Farming Information Architecture

I’ve been framing information architecture since 1994 via articles, books, games, talks, prezis, and consulting. So you might expect this article to be about the taxonomy of farm animals or the structural design of farm websites. But it’s not.

Barefoot Farm

Our strengths are our weaknesses, and my early success in framing information architecture blinded me to opportunities in the farming of information architecture. In the slip of an “r” from second to third place, the opening shifts from correcting to cultivating, and yet for years I imposed my definition of information architecture upon clients. Per the polar bear book, I executed evaluations and redesigns using a rigorous process to yield consistent deliverables.

When clients asked for something different, I struggled. In time, this happened more often. Eventually, I saw that clinging to the “one right way” to design information architecture was harmful to all involved. Instead, I learned to love deviations from the norm, and shifted from monoculture to permaculture. Now, as I reflect upon a quarter century of information architecture consulting, I realize my favorite challenge is the anomaly. It’s fun to nurture native seeds. In celebration thereof, I’m sharing stories from my garden of misfit projects.

Anomalous IA

Way back in 1998, a manager at AT&T entered “information architecture” into Alta Vista and found us. They asked for a complete redesign of the knowledge management system used for customer support. So, long before content strategy existed, we found ourselves planning for “the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.” At the time, we didn’t know how rare it is to be in control of content, technology, and design. In information architecture consulting, restructuring content is generally not on the table. This gig was a lovely anomaly.

In an employee intranet project for HP in the early noughties, the IT group we worked with was insular. This was a problem endemic to the culture, famously captured in the aphorism “if only HP knew what HP knows.” So, in concert with IA, we helped with KM. We pitched cross-pollination via interdepartmental brown bag lunches and championed unsanctioned initiatives such as an annotated site index created by the administrative assistants of HP Labs, because often the path to a good information architecture is better knowledge management.

If only HP knew what HP knows.
– Lew Platt

Once upon a time, a startup CEO hired me as a management consultant. The organization had 50 staff, fast growth, no structure. I suggested a conventional org chart, which he rejected. And that was that. In hindsight, I wish I’d been more creative. After all, in the words of Peter Merholz, “org design is largely an information architecture challenge.”

I was invited to fix the IA (“reduce clicks from home page to content”) of cancer.gov, but the biggest problem was the findability of cancer type home pages via Google, so we hired Shari Thurow, a search engine optimization expert, to help integrate IA and SEO best practices for ambient findability.

Vodafone hired me to invent the future of mobile search. While this dream project was fun, it was also surprisingly frustrating. A long-term horizon invites you to ignore feasibility. So my work felt more like fiction than design. This project taught me to love constraints.

When I worked with the Library of Congress, it was clear governance would be vital to success, so the Web Governance Board engaged Lisa Welchman to help us align digital strategy, governance, and information architecture across loc.gov, copyright.gov, and congress.gov.

Although the Kresge Foundation hired me to restructure their website, my most important contribution was a cross-channel communication strategy and workshops on the value of social media and mobile (responsive) design. It’s a big deal to change an organization’s conversational architecture (e.g., the ‘how’ and ‘where’ of interactions with customers and stakeholders).

When I worked with Harvard Library, I pitched the Library Board (including the provost) a radical idea for creating an open source search and discovery platform with a single search box across all content (catalog, databases, coursepacks, open access repository, etc.). Harvard may have had enough power to strongarm publishers into agreement, but they didn’t go for it.

When Cisco hired me to fix search, I had to educate managers that “search can’t be fixed solely by focusing on the interface or engine, because it depends upon the foundation of content and metadata, which in turn are shaped by governance, incentives, and metrics.”

When I was asked by Baker Library to rethink cross-channel (physical and digital) service delivery, we included Steve Portigal on the team to uncover insights via interviews with the faculty of Harvard Business School, and we engaged The Understanding Group to make maps of customer journeys and ecosystems.

After a meeting with the user experience leadership of Macys.com, my client told me “we keep hiring consultants to organize things, but as soon as they leave, we start making a mess again.” This inspired me to double down on my inclination to “look for the levers” and to focus more on the pace layers of governance and culture, since they are essential to sustainable change.

In working on a database vendor’s flagship product, I had a rare chance to stay involved after we “completed” the information architecture. I saw designers and developers misinterpret our wireframes (and was able to explain our intent) and discover problems with our solutions (and was able to help find a better way). I learned time spent teaching is time well spent, because successful implementation of an IA depends upon shared understanding.

In restructuring the website of the Ann Arbor District Library, I had the opportunity to do research and design for people with disabilities. My interview with a blind woman (and passionate library patron) opened my eyes to the sorry state of web accessibility. Afterwards, I sent her an Amazon eGift Card, which she returned, saying Amazon was too hard to use. So we went with Barnes & Noble (a physical gift card for use in a real bookstore).

I had the pleasure of spending a couple of days with BJ Miller brainstorming ideas at the crossroads of knowledge management and palliative care. He and Sonya Dolan went on to build Mettle Health and the Center for Dying & Living. I’m honored to be an advisor.

We were asked by Quicken Loans to redesign a knowledge management system for bankers. The CEO imagined a Q&A system. I believed faceted search was essential at scale. It turned out we were both right. We created a blended system that delivers the best of both worlds. This was my first time designing a conversational user interface. It was hard yet so much fun.

Everything is deeply intertwingled.
– Ted Nelson

I’m currently working with The Nature Conservancy. While I was hired to do information architecture, the needs of the project have led to document and knowledge management. To focus solely on IA would be malpractice, because everything is deeply intertwingled.

Framing AND Farming

I’m a fan of the Genius of the AND. So it’s unsurprising I’m an advocate for both framing AND farming information architecture. I’m hired as a consultant because I’m good at framing. I’ve been helping people to understand the relationships between information architecture, systems thinking, knowledge management, and user experience for over 25 years.

Ginsburg the Goat

And yet, in that time, I’ve come to believe in the power of positive deviance. The ideas that exist inside the organization before I arrive are the seeds most likely to grow. And that’s why I’m a farmer, not only in the physical world, but in how I practice information architecture as well.