This week’s guest author is Karen McGrane, an accomplished user experience and interaction design consultant, with 15 years of professional experience in customer research, information architecture, and content strategy.
I remember the first time I heard the phrase “information architecture.”
It was in the technical communication program at RPI, in a conversation with the department chair about my enthusiasm for combining my love of clear writing, making outlines, and labeling my file folders with what I was then just discovering: a whole new world of spatial design, how people translate cognitive information into physical tasks, how visual and tactile cues help make verbal communication more clear.
She smiled and said: “You should look into this new field called information architecture.”
Uniting the physical and mental
Information architecture! Could there be a better metaphor to capture the intersection between the linguistic and the physical, the cognitive and the tactile, how people think and what people do? (If you disagree, I’ll point out that this conversation took place in 1996.) I, for one, was hooked on the potential of bringing these two spheres together.
This convergence, of course, is the continuing promise of UX: to meld cognitive tasks and physical tasks into one seamless experience. Douglas Englebart, working in the 60’s, knew that to “augment human intellect” would require improvements to both hardware and software interfaces. Donald Norman has called it “cognitive engineering.” Even William Gibson’s vision of “cyberspace” melded information systems with physical actions.
But the center cannot hold
I know lots of people who are good at communicating with words and labels and expressing things verbally. I know lots of other people who are good at design and motion and making things tactile. I know it’s rare to find people who are great—truly great—at both.
It’s only natural that as the user experience field has evolved, we’ve developed depth and specialization. From a business standpoint, narrow focus is often the key to success. If you’re seen as an expert in a particular area, you’ll get more work than if you present yourself as a jack-of-all-trades.
Unfortunately, this natural movement toward more specialization results in fault-lines within the UX disciplines. Not a day goes by without seeing different factions fighting it out over who has the better approach to designing for humans.
I do not understand what some people within the interaction design community hope to achieve by treating information architecture like it’s the enemy. And I do not understand why some people insist that content strategy must destroy or overtake other disciplines. And then there are people who dismiss the user experience field altogether, suggesting that our roles are unnecessary overhead on projects.
The in-fighting has to stop. We must kill the enemy within. The real enemy is out there, in the vast realm of people who still don’t get user experience.
You don’t have to declare a major
We need to embrace the idea that UX is necessarily multi-disciplinary—not just within different communities of practice, but within individual skill sets. People are surprised to hear that I speak at conferences about content strategy and yet still do interaction design work for clients. Why can’t I love them both? I loved them both when I called them information architecture.
So that’s why I hope that everyone working in this space feels like they have the potential to develop skills in multiple areas. You can be an interaction designer and a content strategist. You can be a user researcher and a visual designer too! You can even still be an information architect.
I’m not saying that everyone will be great at all of these things. Getting good at even a couple of them is a life’s work. But we need to embrace the tension and contradictions that make our field unique. We need more people who are truly great at communicating using both verbal and physical models. The user experience field should work to unite these practices, not divide them.