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How To Nail Information Architecture: An Anonymous Expert Interview

By Snap Agency June 25, 2014

As I walked through the busy streets of downtown Minneapolis, with my face buried in my Google Maps app, something hit me – and it wasn’t a taxi, truck or light pole.

I realized that I was about to interview someone who has spent the last decade of their life helping users like me. Helping us get the most out of our technology every single day, just like Google Maps was doing for me right then. I was extremely excited to uncover the insights she’s received from her lengthy career in information architecture.

As I wished, the app lead me directly to the front door of the office and the user experience was successful. Now, all I had to do is continue my interview with the Information Architect who prefers to remain anonymous.

Interview With An Anonymous Information Architect

As the only Information Architect at Snap, I’m curious about the practices and habits of other IA’s, especially the ones who have years of experience under their belt. So, after deciding to set up a meeting with a seasoned expert, I searched through Google and LinkedIn for other local IA’s. To my surprise (and perhaps as a reflection on the field itself), the first expert I contacted emailed me back almost immediately. She was genuinely interested in helping me out.

So there I was. I went up the elevator and down the hall, and was greeted by a friendly smile from an IA that was willing to answer any questions that I rambled off. We took a brief tour of the space, sat down at a large conference table, and began chatting. Our conversation provided great background about IA, the process of creating flawless IA and the prospective future IA has as a career and industry.

How would you describe information architecture?

“Honestly, it depends on who I am talking to. When I am talking to my mother, who knows nothing about the Internet, I say that I design websites. Otherwise, sometimes I say that I make blueprints for websites, I am the advocate for the user, or the voice of what the user needs.”

That’s funny you say that about your mother. Even as a new IA, I have already found myself in that same situation of trying to tell my friends and family what it is I do. But I like what you said about being the advocate of the user. I might have to use that one.

“Yeah, it is a nice way to sum it up, especially when talking to clients. It gets the message across that we are putting the user first.”

So, what are the steps involved at your agency? What is your process?

“Well, usually we land the project, have a discovery meeting to go over the client goals and ideas, have a stakeholder discussion, create the conceptual architecture, and then conduct usability tests – with the existing or new website. And if we see it necessary, go back and make changes.”

For usability tests, do you ask people to use the website or application and then take notes on how they move about the site?

“Yep. It is a little different every time we do a usability test, but we will get a group of people together and rent a testing facility where we’ll watch their behavior. The number of people we observe depend on budget, and what they are using can be anywhere from a prototype to a fully designed site.”

I see. So, when you’re done with a project, is it up to the client to decide if they would like to use the architecture that you designed?

“Yes, it is up to them to find their own web designer and if they want them to follow the architecture that we designed.”

Do you ever look back at a clients website and notice that they didn’t use your recommendations?

“Oh yeah, all the time. For the most part, a lot of them will follow at least some of the recommendations we made, but it can be frustrating to see that they are sacrificing the user experience for aesthetics or company goals that goes against UX.”

I can see how that would be frustrating. What made you want to pursue information architecture? In other words, what was your career path?

“Well my degree was in English and Spanish, so I really just fell into it – I think that’s how it is for a lot of IA’s.  I wanted to be a writer, which led me to a job in copywriting for a big company in Minneapolis. When I was there I met Information Architects, was encouraged by my peers saying, “I think you’d be good at this,” and then had a mentor who showed me the ropes, so to say.”

What are the things you think every IA needs? And by this I mean skills, personality types, or interests – anything that you think applies.

“It’s definitely a way of thinking. Empathy, and to understand lots of types of people, getting inside their head and putting their needs first. Also, the ability and patience to make things simple. Find the easy solution.”

Yeah that makes a lot of sense, being able to put yourself in the user’s shoes, so to speak. So, what does that make your daily schedule like?

“Well here, we have no set hours, and we’re trusted to manage our own work. You can work in the office, out of the office, or at home. So it can either be the same everyday – if you like routine – or it can be different everyday if you like that too.”

That’s nice, our office is similar in that way. Although, since we are often working together on projects, most of us typically spend most days in the office.

“Yeah I mean, as you can see, I am the only one here on a Friday afternoon and it’s only 2:00. I think the freedom is nice but it’s all about personal preference and knowing yourself.”

Right. So what is your favorite part of the process?

“The fact that I’m never done learning and creative problem solving. Things are never done when you are doing this kind of work because there’s always a way to make things simpler. Picking away at things that can always be improved. And also, the Internet is changing literally everyday. So that makes it exciting.”

What advice do you have for someone who wants to build a website? Or why would you tell them that IA is important?

“Assuming you want people to use your site, you need to make it easy. It’s really that simple.”

And what advice do you have for aspiring Information Architects?

“Just that if you think that way – do it. Keep going and practice. In my case, I was 50% taught myself, and 50% mentorship. And also, being online changes things. Once you start doing this kind of work, you’ll start recognizing things just from being in front of it all day.”

So you think it’s worth it to pursue a future as an IA?

“Yeah, definitely. It’s an exciting place to be, it’s on the rise, and it’s a valuable part of the creative process. I love it because I can use both the analytical part and the creative part of my brain.”

The conversation wrapped up shortly thereafter, with a few nice exchanges about keeping in touch and local events for IA and UXers. As I made my way out to the street, to reopen my Google Maps app and head home, I thought back on the biggest takeaways I learned from our anonymous interviewee:

  1. Be an advocate for the user. Always putting their needs first will demand a well-crafted site- it may drive a couple developers crazy, but when you can present a smoother experience for the user, you’ve done your job.

  1. Be empathetic. Remember to truly try to put yourself in the shoes of the user and make the solution simple.

  1. The work is never done. The digital world changes everyday and there is never an end to the amount of improvements that can be made.