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Teaching Information Architecture

I am proud to be teaching Information Architecture at Parsons this semester. It has been one hell of a ride thus far, and I feel like it is a good time to tell you all a bit about the class and what the students are chewing on.

First I want to link out to all the decks in one place since my Slideshare account is a bit of a hassle to navigate through 8 weeks in:

How did I get here?

About a year and a half ago, I had a lovely lunch in the west village with the woman put in charge of reinvigorating the Communication Design course work at Parsons to better prepare the students for the jobs they would come out of school to work in. What a cool job, right?

We spoke about the industry, my experience and yes, my availability to teach. But not to teach Information Architecture, they were looking for someone to teach Interaction Design. I told her the truth, I could teach interaction design. But I didn’t want to. Not because I don’t think Parsons’ students should learn it but because I was convinced that they also deserved a full course on Information Architecture as a companion to Interaction Design.

She listened, she paid for lunch. I thought I would never hear from her again.

Imagine my surprise when 3 months later, sitting at lunch with the good folks at Herman Miller, I receive the email of my dreams. Parsons had rearranged the course offerings for fall to remove a class teaching Flash Interface Design. They had replaced both sections with brand new classes: one in Information Architecture, and one in Content Strategy. Amazing renovation, and the students agreed when registration opened.

Who are these ducklings of mine?

Suddenly I had 18 bright eager undergraduate minds. And they all got up at what is the crack of dawn for them to request an IA class, and subsequently create a waiting list. A waiting list for IA Class is still so awesome to think about. The 18 are an eclectic group from different countries, backgrounds, programs and mindsets. They are each a special little snowflake.

We were told in faculty orientation to expect a loss of 10-20% by the end of the drop period. Especially in an evening class, especially an elective. But when the drop period closed we didn’t have a single drop.

What was my teaching strategy?

Knowing that I couldn’t prepare all the content ahead, I wanted to have some structure to lean on whilst moving through the semester. I brought this up to Dan Klyn, who is teaching information architecture at the University of Michigan School of Information. We decided to create a manifesto to represent the core messages we would want to impress upon anyone learning about being an information architect.

This exercise helped me immensely and has continued to be a useful tool as the semester has progressed. Each class is focused on a statement from the manifesto, with the goal of covering the entire thing by semester’s end.

View the manifesto: I am an Information Architect

Eight classes in and I am so proud of these young people, and I can’t explain the changes they have inspired within me. Mondays are the best day of the week these days and Sundays have become the worst due to the constant worry that I won’t be able to challenge them on Monday.

What kind of work are the students doing?

We started with the most general homework assignment:

“Tell me 3 things that suck about being a student at Parsons. Then tell me 3 things that are really great.”

We made a cluster map of their responses in class, while learning about Wrangling Complexity. We then broke into groups and choose an area to focus on for the semester. It had to be something they all wanted to change about the Parsons student experience.

Here are the ideas they proposed:

  • We want to affect the gender ratio of registered students
  • We want to improve the registration process
  • We want to improve the adviser/student relationship
  • We want to raise awareness about campus resources

Throughout the semester they have been given both individual and group assignments, always laddering back to their group’s semester-long project which is a road-mapped proposal for change as supported by research and clarity-making. IMHO the ultimate exercise of an information architect.

They are learning to work in a group, how to reach consensus through the creation of shared vocabularies, actionable goals, requirements, heuristic evaluations of the current system, stakeholder interviews, user research, requirements, features, research plans and roadmaps.

What are the major lessons we are learning?

Architecture vs. Design:

They tell me that the skills and concepts I am teaching them makes their work in other classes easier to do. I love this idea because to me it is the most clear way I can differentiate Architecture from Design. In a designer’s world, information architecture is order in the chaos and clarity in the face of complexity. Architecture defines the problems, design solves them.

Eager Student after third class: “Ms Covert, are we gonna spend the whole semester defining the problem, or are we going to also solve it.”

I reply “What do you think?”

He said “I think we are going to spend the whole semester defining the problem”

To which I replied “And how does that make you feel?”

All smiles, he replied “Real good. We never get to do that.”

Formatting vs. Communication:

They are totally addicted to formats. They want to know what I want them to type into what box. I have been really good at denying them this and instead asking them to explore the way the content they produce should be captured and communicated. The variety they produce is interesting. I keep reminding them that Information Architects make the instructions, they make the templates, and they decide the structure. There really aren’t many rules to start. You have to explore the problem space and define those rules.

[Setting: Groups of students prepare to present their first group assignment, “mapping complexity using a framework you created for your purposes.” One of the teams has made a pretty PDF document while the rest, following my instructions, have made a mess on craft paper with post its.]

Student in Post It Abiding Group: “Ms Covert, maybe we didnt understand the assignment, we thought you wanted a craft paper post it thing. Not a document.”

I said: “You understood just fine. And don’t assume that they are getting a better grade because of their formatting. In fact unless they produce for me the pile of paper this came from, they won’t have a complete grade.”

Student from PDF group, scoops gigantic pile of craft paper up off the floor and plops it on her table. She remarks “We made such a mess we needed to take pictures and make this PDF to present it to you all. Is that ok?”

I said “Yes. But I will be looking for the thinking here, not the presentation. So be aware of that. And thank you all for listening. Let’s hear these presentations.”

“Why is this so hard?”
That is the number one thing I hear in class. Every week the “hardness” bar is raised. The students are constantly shocked by how long consensus takes. How deep complexity is. How important semantic discussions can become. And I am constantly asking them to tell me the impact should consensus not be reached, complexity not be explored or semantic discussions be ignored.

They are starting to really understand the gravity of the situations they have found themselves in and it is dawning on them for the first time that if they had attempted to solve the problems they identified in the first class without probing the depths that they have the last 7 classes since, they would have been working in vain towards unfounded solutions. A hard lesson for art students to learn.

It has been hard at times to keep them from picture making, idea generation and pontification about the potential jetson-like solutions that they could explore in design — but it is working. I believe truly that they know now that drawing those pictures would be just a creative exercise, not a solid plan for implementing real change.

[Setting: First Class]

Me finishing my first lecture (phew): “I want to be clear, you will not be doing wireframes in this class. You will not be drawing pictures of websites in this class. That is what the interaction design class is all about, I suggest you look into it after completing this class”

Brave Student: “Ms. Covert, I think I should drop this class then. I really want to learn wireframes”

Me: “Thanks for your honesty. Can I ask you a question? Let’s say you are in Interaction Design class. If you were asked to design a mobile app for food delivery for example – how would you know what to design?”

Her: “Well I would need to understand what the users would want. And I would need to know all the information that would need to be there. And I might look at competitive apps and maybe talk to business people involved with that business. And then I would know what I needed to design”

Me: “Great, that is how I would do things too. And we are going to learn all that stuff in this class. Just not the design part.”

Her: “Ok I really want to learn wireframes but …all that seems super important too”

Me: “I’ll make you a deal, if you stay after class 15 minutes tonight, I will teach you the basics of wireframes. If you want to drop this class after that, no worries”

Her: “Deal”

We talked after class. I explained that wireframes are just representations of potential solutions that are used to build consensus so a real design can be proposed. I also pointed out that the trick of wireframing well is to identify the fidelity that you go to based on the setting you are working in. We went through some examples. She asked some questions. We both left happy.

True story. Today she is one of my top students.

Closing Remarks, Hopes for December

I bet you can tell from the above that I am a bundle of energy right now. With only six classes left, I am starting to get sad. But the excitement of getting to see what they end up with is palpable.

I am also nervous about hearing their thoughts on my performance this semester. I have big plans for this curriculum and I trust they will be honest as good test subjects should be. I was honest with them that this is my first time teaching over time. I just hope I have lived up to their, and my own, expectations by semester’s end.

I’ll fill you all in on how everything turns out come December.