Category Archives: Information Architecture

Backwards Design

I just started working with an instructional design team on developing a new course.

It’s interesting to be introduced to another discipline’s design process, particularly when you work in a field with a fairly well defined process of its own. At yesterday’s Akron UX Meetup we talked about the tension that can exist between IA and marketing given the overlap of focus (“ownership*”) on “the customer” / “the user.”  Someone made the observation that marketing excels at understanding customers by knowing a lot about their perceptions and opinions whereas UX focuses on their behaviors–and that both knowledge points are important. I think instructional designers would say that they know  a lot about how people learn–which both is and isn’t behavior.

The process they follow is called “Backwards Design” where you start by defining the desired learning outcomes and then back into the course structure, assignments, and materials. It is definitely a different approach from my previous course development experience where I basically visualized the semester broken into two halves by spring break and then further broken down into weeks and lectures. I had some clear objectives I wanted my students to achieve, but I probably left them to their own devices in terms of connecting the dots between what I was saying and what they were doing with what they were ideally supposed to be learning.

This process begins by having the instructor pose “essential questions” or “eternal philosophical questions,” which initially sounds pretentious and like the worst kind of academic navel gazing when it comes to the terminal master’s degree, which is by its nature a practical endeavor that may not even belong in the academy in the first place (and wound up there more from the absence of alternatives (and the insatiable demand for income universities are beset by now that the state has  abdicated any real funding role)). I digress…

Anyway, despite my initial reaction, it turns out to be great fun to attempt to define eternal philosophical questions facing Information Architecture as a discipline. My rough draft start is as follows:

  • Can information architecture be defined? Is it important/necessary to DTDT**?
  • Is IA art, science, or craft? (Does it matter?)
  • Information overload has become a fact of life and only appears to be increasing (we’re no longer dealing with information scarcity)–what is the role of IA in alleviating information overload?
  • Will we still need IA after the algorithms have all been perfected? (I think this is the parallel to the claim made very few years that libraries are on the verge of becoming extinct)
  • How can we most effectively bridge the inherent gaps that exist between the people who are disseminating information and the people who are consuming that information?

What do you think–are there other more pertinent questions I’ve missed?



* Just today I got an email from a colleague noting “I’m trying to locate an article/blog post/interview I read at least a few years ago. I’m going to paraphrase some points I remember from it:

– the designer/UX doesn’t own the design
– design is a process/methodology, not a thing to own

Surely that is true of our customers/clients/users as well!


**DTDT=Defining The Damn Thing

Advanced Information Architecture

I am going to be developing an online course in Advanced Information Architecture for Kent State’s IAKM program. The course is a 7 week asynchronous course that will be taught online in Oct, following a 7 week Intro to IA course currently being developed by Paul Sherman.

I’m beginning to think through the kinds of things that need to be included in such a class and I’m eager for input from others about what they’d like to see covered in this type of class. One of the things I’m really struggling with is coming up with an appropriate text for the course. I’ll definitely continue sharing my thought process here as I work on the course development.

Initial thoughts are that I want to cover some online research techniques such as Optimal Workshop’s Tree Jacking and Stormboard’s online post-it note system.

Stay tuned for more info–and please chime in with ideas and opinions!


IA Summit Review (part 3 of N)

Onto the the next of my three major take-aways from Karen McGrane’s fabulous IA Summit closing keynote.

Major Take-Away #2 or “The Role of the Lovable Fool”

Next Karen had a slide with “skill” (may not have been that exact word) on one axis and “likability” on the other. She began by observing that people who are highly skilled and highly likeable are rockstars and there isn’t much to do there except hang onto them (although there is plenty to discuss there, as hanging onto rockstars isn’t necessarily the easiest thing to do since they get a) bored and b) poached–but that’s for another post).

She then went onto to dispatch with incompetent jerks by pointing out that they really don’t create that many problems–they either get fired, transferred to become someone else’s problem, or people just work around them.


That leaves us with the competent-but-unlikeable and incompetent-but-likeable categories–the incompetent jerks and the lovable fools. And here she pointed out that competent jerks tend to stick around and even get promoted; no one likes working with them, but they survive economic downturns due to their competence. And we all know what happens to the lovable fools–in good times they are kept around because of their affability but in economic downturns, they are among the first to be let go.

So, what’s the problem? Doesn’t this just make sense–in a capitalist system surely competence is more important than affability, right? Karen says not so fast–there is more to the lovable fool that meets the eye.

As someone who has done quite a bit of hiring in this field (and hopes to do a lot more) understanding the role of personality in management is important to me and as soon as Karent displayed her axis I had the feeling there would be something important here. Karen’s next point didn’t surprise me a great deal; she observed that lovable fools reduce stress in workplaces and lead to happier teams. I’ve seen this in action.

IMPORTANT CAVEAT: “fool” or “incompetent” really aren’t the right words for this phenomenon, as I don’t think anyone would ever recommend referring to a colleague this way as it would almost certainly be perceived as insulting or demeaning. The people who fall into this quadrant are typically perfectly smart, competent people–but they’re often not as visibly productive, aren’t aggressive, aren’t boastful, and typically aren’t producing deliverables that are quite as sharp (or flashy) as their jerkier (or rockstar) peers.


IA Summit Review (part 2 of N)

Onto the 3 major take-aways from Karen McGrane’s fabulous IA Summit closing keynote. These aren’t necessarily in the order they were covered in her presentation, as I’m working from memory and spotty notes–but one of the things that stands out to me about this talk is how vividly I recall key points, which I think is another indicator of a powerful talk.

Major Take-Away #1 or “The center does not hold.”

After talking about her vision for what she’d like the world to look like by the time she is relaxing on her ‘retirement island’ with some tongue in cheek and some serious elements Karen launched into what was essentially a love letter to IA.  With a slide like this:


So of course, I reveled in every moment of it since it was all kinds of IA is wonderful boosterism that I can’t get enough of. This probably should have clued me into the fact that she was about to go somewhere potentially contentious, but it didn’t…and then she intoned “but the center does not hold.” And she transitioned her slide deck to this:

cs id
And I experienced a bit of a stomach lurch and broke out in a cold sweat thinking “OMG, Karen McGrane is about to tell us there isn’t any such thing as information architecture or that we don’t really need IA now that we have content strategy and interaction design or, or, or” and I have to admit that I probably didn’t hear what she said until this slide:

Where in I started to breathe again, sort of. (Important caveat: she explicitly stated that she was *not* attempting to start internecine warfare and I’m sure she said some other important things that I’ll definitely listen for when the podcast is out.)

Her point being that information architecture can/should/must be a bridge between content strategy .and interaction design. Part of me sees this (and I definitely think that communication between and respect of the multiplicity of disciplines required to ensure good user experience design is a worth goal in and of itself), but…when I look at the “bridge” diagram I find myself seeing San Francisco (fabulous), the Golden Gate Bridge (impressive…and also something desperate people jump from), and Marin County (differently and perhaps even more fabulous). And therein lies the rub–because here’s the thing, you can take the GG Bridge out of the picture completely and SF and Marin will still be there, essentially unchanged and unharmed. They don’t require the bridge for their existence. Equally important, there is no point in the bridge without SF and Marin. And this image lends itself to the interpretation that “information architect” is not a role that can stand on its own while “content strategist” and “interaction designer” both are.*

For the record: I really don’t think that’s what Karen was trying to say, but it’s what I’ve been chewing on since. More thinking to do here, I’m sure.

Next up: Take-away 2: Competent Jerks & Lovable Fools

 *Which led me to wonder what employers are calling what they're looking for, so I did a quick search at Monster (perhaps not the best source of these kinds of postings, though)--where interaction design has won this war (112 postings), but I was pleasantly surprised to pull up 62 postings for information architect and quite  surprised to only find 14 for content strategist.

IA Summit Review (part 1 of N)

I’m home from the IA Summit in Baltimore and am still processing what a great event it was! (And I’m already chomping at the bit to book a flight for next year’s event–Sea World here we come!)

This conference tends to be a highlight for me on an annual basis but like all events that you attend over and over, the energy and impact varies with some years being more about the brain food and others more about the socializing (or the politics). And of course my perspective from year to year has as much to do with where I am in my life and career as the nature of the conference itself–although as the event has matured the degree of competence and professionalism of its (completely unpaid!) conference planners has risen dramatically. (I like to think that we IA’s learn from our mistakes along with having boatloads of good ideas.) This year’s planners, Crystal Kubitsky, Giles Colborne & Kevin M. Hoffman outdid themselves and deserve a standing ovation.

The thing I loved best about this year’s event was how rich the IA content within the program proved to be. Over the past several years there has been a broadening of scope that I think has been positive in terms of making a larger tent and attracting people who were on the periphery but who should be in the thick of it, but the past few years sometimes left me (and others) feeling like “where is the IA at the IA summit?!” (And this is not to point fingers–I think in many ways this issue got its foothold in the summit I co-chaired*.)

Having been born there, I’m technically a Baltimore native, but we moved to Wisconsin when I was 6 or 7 and I lived in the land of dairy and progressives (well, they were famous for that before I was born), through college–so I’m inclined to say I’m “from” Wisconsin. That said, I have many lovely relatives in Maryland and the conference location afforded Niles and I the opportunity to spend nearly a week cavorting with a cadre of aunties and cousins and friends we see far too rarely. Subsequently I went into the conference in a sunny frame of mind (despite unseasonably cool weather).

It’s going to take more than one post to summarize the wonderfulness that was the conference–and I’m going to need to listen to a bunch of podcasts since there were many sessions I wasn’t able to attend. I will be sure to post the link to the podcasts here as soon as it is available. In future posts I’ll definitely comment on some of the interesting and insightful sessions I attended but my first shoutout goes to Karen McGrane’s closing keynote, which was truly masterful. (Slides here.)

I’ve seen Karen speak several times before and have found her an engaging and intelligent speaker drawing on rich experience but this talk had a different flavor to it–it just felt like she’s kicked it up a notch and has moved into a new plane. There were certainly points I might disagree with or not see from exactly the same perspective, but it feels nit-picky to quibble when the end product was the perfect balance of the kind of critique/constructive criticism of the profession/discipline we’ve come to expect from our closing speakers coupled with an uplifting, energizing quality that left me inspired to go back to my office and Be/Do BETTER.

In my next post  I’ll talk about the 3 points in her talk I found the most compelling.


*I knew that chairing the event would be a lot of work, but much like parenthood you really don’t know just how hard it will be until you do it. Subsequently I have made a rule for myself of refusing to complain about “the small stuff” at the summit, not because it doesn’t matter but because being the chair is just so thankless. (And due to the happy accident of an early baby, I didn’t have to take the heat in Memphis, so I was spared more than probably any other chair in summit history.) This year’s chairs, however, raised the bar on attention to detail to a level where I suspect next year’s great lineup of chairs are probably already sweating a bit! 

Introducing Sift

I’m delighted to announce that I am formally changing the name of my consulting firm from BaileySorts to SiftUX effective today with the launch of my new website: SiftUX.

While I will continue to provide solo consulting, the new name reflects a shift in focus toward more partnership and team-based work efforts that will enable my colleagues and I to take on larger and more complex projects. I’m excited about moving forward with a new name and an enlarged vision.

A disturbing trend in UX books?

This morning, Karl (a professor who teaches both HCI and Information Architecture) handed me a semi-recently published textbook (2012) that he said he thought might be able to finally serve as a comprehensive text book that could be assigned to students in the program where he teaches.

I looked at the book with a lot of enthusiasm as I also teach and mentor in the UX field and have also longed for The Book that could become the seminal textbook as opposed to the (relatively large) assortment of books that currently need to be recommended to really cover the bases.

At first glance this book (The UX Book by Rex Hartson and Pardha Pyla) looks wonderful–it is obviously written by authors with deep expertise, I love that it is geared to active learning with the inclusion of exercises, it is thoughtfully organized. As I scanned through the table of contents an alarm bell went off in my mind, however–how could a book purporting to be a comprehensive guide to designing effective user experiences (which primarily still means designing effective user interfaces) fail to include information architecture? Thinking that perhaps the topic would be embedded in the text I checked the index for “information architecture” and for “navigation”–no mentions in the index for either. This strikes me as an egregious oversight.

Some books on the topic don’t use the term “information architecture” but they still delve deeply into organization, navigation, content strategy, and other critical elements that information architecture encompasses. I’m always disappointed when the term “information architecture” isn’t used, as I consider it the best and most widely understood term for capturing this unique set of components–but a rose by any other name still smells as sweet, so I can cope without the term as long as the concepts are there. I don’t think that is really the case with this text, however. There is a (thin) chapter on mental models that imperfectly and partially covers this territory–and that is about it.

In reality, this book is an extensive usability evaluation techniques book (and from that aspect it appears to be a very good one) that also includes information on user research techniques and a chapter on prototyping. This is not a comprehensive user experience design text and I would not recommend it as a comprehensive text given that such critical content is absent.

Karl acknowledged that it is troubling that IA is missing in both name and form but encouraged me to appreciate that the book is pretty good at everything else it covers and great at many. I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but that seems a bit like saying that we should appreciate an anatomy text for its brilliant coverage of the skeleton, muscles, and organs, and overlook the fact that the cardiovascular system is missing.

At this point Karl pulled out two other books he’s been considering for texts, Inventing the Medium by Janet Murray and User Experience Re-mastered by Chauncy Wilson (someone he knows I respect). As with The UX Book, neither of these use the word information architecture. (The Murray text covers pretty much the full suite of concepts I would consider important from an information architecture perspective but she includes them all under the label interaction design; I think the most important thing is for the topics to be covered, so my beef with this book would be more one of semantics than content.) I found myself looking at the stack of books with a certain amount of consternation.

I don’t think this is just a case of sour grapes from someone who specializes in information architecture complaining that my pet area isn’t getting enough attention. In the majority of interface evaluations I conduct, broken or sub-par information architecture is a significant problem–and this happens in websites, intranets, software and applications. Some organizations are aware that they have information architecture issues and they reach out to user experience designers with expertise in IA, but many organizations are not able to articulate that information architecture is an issue, although sometimes they are able to target navigation or labeling or organization among their pain points.

If the professionals who are being educated (either formally or self-directed) in User Experience are not encountering information architecture in the books that are attempting to broadly define and describe User Experience design we can hardly blame them if this is a blind-spot or weakness in their work, (and perhaps this is yet another reason we still encounter so many interfaces where the IA emerged organically as a cobbled together after-thought or emerged from the haphazard directory structure in the CMS).

The Information Architecture Summit is coming up and I will definitely be eager to poll other IA-oriented professionals as to whether they perceive this to be as significant a concern as I do or whether I’m  making a mountain out of a mole-hill.

Navigation Pattern Libraries

Ever since the advent of the “mega menu” navigation I’ve felt that Information Architecture as a discipline has dropped the ball on defining navigation approaches in a systematic way. I think this may in part have happened around the time that pattern libraries began popping up like mushrooms; perhaps we all thought that any necessary documentation or thinking about navigation was happening by default in pattern libraries; and yet to my knowledge no one ever put together a pattern library of navigation treatments with explicit insights about where and how these options are best applied in relation to a site’s IA as opposed to the context of the screen/page layout. (I would be happy to be wrong about this.)

But a couple weeks ago, I ran across this site (which is actually over a year old; suggesting that I’m not as up to speed on this topic as I ought to be).

While this doesn’t take the approach that I would specifically like to see, in terms of talking about the relationship between the breadth and depth of the information structure as part of the pros & cons, it does specifically focus on navigation patterns; albeit limited to responsive design (but since that seems to be obviously where we’re all headed, it’s a good place to start).

And it reminds me that doing something proactive about describing/tracking navigation treatments and trends would be more productive than complaining about the lack thereof…another item for the To Do list.