I’m often a tad dishonest when people ask me what I do. I don’t fib to deceive them. I fib for their own good. When people ask what I do, I say, “I’m a Web designer.” Usually they go, “Oh, okay,” and change the subject. They think they get it. It’s not that interesting. We talk about something else.
There are those rare moments, however, when people perk up at my reply. They say, “Oh, really, [insert follow up question here]?” And that’s when I have to say, “Well, actually, I’m an Information Architect.” And that’s when they pull faces at me. (It’s the awkward face and the more awkward pause that I try to avoid with my standard “Web designer” reply.) And that’s when I feel compelled to ramble. My response to their stink face usually starts something like, “Um, ahhh, well,…” and continues with some combination of the following words and phrases: not a graphic designer, usability, not really, um, navigation, user experience, well really, interaction. When I pause in my babbling, I find a fair few people still listening (more nowadays than in the past). If they don’t think I am a complete spaz, if they are still paying attention, if they are still breathing and mostly making eye contact with me, I ask, “Wanna hear my Spiel?”
The Spiel, or, more accurately, the spiel before the Spiel
The term “information architecture” has fallen out of favor lately. Information architecture used to refer to the set of discovery and design exercises that resulted in a solid navigation system, clear site hierarchy, and templated site layout. In the past, Information Architects were also responsible for usability testing and interaction design. With the advent of academic programs like Bentley University’s certificate program in User Experience, there are more people with more skills in information architecture, usability testing, and interaction design. More people means fewer generalists and more designers with specific skill-sets like mobile interface design.
With the advent of new non-hierarchical navigation systems in technologies like wikis and blogs and anything else that uses tags and categories or user generated labels, information architecture as a skill is not as valued. As a result, information architecture itself has come to mean something more specific and no longer serves as the catch-all phrase for the work that I do. To sum up, the phrase itself no longer carries the same weight or meaning it used to. And the skills are not as highly valued. (There’s an underground movement attempting to move this role into content strategy and call it content architecture. Uncharacteristically, I don’t have an opinion about this. At least, I don’t yet.)
So why am I holding on to a title that is falling out of favor? For two reasons:
- I’m a little bit old school like that, a little retro, and retro is cool.
- This is where the Spiel comes in.
The real reason I still refer to myself as an Information Architect and to my services as information architecture is because people get it when I describe it. They get it because there’s an obvious metaphor that they can grasp instantly. I say, “Pretend you’re building a new house or putting an addition onto your existing house. What’s the first thing you do? You call an architect, right? Well, if your space was virtual, you would call me. And I would ask you all the same things that your architect would ask you. I would ask, ‘What do you want to do with your space? Who’s going to use it? What do you want them to be able to do and not do? Do you know what you want it to look like or how big it should be?’ And so on. I will talk through your requirements and chat with anyone else using your space to get their opinion. And then I will draw you a blueprint.”
They get it. It makes sense to them because it reflects an experience they can relate to in the real world. I’m happy because at some point during my Spiel, they stop making stink face at me. And they’re happy because they feel smart when they understand what I’m talking about. The best part is (by “best” I mean selfish and money grubbing), I can extend the metaphor to up-sell my team’s services. I can ask, “Do you have a decorator yet? How ‘bout a developer?” And then I can pitch my team’s graphic design and tech development services.
Information architecture: it’s not an out-of-date reference to an unneeded service. It’s the old-school, usable, and useful way to describe what I do. And it’s all about the user experience.