“The way we find information, the devices and interfaces we use to find it, and the methods behind it all create frustration, joy, and affect the lives of everyone we know.”
Information Architecture plays a vital role in uniting our individual passions and, every year, the IA Summit brings together speakers from all aspects of user-centered design to discuss it. This particular year, we had the opportunity to digitally “sit down” with a few presenters before the event to get their thoughts on information architecture, best practices, and the future of our continued collaboration. Regardless of whether or not you’re able to attend, the ensuing discussion can help all of us think more critically about our craft.
We’re also in the position to give away a ticket to the IA Summit to one lucky reader. Read below for details as to how you might win!
- Experience design seems to be increasingly focused on smaller things: micro-interactions, ubiquitous technologies, mobile, etc. Do you think this reduces or increases the scope of our work?
David Farkas: It enlarges the scope by leaps and bounds, falling under the old adage of “constraints foster innovation.” The more things we focus on, the more constraints we have to lend shape to our solutions.
It also provides more opportunities to fail. Where the web started as static pages with an information-centric purpose, it was easy to understand the risks of a seemingly finite space. As interactivity and technology have progressed, the opportunity to design good (and bad) solutions increases. The same opportunities exist across new technologies, environments and verticals. While we understand the limitations of one area of experience design, the opportunity to discover, explore and fail in others is ever growing.
Andrew Hinton: I don’t think mobile and ubiquitous computing (or micro-interactions, for that matter) are “smaller things” so much as they are specific aspects of a whole experience.
I do think that, in the broader conversation, there’s a tendency to focus on parts at the expense of the whole. But that’s just a human quirk. People tend to grab hold of specific memes more readily than higher-level, system-wide stuff (which is complex and requires more abstraction). Information architecture concerns itself with that wider point of view: how contexts connect.
What led you to present on your topic of choice? Is your presentation more of a summation of your current thinking or is it a sort of rallying cry for where we should head as a profession?
- Lauren Colton: I first heard about Plain Language in law school and fell in love with the idea of streamlining communication for a stronger message. Although clients and I sometimes have to consider the usability and accessibility aspects of language. I’m ultimately trying to convince people to not be afraid of their words. Language is how we make friends, run governments, and build the technology that improves lives.
- Nir Eyal: I spent several years at my last company working in, and studying, advertising and video gaming. These two industries depend upon what I unapologetically call “mind control.” My talk will be a call-to-action for interaction designers to understand and apply what those who create habit-forming products have known for years.
- David Farkas: My presentation – “The F Word… Fail” – is a rallying cry for our profession to be more comfortable with admitting, discussing, and sharing failed projects, code, discoveries and experiences with each other and our clients.
The idea came out of my MidwestUX talk on “Interaction Design through Mixology.” Much of the post-presentation conversation centered around how I document my failed experimentations. It was a crystallizing moment for me: Where have I kept them? Why aren’t they available? Over the following months I researched my own and others work identifying the gap in knowledge in our field isn’t solely in academic or mentorship programs but exists in our fear of failure, or more importantly our resistance to openly discuss it.
- Karl Fast: I’m speaking about the big challenge of small data. This is a reaction to the assumption that big data is inherently more complex, more interesting, and more important than smaller data. Big data is complex, interesting, and important, of course, but that doesn’t mean small data problems are simple, boring, and unimportant.
Look at the information in your life: the paper piled on your desk, the photos on your computer, all the stuff in your Evernote account. These are small data problems. They are messy and pervasive; something everybody has to deal with. The conversation around big data implies that we’ve solved small data problems. We haven’t.
- Kel Smith: Both, really. The experience of designing for the digital outcast is something I’ve been exploring for the past several years (soon to be released as a book by Morgan Kaufmann). I’ve been inspired by how people with disabilities are increasingly relying on “grass roots” self-sufficiency as a way to successfully navigate their lives, and I believe there are lessons that we can all take from their efforts.
- Designers seem to simultaneously ask “why?” and “why not?” of their clients. How does motive and/or intention factor into our work? And at what point might our work with government, healthcare, and other institutions become unethical?
- Nir Eyal: At some level, design is about manipulation. I’ve written on this topic before: how a designer can better decide what is worth working on from a moral perspective. I ask them to consider two things: First, “Would I use the product myself?” and second, “Will the product help users materially improve their lives?”
- Karl Fast: Like any profession, UX designers believe our work has value; that we create positive change in the world. We have good motives and positive intent. Therefore, we naively assume our work must be ethical. Yet UX work is always coercive at some level. We deliberately design things that make people buy more, that persuade people to click ads, and so on. These are not inherently bad things, but they’re not inherently good either. Our work is not neutral. It has an ethical dimension, even if it’s not something we talk much about.
Kel Smith: I’ll speak from the point of view of healthcare. No authentic examples of unethical design practices come immediately to mind, likely because the industry is so tightly regulated that very few renegades are able to slip through the cracks.
The only case where I could consider a health design practice unethical is, obviously, when patient’s wellness is at risk. As we approach a new phase of healthcare that supports greater interoperability and an emphasis on quality of care, I think we’ll see new practices emerge that force us to reconsider how the patient experience is manifested through systemic or experiential constraints.
- What are the biggest obstacles we’ve overcome as a profession? Along the same lines, what are challenges you foresee for our profession in the coming years?
Karl Fast: When Marissa Meyer was hired as the CEO at Yahoo, the headline in the New York Times was “Mayer Hopes to Brighten User Experience at Yahoo.” This headline was unthinkable ten years ago. Today it doesn’t seem unusual. So the biggest obstacle we’ve overcome is fragmentation. We have loosely assembled these pieces under the UX banner and, on the whole, it’s been a good thing for the field.
Looking ahead, a big challenge is the deep contextualization of UX practice. Take healthcare, for example: A typical UX role is improving the hospital website. Compare that to the much broader notion of patient experience design. Some people are moving in this direction, and I think it’s a positive trend. If this continues, maybe we’ll start hearing less about information architecture or interaction design, for example, and more about patient experience design (for healthcare), student experience design (for education), and citizen experience design (for government).
- Andrew Hinton: Generally, I still get a sense that practitioners are impatient with complexity, and want to make everything too simple and concrete, too quickly. The zeitgeist right now is all about “making stuff” without much thinking, analysis or modeling. The assumption seems to be that if you’re working through a problem with any level of abstraction – analyzing, modeling – then you’re not making anything yet. This is horribly wrong-headed, and leads to a sort of blindness to big, complex, systemic challenges, and an over-focus on problems that can be tackled with a quick prototype. Meanwhile, the world is getting even more systemically complicated. We need to embrace complexity, then tame it.
Brad Nunnally: I’d say the fact that business executives and directors are including designers more and more during the initial conversations of a project is a big win. The results of this shift can be seen in the number of new products being released with a high level of design quality.
This new respect and desire for our skills also presents us with new challenges. Business leaders now see the value of design, but they need us to communicate that value back to them in terms they understand. If we don’t step up, then the success we are seeing will be short lived.
- What book(s) are you presently reading? How else do you keep up with the accelerating change in our industry?
- Lynn Boyden: I’m rereading Peter Block’s Flawless Consulting; of all the books on my shelf of professional literature, this is the one that not only bristles with post-its, but that I have returned to the most frequently during my 13 years of professional practice. It offers not only techniques for problem solving, but also for managing clients’ expectations, dealing with resistance, and other ways to get your expertise used. On my desk for the next read is Mike Montiero’s Design is a Job; everyone I respect who has read it insists it’s the best book about practicing IA that they’ve ever read.
- Lauren Colton: To keep up in the industry, blogs are a great way to stay informed. Smashing Magazine, UIE BrainSparks, and ZURBlog are some of my favorites. But as quickly as technology moves, the shape of a great sentence and the strategy behind an engaging message both come down to people. Copyblogger and Grammar Girl have great nonfiction blogs, but since what you read shapes what you write, I’m always reading novels too. (Recent favorite fiction includes the Dud Avocado, Snowdrops, and Reamde.)
- Nir Eyal: The last great book I read was Addiction by Design by Natash Dow Schull. I try and keep up with change in our industry by specializing in my area of focus, behavior and habit design.
Brad Nunnally: I’ve recently taken a deep dive into collaborative facilitation and workshops. The skills addressed in books like Gamestorming, Visual Teams, and Rapid Problem Solving with Post-It Notes allow me to work with business stakeholders in ways they may not be used to and help to drive future direction and strategy.
Books only help me keep up with the the design industry so much, though. The other side of the equation for me is attending conferences. Events like the IA Summit, Interaction, WebVisions, and SxSW are key to my own professional development. The first IA Summit I attended back in 2009 taught me more than two years of being a practitioner.
Many thanks to our friends at the IA Summit for helping us put this interview together as well as the speakers for their time in answering the responses. High fives all around!
See you in Baltimore?
Oh, one more thing. If you’re itching to join these (and a bunch of other) speakers at the IA Summit and haven’t yet bought your ticket, you’re in luck. We’ve got one to give away.
To win, simply let us know who you’re most looking forward to seeing/meeting and why in the comments below. Be sure to follow @uxbooth on twitter and leave your twitter handle in your comment so that we can contact you to claim your freebie.
Finally, entries must be made by midnight, tonight. We know that’s short notice, but we’d like to give the winner some time to arrange for their own hotel and travel accommodations. Please be aware that we can’t provide those!
Good luck, everyone. We can’t wait to meet you in person (@andrewmaier will be there) in two weeks.