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Collaborative IA

Why Collaborative Information Architecture?

I talk to a lot of people about IA. It is one of my favorite things to do. One common theme I run into in these conversations is how to deal with people. It seems that everyone agrees that the main challenge of practicing IA is not deciding where to put things or what to call things, it is doing so in an environment where people have diverse opinions about where to put things and what to call things. After bumping into this reality enough times, I decided to really give it some thought. The result is this:

Too many people are practicing information architecture alone at their desks and presenting the results to their colleagues and clients. As a result, they are struggling to make actionable change, being discouraged by lack of understanding and getting frustrated with not being respected for their expertise.

How to Make Sense of Any Mess, I wrote:

“..making maps and diagrams alone at your desk is not practicing information architecture.

I made this point in passing to get across the idea that dealing with other people’s opinions is part of IA work, not something we get to choose our way out of. Ever since writing this line I have looked to pressure test it and create lessons around how to get other people involved in IA work.

Because in my experience, practicing IA with other people is not only more efficient, it is also more effective.

In preparation for the webinar I sent out a survey asking people a few questions about challenges they face in practicing IA. The result was 79 in-depth responses where people poured their hearts and souls into two simple free text fields.

Here is a recap of the common things I heard:

  • Conversations about language are difficult because people within a single organization are often speaking different languages based on role or area of focus
  • It is common to run into arguments about priority (of audiences, of goals, of resources et al) and for prioritization to be considered through a lens of organizational politics not user centricity
  • People complained about the prevalence of “This is how we have always done it” thinking and how hard it is to get organizations to change
  • Other competencies were reported to ignore or override decisions made by IA or seeing IA as cosmetic and arbitrary
  • Lack of time or budget for collaboration, testing and iteration around IA was often attributed as the largest thing standing in the way of good IA thinking

With all this in mind I set out to create a webinar to help people think about their IA process and look for opportunities to make it more collaborative.

In this 90 minute presentation I cover:

  • How to communicate the value of IA to your organization
  • How to make time/get time for IA
  • How to think about IA in agile vs waterfall environments
  • How to use stakeholder interviews to get people invested in making things clear
  • How to facilitate low fidelity conversations about language
  • How to mine for language across channels and contexts
  • How to use diagrams and drawing exercises to collaborate on IA with others
  • How to get people to actually pay attention to controlled vocabulary work

One of the most valuable parts of the research survey was the “burning IA questions” that people asked — but with all the content I had to share in the webinar, a lot of those great questions ended up on the cutting room floor. Below I would like to answer the top five questions that people submitted that didn’t make it into the talk.

How do you establish trust when you don’t have years of experience?

The best advice I can give you when it comes to building trust is this: listen more than you speak. I find that often times people go through their days aiming to be seen as the smartest person in the room, constantly looking for opportunities to show off their skills or ideas. If you instead spend most of time asking questions and genuinely listening to the answers your clients and colleagues give you, you will be seen as a more trustworthy partner.

The second piece of advice I have for you is to stop having opinions. Well, more like stop weighing in with your opinion. When we talk about IA we are already dealing with many people’s opinions. You want to position yourself as someone who will help to weigh and compare all the opinions that exist so progress can be made, not as someone who will take sides or fight for a certain point of view. Both of these pieces of advice require you to set aside your ego in service of acting as a filter for others. This is a serious challenge to overcome if you want to be trusted in doing IA work, especially without a proven track record.

When making a cup of coffee, the filter’s job is to get the grit out before a user drinks the coffee. Sensemaking is like removing the grit from the ideas we’re trying to give to users.

excerpt from How to Make Sense of Any Mess

Who within an organization should own the IA?

The simple answer is everyone. I have experienced the IA being owned in technology, marketing, design, product and even most recently by finance… all have resulted in the same issue. Whatever group owns the IA gets its priorities all over it. So instead of deciding who should own the IA, I have started to recommend that my clients create governing bodies for the IA that include cross functional members who come together on a set schedule to discuss IA issues and make IA decisions. By making it so that there is no one group or function that owns the IA it is more likely that decisions will be upheld and questions will be routed appropriately.

Can we practice IA with others without them knowing what IA is?

Yes. Often the best way to talk about IA is to talk about the two concepts within it: language and structure. Both of these concepts tend to make sense to folks across functions and areas of experience. So while educating people on IA can be useful when trying to influence an organization to care about it, it is more 201 level content best taught once the 101 concepts are clear and actionable.

Is it possible to architect something that you don’t understand because it is just too big, too specialized or too complex?

I spent a lot of time thinking about this one. I landed here: No it is not possible to architect something you don’t yet understand. It is the process of understanding it that allows us to shape places in support of it. I have been in many circumstances where the brain-hurt of getting up to speed was hard to stomach. I have lost sleep thinking “this is going to be the mess I can’t make sense of” and yet with time, persistence and bravery I have always been able to break it down and understand it. Here are some tips:

  • Take your time, some things take a while to unravel. Spread the work out and take breaks to think on it. Sometimes our brains need to sit with something passively to have a real breakthrough
  • Visualize it, it is always more complicated when it is kept in our heads alone. These visualizations can be messy and stay messy for a long time while you are working through the mess. Don’t be afraid of unresolved diagrams, they are sometimes needed to resolve larger issues surrounding the diagram
  • Use your naivety as a tool to get people to break down complex things into its parts. I have often asked my clients to describe something as if they were speaking to a grade school classroom.
  • Compare it to something you do know. Find a metaphor or like minded thing in the world that can serve as a bridge between not knowing and knowing

How do you balance the need to continuously educate your co-workers with not getting stale/turning people off with constant preaching?

There is a thin line between educating and preaching. The first tip I have on keeping from turning people off is similar to the advice I gave on question 1. Try listening more and talking less. What would it be like to go into your next meeting and pose everything as a question? Often the person you are trying to educate can tell you what they don’t understand easier than you can educate them on everything you know while hoping something will stick. So after an initial period of proactively introducing some concepts around IA, keep your teaching reactive to what people are struggling with. Also work on your critiquing skills, and make sure your opinions aren’t clouding your judgement. It is common for people to get all hopped up on their own expertise and use their expert voice when voicing their opinions.

Lastly, make sure people know that you know that IA is subjective. There are many ways to do this work. If people understand their role in making good IA choices, they are more likely to feel educated, and not preached at.

A video of this talk is part of UIE’s All You Can Learn Library.