Information Architecture: Goals, Empathy, Projects & Brown Dirt

An Interview with Adam Polansky

Adam Polansky, recognized as a founding pioneer in the field of information architecture (IA), is an unusual mix of eclectic tactician and IA visionary.  Before he entered the IT world, Adam had variously been a member of the military, an illustrator for an advertising agency, and a retail manager, among other roles.

Make no mistake, Adam always focuses on goals and results. His experience as a young adult in the military enforced this goal-oriented focus. Even if the goals did not always make sense, he came to understand that goals are essential to obtain the desired results. It’s an interesting side note that Adam’s military career overlapped, unknowingly, with Jack Molisani, whose goal-oriented focus also cannot be doubted!

Information Architecture and Running Projects

Technical communicators are typically fascinated with definitions, which provide history and context. Thus, one of my first questions, when I sat down with Adam, was “What is information architecture?” Adam is reluctant to place hard lines around the discipline, as every circumstance is different. But, in practice, Adam sees information architecture (IA) as being a subset of UX.

Information Architecture should be expected to be part of usability testing, and IAs should work closely with usability experts. Information architecture should be part of the project from the earliest stages. The IA’s job is to be one of the first people to distill an objective, set up business rules, and figure out and determine what is going to happen with the presentation layer.

Distilling objectives sets the stage for a successful project, and Adam clearly respects all of the roles of a project team. Ideally, he says, there should be a “business analyst who mirrors the role of an information architect, with the business analyst talking to the business side. The developers are on one end, and the creatives are on the other end. Product management handles the business aspect, and is directly accountable for performance. Product management should set goals and expectations early.”  As Adam pointed out once again, without clear goals, the “laws of physics are still enforced” (no doubt leading to a project that goes into freefall!). Finally, project managers must be the bad guys and the referees, and they must know and tell others what the current status of the project is, and whether it is ultimately a success or a failure.

In an ideal project environment, Adam sees Information architects and usability experts as two sides of the same coin. IA focuses on the subjective side of usability, and UX focuses on the objective side. It’s helpful if an IA puts together a draft test guide, with the observations that they want to see, and the information they want to obtain. Adam emphasized that in order to be a good information architect, you must have empathy—for the users, for the developers, for the other stakeholders and project owners. You must ask and otherwise determine the thorns and pains, they are suffering. Clearly, communication skills and practice are of the utmost importance to being a successful IA. When your fellow team members notice you help their pains go away, they will be back for more! Throughout the interview, he demonstrated he has the empathetic qualities necessary to be a successful IA.

Adam pointed out, once again, that the greatest difficulty can be in zeroing in on the project goal. What is stopping you from figuring this out?

Types and Styles of Development

Adam has worked in both agile and waterfall environments, and can function well in either. He believes that any good information architect can contribute in either environment. No matter the approach, a project needs a dreamer, a planner, and a builder.

As for desktop versus mobile development, Adam sees the push towards mobile as something that actually improves the experience for desktop users too. “When a simple, clean interface is developed in the mobile space, this experience can, and often is, brought to the desktop. As always, the focus must be on what you want to achieve with a particular app – once again the goal!”

The more you know about the user, the more sophisticated your application can be. If you know your audience consists of well-informed system administrators, that is very different than designing for a typical consumer audience.

“Brown Dirt UX” and “Faceted Feature Analysis”

Adam has had the unfortunate experience of going to a conference, hearing great ideas, but being stymied upon trying to practice them back at the office when you are inundated by emails and demands on your time. You “go to the mountaintop”, but are rudely yanked back to earth.

Thus, his goal was to create a presentation that would be immediate practical use to LavaCon attendees, and based on the response, he succeeded. He described how many project problems arise from competing objectives and goals of the business, developer, and usability stakeholders. They all have different priorities. So, Adam developed a matrix which allows desired objectives to be set out and evaluated in comparison to each other, but in such a way that no team member is trivialized or marginalized.

For each objective, the worksheet asks for the user story, and provides a column for each of the business, technical, and user values (as numbers). The business person fills out the business part of the worksheet, the developer fills out the technical developer part, and the stakeholder in each component should not interfere with the others’ decisions. The numbers can be weighted according to Adam’s suggested formula, or your own formula, and summed. It becomes clear what features are useful, which might be nice to have, which should be done now and which should be rescheduled.

Over the years, Adam has been asked to incorporate some quite ridiculous features into his software. By getting all the relevant parties to fill in this worksheet, he has been able to demonstrate what features will be useful for the upcoming release, which might be useful in a later release, and which should be junked. See the Boxes and Arrows article listed below for a template of this matrix. The weighted scores not only provides a way to objectively evaluate competing objectives, but they provide a way to save face for proponents of wildly impractical features who might otherwise be too proud to back down.

Although Adam operates with a large team at as UX Director at Travelocity, employees at smaller firms can also use many of the same techniques that Adam does, regardless of whether they hold an information architecture title. Set your goals, reevaluate them as the project progresses, and be empathetic to the needs of all the project stakeholders.

Sources

Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamTheIA.