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You Already Do Information Architecture, You Just Don't Know It Yet
2002, Q3 (June 25, 2013)
By Mir Haynes, Carolina Chapter Communications Manager

Mir Haynes
Mir Haynes

User experience, a term used by web and software professionals, describes users' successes and failures — and their thoughts about these events — as they interact with web sites or while they use software or web-based applications.

Positive user experience happens when good interface design, solid programming, and thoughtful information design work together to create functionality that's "transparent" to the user. That is, we are able to focus on the task at hand without having to think too hard. It's the seamless experience of adding an item to a shopping cart, perusing the morning's headlines, downloading the trial version of software, posting to a community bulletin board, or any number of for-work or forpleasure activities.

When a web site is structured well, we usually don't even notice. But when we can't find what we're looking for, when labels are misleading or confusing, when navigation doesn't work in the way we expect it to, when it's not easy to see where we've already been — we're left feeling annoyed, incompetent, or even angry. (If you've ever observed or moderated a web usability test, you've seen, first-hand, how emotional people can get.) Enter the Information Architect: She lives to draw order out of chaos. Starting with a mess of project notes, client interviews, goals, audience definitions, existing marketing collateral, competitive research, and existing web content, the information architect teases out an orderly and elegant site structure that meets audience information needs, satisfies business and marketing agendas, and adheres to usability principles. Before any visual design or programming ever takes place, the information architect maps out the entire site and makes recommendations on user interface design, copywriting, and workflow.

"But I'm a technical communicator — not an information architect," you say.

Thinking about thinking about using the web

Fact is, as a technical communicator, you already "think" like an information architect — whether you know it or not.

You already think about the principles of solid information design, both at the macro-level (such as chapters, sections, and subsections) and at the microlevel (such as levels of headings, content chunking, and type treatment). These principles carry over to designing for the web.

Designing at the macro-level means defining the primary, secondary, and tertiary sections of a web site and supplying the navigational aids required to move at will among them. And at the micro-level, it means consulting with visual designers and peer-reviewers throughout development to ensure that individual pages of the site are easy to scan, easy to interpret, and easy to use.

As a technical communicator, you are accustomed to thinking about the user. This ability is as key to designing intuitive organizational hierarchies, labeling systems, and navigational aids as it is to writing software manuals or help systems or quick reference guides. Maintaining that usercentered perspective grows out of our recognition of the classic rhetorical tenets of audience, purpose, and scope. These tenets form the foundation for any information architecture project, much as they do for any technical communication project. Clearly, today's technical communicators are ideally positioned to become tomorrow's information architects. However, in my experience, information architecture isn't registering as a potential career with most technical communicators.

All roads lead to information architecture

Certainly, talented information architects can come from a variety of industries, educational disciplines, and backgrounds. Personally, I have met information architects — either online or face-to-face — who've entered the field by various means, including computer science, industrial design, graphic design, usability engineering, journalism, human-computer interaction, and marketing.

For me, my job as a usability specialist was never as exciting as when I conducted tests on web sites. For whatever reason, the satellite receivers, DVD players, automobile dashboards, and various other products my company tested for its clients just never had the allure that web sites held for me. Motivated to find a career in which I could use my expertise as a technical communicator and apply what I'd learned on the job about users and how they interacted with the web, I searched for my niche.

I knew I wanted to be involved in the early stages of web development, though not as a visual designer or technical engineer. It wasn't until I stumbled across a job description for an information architect that I knew I'd found what I'd been searching for. Usability engineering and technical communication have, together, equipped me with a user-centered, theoretically sound perspective that infuses each web development project on which I work.

Making change

Recent trends in the Internet industry have changed the face of web design and development. While this list isn't all-inclusive, it provides a glimpse into what's shaping the field of information architecture today.
  • Since 1997, the trend in business has been for companies to allow their separate departments to create and post content to "their little corner" of the corporate site. The result has been sprawling, inconsistent, poorly edited and expensive sites that are difficult to navigate.
  • Recent studies found that Internet users have high expectations when it comes to web-site usability: 78% think ease of use is the most important feature of a web site and 83% say they are likely to leave a web site if they feel they have to make too many clicks. Meanwhile, Internet users can't find what they're looking for approximately 60% of the time, according to User Interface Engineering, a leading web usability research company.
  • When people have a positive user experience on a given site, they're likely to return to that site, increasing revenue and providing further exposure. When a site works well, that's good for business. Clearly, crafting positive user experience through sound information architecture is a corporate imperative.

Because the value of solid information architecture is beginning to be quantified, because "selling it" to clients isn't as difficult as it was a few years ago, and because sites continue to get larger and more complex as technologies progress, now is an ideal time for the emergence of information architecture as an integral part of corporate web initiatives. Introducing technical communicators to information architecture (IA) can only continue to introduce positive changes — for the IA field and for individuals looking to make a career-shift in that direction.

Much has been written about the importance of proactively increasing your value at the workplace by identifying areas where you can branch out and take ownership. If your company's web site needs help, take the initiative to apply your skills as a technical communicator. Chances are the web team (or lone web person) will appreciate the fresh perspective and enthusiasm you bring to the table. Many information architects get their start this way, by being brave enough to say, "Hey, our web site has problems!" and then, exhibiting even greater courage, saying, "Why don't I try to fix it?" Very often, these folks can move into the role of information architect, even though their company might never have placed an ad for that position.

Conversely, realize that outsourcing an informational reconstruction of a spaghetti-site may be your best option, and then sponsor this idea to your managers. By doing so, you position yourself to become the team leader or project manager for the new web initiative.

Caveats and closing thoughts

There are, of course, some important differences between technical communication and information architecture. For some, thinking of information as dynamic, rather than static, is a leap. You'll have to learn new, web-specific principles of "document design," and maybe some HTML, if you don't already know it. A well-rounded web firm will offer not just design, but application development and integration, e-commerce functionality, community interaction (such as mailing lists, bulletin boards, and chat functionality), and user interface programming (such as JavaScript and Dynamic HTML); while you won't have to become an expert in any of these areas, you will have to learn enough to work with other, more technical, team members.

Like all of you, I hope that we're seeing the beginning-of-the-end of this present downturn. In the meantime, continue to champion "the user's experience" in your area of specialty. And if you just haven't found your niche yet, or are craving a new challenge, consider information architecture. You already posses a strong foundation from which to build a new, marketable skill set.

Suggested reading

Kimen, Shel. "10 Questions about Information Architecture." Builder.com. http://builder.com.com/5100-31_14-5074224.html?tag=search

Krug, Steve. 2000. Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability. Indianapolis, Indiana: Que, A Division of Macmillan USA. Rosenfeld, Louis, and Peter Morville. 2002. Information Architecture for the World Wide Web. 2nd ed. Sebastopol, California: O'Reilly & Associates, Inc.

Wurman, Richard Saul, David Sume, and Loring Leifer. 2000. Information Anxiety 2. Indianapolis, Indiana: Que, A Division of Macmillan USA. Zetlin, Minda. "The Web's Master Builders." Computerworld. http://www.computerworld.com/ cwi/story/ 0,1199,NAV47_STO56575,00.html

Mir Haynes is an Information Architect and Writer. She serves as Communications Manager for the Carolina Chapter of STC and holds an M.S. in Technical Communication from North Carolina State University. Mir can be reached by e-mail at mir dot haynes at mindspring dot com or online at http://www.mirhaynes.com. End of article.

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