When I wanted to make a career shift to information architecture, I was reluctant because I loved the team I worked with. So instead of leaving to find the right work, I tried to start doing it where I was.
What follows are my recommendations on how to make similar moves. It’s not rocket science, but it’s always nice to get some reminders. The least rocket science-y part is the first: Set a goal. You can’t get to where you’re going unless you know where that is. But once you have that, you can move on to the real stuff.
Pretend to be good at your job
This is the part where you take your perceived weakness and you pick up somebody else’s strengths. It’s more nuanced than just pretending to be good. You’re pretending to be someone else, who is good at those things.
When I’m acting, I like to have props. I knew there was a joke about UXers being obsessed with post-its, Sharpies, and dry erase markers, so I went to the supply closet and got as many as I could carry. As my friend who owns a tuxedo once said, “If you own a tuxedo, you’ll find a place to wear it.” And he was right. Suddenly, all of my work required huge white-boarding sessions and arrays of colorful post-its.
The unintended consequence was that it took all of my processes out of my head and put them on the walls around me. Without much of a change, I suddenly looked a lot smarter and more engaged with my work. Accidentally, I got a bit smarter, too. Writing things out and staring at them on a wall prevented me from skipping over important details or making huge leaps of logic. It also helped to explain to my co-workers and clients how I was tackling problems. When I was being transparent with my work, it was easier for them to engage with me and participate. Pretending to be good at my job was going so successfully that I decided to try something else.
Refer to your work as IA
This wasn’t anything elaborate. I would just look at something and say, “From an information architecture perspective, this is a great design.” I was planting the seed for the discipline. This is a good step for those who aren’t very good at self-promotion, because it takes the focus off of you and puts it onto the discipline and how that will help your company.
After I had been acting good at my job for a while, I realized my plan might actually work. But I knew I needed to be a little more strategic about things to make it happen. I had to build alliances. But I’m not on Survivor, so I didn’t want to be a creep about it. Instead, I made friends.
This was a pretty easy step because I already had friends. And as you do with friends, I looked around to see who I could help. I saw that the designers were way overworked.
They were our unicorns. They handled the IA, UX, and visual design, and I wanted to get in on the action. They would sit in meetings and be working on things for another client. That would be frustrating for the people in the meeting because we couldn’t get their full attention and frustrating for them because they just needed to get things done.
So, I struck a deal with them that I’d go to the upfront meetings–the really tedious ones where you’re just trying to get the stakeholder to say the same thing twice. Then, I’d compile everything I’d learned and hand it off to them. This was an obvious win-win because they had more time to do work, and I got to try out some new things I wanted to learn.
Take on side projects
There were more skills I wanted to pick up, so I decided to take on a side project. If you’re looking to do something extra but are having trouble deciding what type of side project to take on, think about the things you and your friends snark about at lunch. What’s the thing that drives you nuts?
For me, it was the fact that we didn’t have an interface messaging voice and tone guide. To turn this into an actual project, I had to find other people who were interested in consistent messaging. I identified some likely allies (marketing, sales, technical writers) and some less likely ones (developers, translations manager). Together, we started to chip away at the style guide and tackle the worst messaging.
Have the right people on your side
Whenever you’re trying to do any corporate maneuvering, it’s always important to have the right people on your side. And in this case, I was just lucky.
So, that’s my tip: Be lucky.
For me, that luck came in the form of a new boss who couldn’t believe we didn’t have an information architect on staff. Her boss, who allowed her to make me that IA, knew me as someone knowledgeable about the internet from the previous summer…when I taught him to use Twitter.
Don’t be mysterious, be helpful
So, success! I became an information architect. Now the problem was that I had to convince people I was worth keeping. I had seen other people try to do that by silo-ing off their responsibilities and trying to make their work seem really mysterious, and therefore extra important. That never worked because everyone saw right through it. I wanted to take a more transparent approach, so I spent a lot of time explaining to people what I did.
Educate your team
Since my company had never had an information architect, I had to educate everyone about why this new role existed and how it would help them achieve their goals more effectively.
Early on, I showed a stakeholder a wireframe, and she asked why the interface was black and white now. This was adorable but also totally my fault. She never should have seen that without knowing what it was. So I added a few upfront stakeholder meetings so everyone knew what I was doing and presenting.
One mistake I made was not paying attention to the corporate comings and goings around me. When new people joined the team, I had to quickly explain to them why this role was important, and I wasn’t always good at that. After being closed out of a number of meetings and big decisions, I realized I wasn’t convincing some people of my value. Since then, I make a point of keeping a few examples of the things I bring to a project that wouldn’t have been there without an IA in my back pocket. And if I can’t identify anything, I know I’m not contributing enough to that project.
Never stop pretending to be good
When I started my ruse to pretend to be good at my job, I didn’t realize that I could never stop pretending to be good. In fact, now that I had the title I wanted, I had to be MORE good at my job. Outwardly, this meant bigger white-boarding sessions and more post-it notes. But behind the scenes, it meant more strategic twitter follows, local meetups, and reading to make sure I was up on what our industry leaders were saying.
Live happily ever after
This might not be your exact story, so this won’t all be the same for you. The part that’s universal is the importance of figuring out what someone else needs, putting that together with what you want, and identifying a path to meet both goals.
What my company needed was someone to provide continuity to a range of projects, help out the designers who never had time to do the work they wanted to, and have everyone write from a common style guide. What I wanted was to be an information architect.
When I put these together I had an opportunity to help my team and try out some things I thought would be interesting. Keep the focus on helping others, getting smarter and being a good human being.
Great article! I really liked the idea about being transparent with your work and educating those around you. It’s taking me too long to realize that just being good at your job isn’t good enough; people are busy and need you to spell out what you bring to the table. Thanks!
This is really helpful – especially the part about finding out what someone else needs and putting that together with what I want. I assume that the “someone else” only includes people whose needs you intuitively thought could be combined with what you want. How do you suggest identifying those people?
So true. It’s always important to document and convey to the stakeholders in appropriate manner the impact your work delivers. It also pays in the long run 😛
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