Tips From an IA Newbie: 7 Things I Learned
EuroIA Lightning Talk, September 2017
Last year I became a User Experience Architect at the BBC. In September 2016, I was lucky enough to attend the EuroIA conference in Amsterdam. In less than a year, I’d gone from not knowing what Information Architecture was, to being surrounded by IA practitioners from all over the world:
When 2016 started, I had zero experience of working in a large organisation. This made the transition challenging, to say the least. I quickly found out that something as vast as the BBC can be a labyrinth of dependencies, systems and stakeholders. I was going to be tested in entirely new ways.
As that first year went on, I found myself developing personal rules of thumb in response to the types of problem I was facing. So in no particular order, here are seven of those lessons. I hope they help you frame challenges you face in your professional work, whatever that may be.
1. Sketch until it makes sense
Getting things out of your mind is important. Sherlock Holmes compares the mind to an attic, that you choose to fill with the things you remember. He also says that it’s a mistake to think the walls of your attic are elastic and can accommodate an unlimited number of things — eventually it’ll get crowded, dusty and hard to find what you need.
If I uncover a particularly untidy corner of my attic, one way I start to clear it up is to sketch everything in it. Then sketch it again, and again, and again; I start adding lines to show relationships between things, and before long start breaking them apart into meaningful groups. Perhaps I give one of those groups deserves its own, entirely separate sketch.
After a number of rapid iterations, things start to make sense. Now I can zoom in on important parts of the domain without worrying I’m ignoring something else that’s still hidden in a dog-eared ring-binder I left under the Christmas decorations.
2. Show something wrong to make it right
As an Information Architect, making things visible is vital. When we talk to colleagues and stakeholders, we’re often translating into words something we can see in our own minds very clearly. What is in their minds may be fundamentally very different to what’s in our own.
Working in an environment where I have to balance the input of numerous stakeholders, I’ve learned to translate my understanding of people’s internal representation into some kind of map or model as soon as possible.
Most of the time, the representation I’m building is ultimately flawed. But by giving them something tangibly wrong to appreciate and pull apart, I’ve at least given them something to focus in on, expand and make right. By the end of the discussion, we’ve gone from having an answer, to a slightly better answer. It’s synonymous with the “Fail Fast” mantra appropriated by Startup culture — get the idea out there quickly and find out where it breaks.
3. Embrace your Impostor Syndrome
As soon as the initial wave of excitement to have got a new job had passed, I immediately started to panic. Was I really good enough to take on a role in the BBC? What if they realised I really had no idea what Information Architecture was? What if I got FOUND OUT?!
A few weeks before I started, my Creative Director, Dan Ramsden gave me a call. I asked him what books I could read to prepare myself for the new role I was taking on. It was like hurriedly cramming for University exams all over again.
By giving my feelings of inadequacy a name, it helped me address them, and feel empowered to talk about them. Over time, in conversations with my colleagues, I found that lots of them felt the same way. In fact, I think anyone that doesn’t feel like an impostor when surrounded by loads of talented people is a liar, or possibly some kind of psychopath.
By talking with colleagues, we shared strategies for dealing with feelings of inadequacy, but, more than that, it took away my fear that everyone else was walking around supremely confident in their assertions, and made me more willing to trust that my recommendations were just as valid. By embracing my impostor syndrome, I could manage it and make sure it didn’t cripple my confidence.
4. Make sure the project can pivot
Especially in a large organisation like the BBC, cogs can turn slowly. This exacerbates the challenge of understanding how a project may change in the future; we need to channel our inner fortune teller to reduce the potential negative impact of any decisions made.
A good example of this is through my work on a prototype Component Library for BBC Front End UI components. A large part of discussion centred around the inclusion of a folksonomy-style tagging system. I favoured a controlled list — for many reasons — but one of which was specifically that it is much simpler to open a closed system than to close an open one.
Every Architectural decision infers a number of ‘possible futures’; taking the time to extrapolate these futures allows us to identify when options remain open, and when they’re shut down. Any time I give a recommendation, I try to make sure that it takes account of the all of the possible futures that become impossible by its implementation. This gives the project room to pivot, if necessary.
Sometimes, well-thought out diagrams aren’t enough. You need a hook — something easy for stakeholders to remember that anchors the rest of the content. By attending conferences and events like EuroIA, I realised that including a solid quote seemed to initiate an almost Pavlovian response in people. I decided to make up my own quote, and translate it into Latin to make it sound even more profound.
Roughly translated, this means “If you show a quote, people will take pictures”.
The tip here is to always consider your audience when communicating recommendations you’re making as an IA. A strong quote, visual hook or ongoing theme can often be the one thing they remember and refer back to when they’re re-orienting around the information you presented.
6. There is no single, personal source of truth
Early on, before I’d shook off the early feelings of Impostor Syndrome, I felt that if I didn’t fully organise and track all of my tasks in a single place, I wasn’t worthy of even walking through the doors every morning.
Panic set in when I realised I would be trying to keep track of tasks coming in from Jira, Trello, Outlook, my notebook, my personal Google calendar, passing conversations I had in the lift and occasionally a post-it note left on my desk. In order to create a single view of everything, I’d have to spend at least an hour each day just trying (and failing) to maintain task integrity.
The spark happened when I realised that no matter how “correct” my single view ever became, there’s always more hiding somewhere else. In the BEST case scenario, I’ll have a perfect kanban board and whatever is still being processed by my brain — which actually does a pretty good job of knowing where I’m up to on a given task (even if it doesn’t do such a good job of remembering to finish it).
By accepting the natural latency of your brain working through things, you’ll free yourself up to focus on getting work done, rather than moving work around.
7. Find a way to do things in ANY order
I like efficiency. If there’s something to explore and uncover, I want to do it in such a way that I can get the most benefit out of every step. In an organisation like the BBC, doing this is a lot like the classic Travelling Salesman Problem; there’s still no algorithm for plotting the optimum route between stakeholders — especially when you have to find out who those people are first.
The solution for me was blindingly simple: Accept it. If doing something in the ‘right’ order is next to impossible, find the best way to do it in any order. This means talking to the people you can as soon as you can, seeing what that reveals, and then using what you find out to inform the next step of the task. The important point is to stay aware of the gaps that still exist and resolve to fill them in as soon as you can get that particularly elusive stakeholder in the diary.
When I first conceived this talk, I started with a catchy title because I thought it would be more likely to get noticed. In reflecting on that first year, what I realised is that there are no secret nuggets of wisdom to being a good rookie IA. Everything I learned, whether it was about me or my stakeholders, was about people:
People that I learned from, people that I work with and people I meet that inspire me. If you have any tips about how I can make my second year working as an IA even better, I’d love to hear them.
If you’re interested in how these lessons came about, and the people involved in mentoring me, I also wrote some backstory.