are your company’s competitors responding to these emerging needs?
  • How will the new project impact other stakeholders (e.g., vendors, partners)?
  • How is success defined in this larger context?
  • Are there any related examples in your industry (or in other industries) that you can reference and learn from?
  • Have similar initiatives worked for other companies?

In the case of the customer service-focused website described above, it would be important to understand whether or not users are likely to accept a new form of customer service. Would an online option solve a problem for them or cause additional complications?

Armed with these two critical perspectives, a design team can begin to craft arguments that are solution-oriented and in line with the corporation’s bottom line.

Returning to the online customer service solution one last time, a business-savvy design team would focus on those elements that have the greatest impact on a user’s customer service needs. In this case, superior content, information architecture and user interface design are critical to the customer’s ability to find information and, by extension, solve the immediate problem that brought them to the site in the first place. If a customer in need becomes confused by the site’s navigation or search capabilities, they will never return to the site. By extension, their opinion of a company offering such a sloppy and incomplete solution will surely diminish.

Defining these kinds of business issues and “domino effects” also empowers business managers to defend and explain initiatives to other senior managers further up the chain of command. By anticipating questions and providing managers with the language to describe each design choice and associated business solution, projects are more likely to be spared endless rounds of questioning and negotiation.

And don’t forget to embrace and support those rare business managers who actually understand and support of your design team’s issues. These managers can be terrific allies and can also serve as a resource while you’re crafting the business case for your project.

A mind is a terrible thing to waste
You certainly don’t need an M.B.A. to understand basic business principles. It’s simply a matter of engaging your curiosity and beginning to make business issues relevant to your particular situation. On an ongoing basis, make a personal commitment to increase your general understanding of business issues, ideas and trends.

You certainly don’t need an M.B.A. to understand basic business principles. It’s simply a matter of engaging your curiosity and beginning to make business issues relevant to your particular situation.

By taking the time to study various industries and macro business issues, it becomes clear that there are business basics that drive every company. By finding parallels and lessons in other industries, you can begin to make better sense of your organization’s issues and challenges.

Understanding, for example, that Southwest Airlines actually considers its primary competitors to be railroads and bus lines (versus other regional airlines) not only provides you with insight into their business strategy, but also offers a great lesson in thinking more broadly about the dynamics of your business.

Begin picking up a Wall Street Journal once a week or, very simply, browsing the business section of your local newspaper. For more in-depth stories, the Harvard Business Review, despite it’s lofty and journal-like appearance, is a wholly approachable and practical source for new ideas, case studies and best practices across a number of industries. In fact, I have often recommended an article called “The Ultimate Creativity Machine: How BMW Turns Art Into Profit” from the January 2001 issue. It describes the challenges faced by the head of BMW’s German design studio as he seeks to ride the line between aesthetic, engineering and business requirements. For yet another look at emerging business trends, monthly magazines Fast Company and Business 2.0 scour the world for the most innovative and radical new ideas, companies and executives.

Business classes and seminars offer an opportunity to connect with other students to share new ideas. They are also a valuable resource for expanding your network of professional resources. This face-to-face interaction is critical. Imagine trying to learn a new language without having someone else to talk to.

Can’t we all just get along?
Remember that corporations are living, breathing ecosystems that are given life by the people who populate them. By making a conscious effort to focus on the big picture and bridge the gaps that divide the organization, you are contributing to a company’s overall success and, along the way, making your day-to-day working life, ultimately, a little less stressful.

Alma Derricks is the founder and principal of REV, a unique business strategy consultancy that provides firms imaginative strategic guidance, new revenue-creation models and fresh insight into what motivates and inspires customers. She can be reached directly at .

Getting into Government Consulting

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From Washington, D.C. to Olympia, Washington, there’s a rich potential for user experience (UX) consultants of all flavors to provide services to government. In this article I’ll share some thoughts directed toward you, the independent consultant or small firm that would like to work with government. I’ve tried to imagine what I’d tell you if we sat down for a drink together and you wanted to get into government consulting. Here it is.

On safari in deepest, darkest bureaucracy: Understanding government culture is crucial for ongoing engagement.

Developing a consulting relationship with government can be quite different from your previous experience consulting for business. To help you get started, I’ll outline some lessons I’ve learned in my work with government, in three key areas:

  • Appreciating the differences
  • Understanding the culture
  • Finding your niche

These strategies promote a customer-centric consulting practice—after all, your clients are your customers, and many of the same user-centric principles used in design apply to your business operations. That’s not too different than consulting anywhere else. But your niche in government culture is likely to be something other than what you’re used to in business.

Dorothy, we’re not in Silicon Valley anymore
Assuming that government works just like business will cost you the contract. Appreciating the differences allows you to target your efforts effectively.

For consultants engaging government, focusing on the different levels of jurisdiction is a critical first step in targeting your potential clients. Do you want to work with local, state or federal government? While the federal government makes headlines with “$700 million in new IT spending,” local and state governments are often more accessible and can provide valuable opportunities.

Deciding which segment to serve is largely a factor of access—state and local governments often prefer “hometown” consultants who are sensitive to local issues. Federal contract opportunities exist across the country, but may be too large for independents to tackle alone.

Political ROI trumps all
Once you’ve decided where to focus your attention, someone has to buy in to what you’re offering. In business, return on investment (ROI) drives those kinds of decisions, and the same goes for government. But ROI is so much more than money. In government (and often in business), financial ROI is secondary to political ROI. What do I mean by political ROI? Just that the cost-benefit ratio measures risks and rewards in political terms: how does any given action fit with the current elected policy? What are the ramifications for re-election? Negative media coverage? Public perception? How does it benefit the government, the department, a politician or senior executive? Does it make the job easier? What’s the worst-case scenario?

In the end, you may have a brilliant proposal with significant financial benefits that gets torpedoed because of politics. Selling your services requires you to position yourself as a political solution first—your services need to acknowledge the party line and make bureaucrats, politicians, internal teams and departments look good.

Beware the Ides of November
Even when you’ve covered your political bases, in an election year, all bets are off. This is true at any level of government, not just in presidential elections. A new administration can (and will) extinguish initiatives started by the ousted party. And even in the case of re-election, the focus isn’t on your precious UX proposal—it’s on the election aftermath. Budget announcements, major policy initiatives, departmental shuffles and other shifts in government will interrupt projects, too.

The bottom line is that you need to be patient during upheaval, and even more than being patient, you need to understand the culture of the departments you’re approaching.

On safari in deepest, darkest bureaucracy: Understanding government culture is crucial for ongoing engagement.

Learn the language
Like any foreign land, government has its own language. When traveling abroad abroad, knowing the local lingo—even a bit—goes a long way in building relationships. Without some advance effort on your part, departmental acronyms, official program names, building locations, internal traditions and initiatives can create a maze of jargon that keeps you from making the connections you need to sell your services.

Alongside this idiosyncratic vocabulary that defines your clients’ “national borders,” there is an additional set of buzzwords that can be aligned with UX goals and objectives. The language of eGovernment is full of things like “citizen-centric,” “G2C” (government to citizen), “C2G” (citizen to government), “service-centric,” etc. The actual selection “eGov” buzzwords will vary, but knowing what they mean can let you frame UX issues in terms that mesh well with existing eGovernment projects.

Know the people—top down and bottom up
While you’re learning the language, get to know the people. Consulting relationships are largely about people relationships—assuming you do good work, the difference between business success and failure is often who you know. In government there are two kinds of people who you’ll get to know: “top down” people are the people in charge. While this includes elected politicians, senior civil servants endure between elections and have more to do with strategic policy than many “backbench” politicians.

“Bottom up” people are people in the trenches actually doing the work—the internal web teams, the middle managers. If you can start talking right away with senior people, that’s great; but the grassroots civil servants will sink or float a project with their acceptance (or lack thereof). Use your personal network to make both kinds of contacts when you’re looking for government work. Even if the people you meet don’t have work for you immediately, you will learn more about government culture, establish longer-term relationships, and find leads on work in other departments.

Big picture, little picture
Even if you’re perfectly fluent in local jargon and know heaps of people, you still need to understand the political landscape. Two flavors of politics inform that landscape: the “big picture” of government initiatives and policy (particularly eGovernment or citizen-centric initiatives) and the “little picture” daily reality of how your client fits into those initiatives.

The “big picture” is usually public—take the time to get to know more than the sound bites from the 6 o’clock news by reading policy documents, studying up on current initiatives, and talking with your contacts to get the word on the street. Those same contacts can help you see the “little picture,” which is no less important. Understanding how your clients fit into the big picture—and where they’d like to fit into the big picture—goes a long way to in tailoring your offering.

Symbiosis is reality: Finding your niche means working with others
So you’ve learned the language, know the people and the landscape, understand the power of political ROI… now what?

While there may be small projects you can tackle on your own, many of the contracts considered in government are beyond the means of an independent or small consulting firm, particularly since the contracts are often package deals (there is the expectation that you will scope the project, create the spec and design, and then build it, maintain it and support it).

Think about working with existing development teams—this routes around the limitations of a smaller shop. This approach can take the form of supporting in-house efforts or working alongside a larger contractor (right now I’m working with an in-house government team; over the summer I did the UI design for a $1.2 million government extranet application that a large contractor is building). Since you can’t compete with larger firms, cooperate with them or change the field on which you compete by doing things they don’t do.

Go get ’em, Tiger 😉
That’s all there is to it. Well, not really. There’s more to consulting with government than this article can cover. But if you appreciate the differences, build connections and cultural understanding and pursue good partnerships, things are off to a good start. Drop me a line and let me know how it goes. Maybe we can go out for a drink.

For more information:

  • California eGovernment Plan
    Most governments have a similar public policy document that you can find on their website. It’s required reading before any pitch.
  • Six Ways eGovernment Can Alienate Citizens
    Sometimes good ideas get taken too far—in usability testing with over 40 participants, the life events model didn’t scale well to meet a wide variety of information needs.
  • Building Better eGovernment: Tools for Transformation
    Knowing current trends in eGovernment means that you’re being customer-centric in developing your own practice—after all we should practice what we preach.
Jess McMullin is active in the online UX community. He is on the CHI-WEB moderation team, is a User Experience Architect and serves on the info-arch.org advisory board. In his spare time he’s a family man. His personal site is www.interactionary.com