Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Four Essential Skills for Information Architects: An Interview with Donna (Maurer) Spencer

What makes for a great IA? ...

"Donna (Maurer) Spencer is a recognized expert in the area of Information Architecture and author of an upcoming book on Card Sorting. Jared M. Spool recently had the opportunity to talk with Donna about the specific skills that separate the best information architects from the rest. Here are the highlights of that conversation.

Jared M. Spool: How long have you been doing information architecture work?

Donna Spencer: I've been an information architect for nine years and have a consultancy, Maadmob. These days, I work primarily with government agencies, but I have also designed big business applications and focused on intranet work.

In your experience, have you found certain skills separate the excellent information architects from the rest?

All information architects need to think structurally, organize things well, and really care about labeling and language.

I've found that excellent information architects do all of these things well, but they also excel at the human component, playing really well with other people. Information architecture is never an isolated, stand-alone activity. It has to be done with everyone on the design team involved. The excellent information architects work well on a team, communicate effectively with stakeholders and content authors, and do a great job of explaining to everybody how things work.

I've worked with some less effective information architects who have their isolated box for accomplishing their work, and don't want to explain or justify their decisions. The great information architects explain things well, work nicely with people, and get the job done.

Besides good people skills, are there additional skills the excellent information architects possess?

They have ability to work in great detail. But, at the same time, they can focus on broad strategic issues. The best information architects take the user research, content analysis, business goals, and all of the other input information, and synthesize it into something that really works. They can see the big picture *and* keep an eye on all of the specific details.

This is a unique skill that not many people have. Lots of information architects are really good at doing detail work and lots are really good at the strategy work. But it's a pretty amazing skill to accomplish both at once and to flip between them from second to second.

A lot of information architects seem to have mastered the details but haven't done the strategy work. How do they get those skills?

In many cases, information architects learn about strategy by getting immersed in the work and gaining the experience of seeing the big picture. I don't know how you would learn how to do the strategic work without going up a level and working it through. I've found that it's important to have a vision for the project in your head and think about the bigger picture.

In order to do the detail work, information architects really should have understood the bigger picture. That's the bridge between doing broad work and detail work. It's understanding the big picture and trying to hold the big picture together, while you're also figuring out which content goes where and what a hyperlink should be called.

If you're trying to do detail work at that level without the big picture in your head, you're going to miss the mark."    (Continued via uie, Jared Spool)    [Usability Resources]

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