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Getting IA Done, Part I

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In: Columns > Information Architecture for the People

By Joshua Kaufman

Published on June 6, 2005

People are crazy about Getting Things Done these days. First there was 43 Folders, then Lifehacker. Now there’s To-Done and LifeHack. I thought it was about time information architects had a turn. Let me explain.

Shortly after 43 Folders appeared, I began thinking about compiling tricks and hacks specific to my profession. It was one of those “Well, that would be neat!” thoughts that lingered for a few days then suddenly disappeared. I didn’t think about again until I was halfway into this column. What originally was “What I’ve Learned Since Becoming an IA,” listing the key lessons that I’ve learned over the past nine months, also included tips and keyboard shortcuts. In the end, I thought the combination worked well together.

As we all know, work isn’t just about the big lessons—it’s also about the little lessons. For IAs, it’s about building experience as designers, and it’s also about learning how to be more productive in the software we use most. Therefore, I give you: “Getting IA Done.”

Take Initiative to Get Involved with Clients

You have a project manager. You may have a lead IA. But as it may turn out, both of them are too busy to take care of things that you see as blatantly obvious.

For example, a few months back I was working on a project that was just edging past deadlines. The client was of the pushy variety and continued to ask for deliverables that were out of scope for the project. The lead IA on the project, whom I otherwise greatly respect, knew this just as well as I did, but he didn’t step in when I expected him to and the requests kept on coming from the client.

It was almost too late when I realized that this could be avoided if I took the initiative to step up and discuss the project with the client, and explain why certain requests were out of scope. Some might say I should have offered ambiguous replies of, “It’s possible,” rather than flat-out stating that the requests were out of scope.

I quickly learned that the more you lead clients on with ambiguous replies, the harder they’re going to push for more. Before you know it, you have a pile of requests that you can’t fill and clients who are not going to be happy when they learn the truth.

So before your project manager, lead IA or whoever gets you in too deep, step in and tell the client politely but firmly, “These requests are out of scope and will require further discussion before they can be granted.”

The IA is the Glue

Here’s a simple but essential one. As I was being mentored by the lead IA on a project, we were frequently speaking with the developer one moment and the designer the next. After a few rounds of this, he said, “The IA is often the glue in the project.” We’re often the ones who have to hold the project together because we’re the only ones who have general knowledge about all the different aspects of the project.

Do More User Testing

Since I was hired, I’ve ran three series of user-testing projects and all I can say is that I still have a lot to learn. Each project was successful. The testing sessions went well, we made key findings on the results and delivered to the client along with strategic recommendations.

However, with each project I was reminded how complex user testing is. The basics of user testing are relatively easy, but becoming a highly skilled test moderator takes a significant amount of experience, which can only come from participating in many user-testing projects.

For example, you don’t have to look very hard to find a user-testing script and adapt it to the needs of your project. The trick is to know when to follow the script at all, or when to simply let the participant guide the session. While I appreciate Mark Hurst’s “listening lab” technique, which basically requires running user testing without any predefined tasks, I don’t have enough confidence in it to abandon predefined tasks completely. Like many ideas in our profession, it will require further testing.

Document, Document, Document

I try to document my work as much as possible in order to have a running record of my day. This includes to-do lists, dates and times of meetings with key outcomes, design sketches… everything.

Beyond the obvious benefit of capturing notes, thoughts and ideas, documenting helps me to stay engaged in my work. If I notice that I haven’t written anything down for a few hours, I probably haven’t been very productive.

Here’s my technique: Every day I draw a line across the page and write down the date. After this goes a short list of high-priority to-do items. The rest of the page—or following pages, if necessary—is reserved for notes and drawings.

So far there’s only been one tool that’s been able to keep up with the number and variety of notes I need to take during the day: the Black n’ Red wirebound squared A4 notebook.

There are two things about my Black n’ Red that are key to its usefulness. First, it’s spiral bound, which allows me to flip to a page that I need to reference, set it down, and it stays open—without the need to place my mug on the page. Second, it’s squared, which is incredibly useful when you’re drawing wireframes or process flows.

Draw Prettier Pictures

As IAs, we create lots of schematics, process flows, sitemaps and diagrams. It’s absolutely essential that we’re fluent in at least one major drawing tool.

Mine happens to be Visio as it’s the standard at work. I’m happy with Visio because it’s very easy to use and integrates well with other Office applications. But if I didn’t know Visio as well as I do, I would make sure I knew either Illustrator or Freehand just as well.

If I didn’t, it wouldn’t be designing anymore—it would be work. To test if you’re a master in your drawing tool, watch yourself next time you create a schematic. If you think about how to use the application more than you think about what you’re designing, you’ve got a long way to go. If you think about what you’re designing more than you think about using the application, you’re doing well. If you don’t think about using the application at all, you’re a master.

Learn These Visio Shortcuts

Since my main tool is Visio, I couldn’t leave the topic without providing some essential Visio shortcuts. If you use Visio for anything, you owe it to yourself to master these shortcuts right now:

Write Well, Speak Better

This is practically a given, but it’s absolutely essential in the world of IA—writing client communications, user testing scripts or functional specifications is a daily task. We can’t take more than three steps without having a client manager ask for our opinion of an emerging design pattern. And every few weeks we’re either presenting pitches for new business or presenting the results of our own work.

If you’ve found yourself in the world of IA, and you don’t think you’re up to task on writing and speaking, make it a personal priority. You simply can’t get by in this business without solid communication skills.

Use Your Senior Colleagues

I was lucky to enter an IA department that had very strong senior leadership. Five out of the seven IAs have at least five years of experience and have worked on a huge array of projects throughout their careers.

I knew they were experienced, but unfortunately, I didn’t realize how useful their experience was until I got to know each of them better. I’m generally a very independent worker, so I’m used to finding the knowledge I need by myself. I did this for the first several months of my employment, and while it wasn’t always completely effective, it allowed me to get the job done.

When I worked with a senior IA on subsequent projects, it slowly dawned on me that I was surrounded by an extremely knowledgeable and skilled group of people. I stopped Googling for ideas when I needed some inspiration. Instead, I began to tap the knowledge of my senior colleagues. In turn, this knowledge becomes my own, which someday can be passed on to my junior colleagues.

What Happens in Part II?

So now that I’ve shared my best advice, it’s your turn. The next column in this series will feature the best advice, tips and hacks from the readers.

Do you have any short and meaningful IA advice? Do you have a great software trick that you’re dying to share with the rest of the world? Now is your chance—I didn’t call this column “Information Architecture for the People” for nothing!

Send me your IA-geared thoughts, tips and tricks to me through the contact form. Your message will go directly to me. I’ll then read them all and compile the best suggestions for Part II. Be sure to include your name and e-mail on the form so I can give you appropriate credit and contact you if any clarification is needed. And don’t worry, you’re e-mail address won’t be shared with anyone!

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Joshua Kaufman is an interaction designer and user experience consultant. His personal website is unraveled.

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