Information Architecture & Communication

There’s no formal, respected education track to becoming an information architect.  The most widely-held is Human Computer Interaction, but the role of an information architect tends to be filled by people from a variety of backgrounds who have seamed together along a few common threads.  Most prevalent among those threads is a conscious or sub-conscious need to create organization out of chaos.  That chaos most often is in the form of the client.  Or, more specifically, the personalities composing the client’s team.

Executive management committees, secretary turned art director for a day, programmers, brand managers, and the list goes on.

The challenge, of course, goes far beyond meeting the stated goals of the project.  Information architects have a stringent sense of duty to get the job done correctly, despite constant protests to do things the “wrong way.”

Information Technology will insist things can’t be done “that way.” Brand managers will require the use of specific icons as bullets because it’s part of their brand manifesto (for print design).  Executive committees will be paralyzed and horrified at every concept with the potential to offend the board or CxO.  There already exists plenty of reference material of the “Secretary Art Director,” so I’ll skip the examples on that.

The other common thread typical of good Information Architects is the ability to communicate well.

The conversation is the point.  The outcome of the conversation is the point.  If you’re doing the right thing as an IA, you’re spending more time talking to stakeholders and points of contact than you are reflecting on, or producing, your work.  Effective communication is the crux of IA.  You can’t proceed with your work without these critical discourses, no matter who the conversation is with.  What’s more important than your diagrams is being an effective communicator, both as a sender and receiver.

As an IA, however, you’re also decoder and encoder, having conversations on multiple technical levels, multiple business levels, and even multiple social levels.  As an IA, you’re the interdisciplinary expert who can speak intelligently about design, layout, computer science (as programming and hardware), business, analysis, ergonomics, library science, taxonomy, brand image, and marketing.  To make matters worse, you have to speak to audiences within nearly every one of those disciplines, plus executives, who have spent the bulk of their career focused on their singular path and convince them that you know more about the topic than they do, which is why you’ve done things the way you have, with their direction.

By the same token, there’s a delicate balance to maintain in your ability to listen patiently, record and review even what seems to be the most inane natterings of your client team.  This is critical to the success of your project.  You cannot and must not reject ideas out of hand simply because the person you’re talking to “doesn’t comprehend what you do.”  Despite your comparison to their brain being similarly sized to a dinosaur’s (insert note/reference to Will Ferrell’s Land of the Lost), good ideas can come from anywhere.  Any idea can be implemented.  Because your experience and yes, “best practices,” say it shouldn’t be done in general, it does not mean you automatically rule it out for the current project.  Ask questions. Review the answers in your head.  Re-state the questions; ask new questions relevant to the conclusions you’ve made.

The ability to effectively communicate is a critical skill to most everything in this world worth experiencing.  A successful Information Architect relies on two-way communication and can’t do their job without the ability to effectively communicate on every level.  You have to be able to send and receive.  Artfully.

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