Coming to Terms
July 11, 2001
The "big" use of IA has been stretched to the point of meaningless, encompassing all sorts of things related to a user-focused experience design process. Others are guilty of this too, there are those in the traditional usability field who seem to be pushing "big U" usability to encompass anything relating to creating a satisfying user experience as being called "usability." And then there's the whole IA as "holistic problem solver" concept, which was a strategically vague term adopted by people, including myself, who were able to span various web development disciplines. In fact, at one place I worked, the IAs themselves half-jokingly referred to themselves as the "foot soldiers of customer experience," meaning that in addition to our official jobs, we were typically the ones sent to fill the gaps when necessary. And this is probably one reason behind the unrealistic "catch-all" job descriptions we've seen lately.

But the problem is that the term "information architect" just isn't a good description for this broad practice of work. And as Mark Twain said, the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between "lightning" and "lightning bug." In fact, I'd argue it's becoming a jargony term that's in some ways preventing clients and co-workers from understanding what we do. When "information architecture" is used to describe ethnography, or user interface design is said to be "usability," it's confusing because the terminology doesn't match the expected meanings. Which isn't surprising because when Richard Saul Wurman coined the term, he was generally thinking in terms of one-way presentation of information, typically in print, and wasn't dealing with aspects of interaction.

Before we move on, I think it's useful in helping to figure out where we're going by looking at where we've been. (It's a bit of a digression, so if you want to, skip ahead.) Certainly, fields dealing with user experience have been around for awhile, with two of the most notable being human-computer interaction and usability. Likewise, librarians and information scientists have been thinking about how to organize content for quite some time. But twain rarely met—until the development of the web. Jesse James Garrett's excellent "Elements of User Experience" diagram [pdf] captured the confusion stemming from these different worldviews as a tension between a task-oriented "web as software interface" view and a information-oriented "web as hypertext system" viewpoint.

But there's a third viewpoint that I think Garrett misses—an experience-oriented "web as interactive multimedia system." (Note: while the reference are to the web, they apply equally other software products.) Yes, there have been those, such as Brenda Laurel, arguing for the value of experience, but too often they've been lonely voices in the wilderness.

In fact, many traditional HCI/usability people and information sciences people seem to harbor a latent suspicion, if not outright hostility toward immerse experiences, witness the ever-popular Flash-bashing that has occurred on both the SIG-IA and CHI-Web mailing lists OK, Flash has been often misused, like any new technology but there are too many in both camps who condemn because they seem to regard experience elements as "eye candy" that distracts from the "serious" task or information at hand.

Lighten up folks. As one of the jurors for I.D. Magazine's 2000 Interactive Winners said, there's room in the world for great-looking, pointless fun. But more to the point, sensory experience can be an important part of conveying information or helping to accomplish tasks. And it's also important to goals of marketing and branding. While it may not have been something that occurred in traditional software or information sciences, today every site or software product needs to strike an appropriate balance between task, information and experience.

And this is where the web has been revolutionary to the traditional fields (to strike a Wire-ish note of hype…). Despite all the talk about being user-centered, most traditional HCI/usability types worked on large enterprise software projects-often dealing with predictable task-driven systems-where frankly users didn't have a choice over whether to use what was delivered. In contrast, the web gave users a ruthless power to chose where they wanted to go and what sites they wanted to use. And they went to those that offered satisfying experiences-whether that were ones that allowed them to complete tasks, provided them with information and simply enjoy the atmosphere.

Another change was that web sites frequently involved visual design, marketing and branding issue. That's something that only one of the many traditional books I've seen on user interface design/usability even mentioned—and then it said was outside the scope of the book. (Since I'm not familiar with the information sciences world, I can't comment on the changes there.) Likewise, the era of the web (as with the CD-ROM era before it) brought in people from outside the traditional practices, people with radically different worldviews. We're still trying to merge these differences today.

So what to do? During a discussion at the San Francisco, IA cocktail hour, Nick Ragouzis made an interesting comment: that for our profession to grow up we need to do two things, 1) acknowledge sub-specialties and 2) be willing to say what we don't do (both personally and as a field).

For example, to draw on my graphic design background, graphic designers are trained to do all sorts of design: logos, corporate identity, ad campaigns, poster design, packaging, publication design, broadcast graphics among others and learn about related fields, such as illustration, typography or environmental signage. However, once graphic designers start practicing they'll typically specialize in particular areas. This isn't to say they'll turn away potential jobs in other areas, but they won't necessarily seek them out. So while they'll refer to themselves generically as "graphic designers," if you question them further, they'll generally specify their specialty area(s). And if a job is too far outside their skill set, they'll refer you to a different specialist—"what you really need is an illustrator, I do publication design…"

Given the comments about the difficulty in even defining "little IA," it's worth noting that in the graphic design world there are specialties within sub-fields. For example, within illustrators there are "artistic" illustrators, medical illustrators, technical illustrators—and there's even subspecialties within technical illustration, for example a friend of mine does technical illustrations for archeological digs. more »

What's in a name?
Why UX?
What we don't do
So what do we do? ::

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Your thoughts…

It comes to my mind that in another field of creative and communicative production there is a role that may be akin to the User Experience Architect.

The job description (modified for effect) reads somewhat like this:

Interprets content, directs technicians, and conducts mock-ups to create site presentation: Confers with Site Author and Producer to discuss content changes. Confers with Site Manager to coordinate production plans.

Familiarizes production staff in individual roles to elicit best possible performance. Suggests changes, such as 'voice' and 'placement' to develop presentation based on content interpretation and knowledge of usability techniques.

Approves graphics and text designs, sound, special effects, and site architecture. May hire. May select Site Designers.

???Wanna guess

http://www.stepfour.com/jobs/titlesd.htm

see #338 in the list

Donimo @ 07.13.2001

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George's quote below reminded me of something Don Norman said on CHI-WEB a while back.

Olsen: A highly usable interface to a product that's irrelevant to user's needs, or too expensive for it's intended users, or can't turn a profit is just as much a failure as one that's impossible to use.

Norman: Usability is NEVER the goal. Get over it folks. Usability is always secondary to the task or enjoyment you are trying to have. Is usability important? Of course, but it is les important than many other things.

Michael Angeles @ 07.16.2001

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It may be just me, but the right side of this page gets chopped off in the bullet point section above.

– Jim Jones @ 07.18.2001

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As an interaction design consultant since the early 1980s, and having created interactional architectures (physical, visual, and informational) for everything from room-sized machines to wearables to medical, industrial, and military equipment to phones to PDAs to gestural pads to televisions and movie theaters and on and on, and having never spent very much time coming up with elaborate theories for what it is that I *DO*, I would encourage more people in this field to spend less time talking, and more time demonstrating the depth and success of what it is that you've *DONE.*

The one thing that most sets "interaction architecture" or "information architecture" apart from traditional "building architecture" is that in the latter's field, it's generally *actual architects* that get the most press, not non-producing/non-architect writers of *BOOKS* that hold themselves out as *EXPERTS*. And the endless arguments in the field have grown more than tedious. ENOUGH! Forget the lofty theories and meaningless buzzwords. Just do the work for crying out loud!

I've never understood this problem of "clients not understanding what IA is." I find that if one shows them actual work and results, and refrains from the verbose prose, they consistently have no problem.

Jim Leftwich @ 07.18.2001

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i am wondering where visual design fits into your defn of ux?

visual design is just as much part of the experience as i.d, i.a., and interaction design. the visual design is what users see first. no matter how strong the info or interaction design, weak visual design will fail to provide visual cues that inform users of how the system is designed and works.

and weak visual design reflects on the overall brand and the user's experience with the site.

the writing also affects the user's experience with the site.

ani phyo @ 07.21.2001

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I definitely think visual design (and other sensory design) is a crucial part of UX -- and there's huge overlaps with not only branding (in the broad sense), but also informing business strategy. What I was trying to get at in the essay was that I don't think someone who working as a UX [whatever] will normally have the visual design skills, nor the time, to replace a visual designer/art director. I definitely think it's important for them to be familiar with visual design (especially if they're a "supervising UX"), but it's not their core area of expertise -- just as I think visual designers who want to work in this space, as opposed to print, need to be familiar with IA, interaction design, usability, branding in the broad sense (beyond just logos and image) etc. but likewise these aren't their areas of core expertise.

Same goes for writing and content strategy. And the same for things like animation, A/V and interaction multimedia specialists.

There's definitely an overlapping meeting areas where these disciplines can and should collaborate. Where the dividing line between tasks occurs will depends on the project and the people involved. For example, I've worked with some graphic designers who'd been doing web work a long time and had picked up a good understanding of UI, so with them I could simply identify what elements needed to be on a page, what priorities and proximity was needed among the elements, and trust them to do a good job of it. With others right out of school, I've had to do a fairly detailed page layout -- just as I'd done had to do sketches to show junior designers how to do a marker comp back in the print days.

However, since it's someone from a different discipline rather than same discipline doing it -- and because people seem to have forgotten the agnecy/studio hierachies of the bad old days of print, where junior designers started out by filling in the details of designs created by art directors and senior designers -- designers seem to complain and moan about this more. In fairness, because it's a converging industry, there definitely are project leads (whether IAs or otherwise) who do think designers are just there to make things pretty.

But one reason I think is that design schools are doing a huge disservice by continuing to promote the cult of individuality among designers, when in reality you're working as part of a team, especially in this space where the problems are too large to be solved easily by one person.

george @ 07.21.2001

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How did individuality become cult? Individuality is the antithesis of cult, is it not?

The individual characteristics of the ideal candidate for the role we are seeking to name would have those qualities that are diverse enough to correctly comprehend the needs of each team member in a way that can be beneficially applied to a group goal.

And, yes, sensory design must take into account sensibilities derived from social organs of perception, as well as the base physical that most do have, but some lack.

A team of thus qualified individuals would, by nature, be burdened rather than assisted by the imposition of a catalytic overseer of this sort. Fat chance that will occur very frequently, so the need to cultivate this skills package in individuals who can effectively see to it that the work gets done correctly.

Some of these problems stem from the generally slave-ish atmosphere generated by individuals who don't want to work, but feel that they must, for whatever reason.

But that's a whole different problem set.

Donimo @ 07.22.2001

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Realized I forgot to add another thing we don't do -- project management.

While project management skills are obviously important to have, project managers typically focus on making sure the project is staffed properly, is on time, and is under budget. And the project manager is typically focused on pleasing the client rather than pleasing the user.

george @ 07.26.2001

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That's a decisive line of demarcation.

That clarifies much.

There are other specifics of not doing that apply, as well.

I mean, that do as fine a job of succinctly sculpting the role.

Business consulting.

Hardware evaluation and procurement.

Vacation planning.

Commingling of funds.

Legal advising.

Shareholder recommendations.

Puts on margin.

Wedge shots from the rough.

No, wait! we do that.

Uh, sorta.

Donimo @ 07.26.2001

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I'm realizing that the "What we don't do" list, probably is better called the "Who we aren't" list.

I'm not trying to imply that we don't actually do the things I've listed, instead my point is that these shouldn't be our primary responsibilities -- and that are other disciplines that focus on each of these areas in far more depth than we do.

And on a large enough team, ideally each job I've described would be done by a different person. Yes, there's overlap, but each person brings a different perspective to the overlapping areas that's valuable.

On a smaller team (or for a solo practioner), there's not the luxury of having separate people to do these other things, so often times we end up inheriting these other tasks -- going back to my comment that we're often the "foot soldiers of user experience."

But my point is that these tasks aren't the core of what we should be doing as a "UX professional." There are other people who can do these tasks, often better than we can. Where we add value is bringing in something that's outside the core expertise of the other professions I've listed.

george @ 07.27.2001

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We can only aspire to comprehend what Jeffrey Zeldman meant

. . . and know that we are Happy Cogs.

– Donimo @ 07.27.2001

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I think if I were going to use one term and one term only, to describe the job, it would be Web Maker.

It sounds flat, though. There is an almost irresistable cumpulsion to want to icon-o-cise it with the image of a spider, too.

Other than that there is no better description than Making Webs.

It just needs some marketing conceptualization.

"Hi, I'm a Web Maker. Can I help you?"

"Yes, please. Will you make me a Web?"

"Okay, would you like fries with that?" (audience laughs)

– Donimo @ 07.27.2001

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Very timely. My boss and I recently had a two hour meeting to come up with a new title for what I do. We finally chose "User Experience Specialist". It seemed to best encompass most of what I do.

I agree with much of what you said, but remember in smaller companies you'll end up doing more than just the User Centered tasks. I'm currently the visual designer, the content approver, part-time BA and HTML developer as well as the person responsible for the tasks you mentioned as appropriate for UX.

I'm hoping for a staff soon. Wish me luck!

Toni @ 10.30.2001

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Yeah, but can you get the kids to school on time, bake bread and still have a life?

Huh!? Well?

(: or would you ever want to? :)

Then there's the how to deal with it actually working so well that we obviously need to bring in the rest of the design team.

You know, the users.

They can be so unlikely at times.

(Some can't even float a div, let alone balance.)

– Donimo @ 10.31.2001

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What about the pay ranges involved in all of these fields and employment law?

– Larry Wood @ 06.30.2003

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