UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 682 June 2, 2011

The Case Against On-Staff IAs

The Webby Award winners were announced recently, and for the third year in a row the awards included a category for “Best Navigation/Structure,” defined as:

The framework of a site, the organization of content, the prioritization of information, and the method in which you move through the site. Sites with good structure and navigation are consistent, intuitive and transparent.

This should be good news for the information architecture (IA) community, but a quick click through the nominees tells a different story. (See the full list of nominees)

It’s difficult to determine whether navigation structure has been executed well if you don’t know anything about the site’s background, personas, and the user goals, but let’s assume that it is possible to objectively determine in a broad sense which sites have good navigation. Of the five nominees, Zappos is the only large-scale site included in the list. This is important because while it is very easy to create a great navigation structure for a site that has five pages, the real challenge in our work lies in creating a great navigation structure for a site with thousands of pages and multiple user types. So for starters, with the exception of Zappos, the nominees aren’t looking promising.

But the biggest problem with the nominees is a site for a digital agency called Grip Limited. Click on over, take a look at it for two minutes and try to figure out how to navigate the site. This Webby nominee for “Best Navigation/Structure” is a site on which an entire quarter of the homepage real estate is devoted to explaining how to use the navigation. Not only does this seem to be in direct contrast to the Webby Awards’ own description of what makes site navigation good (remember the use of the word “transparent”?), but it leaves any IA with a sinking feeling that yet again the world just does not get what IA is all about.

In an effort to understand how the nominations for this category could have gone so wrong, I contacted the Webby Awards. They wouldn’t divulge which specific people judge different categories, but they did say that the judges are drawn from the members of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. I reviewed that list of 757 names, which includes a tremendous number of boldfaced names such as David Bowie, Barbara Boxer and Richard Branson (and that’s just the B’s!). What’s missing from the list? Almost anyone with “user experience” in their job title. In a list of 757 digital luminaries in charge of selecting the best UX design on the Web, I found four whose job titles indicated they did something either UX or interaction design related.

So the Webby Awards judges for the best navigation most likely don’t include anyone with an IA background, which means our work is not being judged by anyone who really understands what IA is or why good IA looks like. Instead, it is being judged by David Bowie, or someone like David Bowie. And while I like David Bowie as much as the next person, I don’t want him judging my IA any more than he wants me to be a judge at the Grammys.

But it wasn’t until I tweeted my thoughts about the Webby Awards, and the Grip site in particular, that things got interesting. I was immediately contacted by someone at Grip who informed me that their IA had been involved in the creation of the site (which was not my point, but was still intriguing). This person cited the alternate site navigation, barely visible at the top of the page, as proof that an IA had been involved in the creation of the site. Rather than convincing me to rethink my position on the site’s IA, this brought to light a larger, more important issue: the general belief in the industry that if you have an IA on staff you will get good IA. I will go so far as to say that in many cases the opposite appears to be true. If you have an on-staff IA it entitles you only to the belief that you are creating usable sites.

At the IA Summit this year I met many, many people who work as on-staff IAs at content sites, ad agencies, and larger corporations. But the most significant encounter I had was with the head of a large IA team for a well-known site that used to be quite prominent in the industry but has lost ground over the past five years or so to newer, better competitors. This is a site I used to use frequently, but it has missed many opportunities to improve functionality, and as a result I almost never go to it any more. After speaking with the head of the company’s IA team, I quickly learned that no one else uses it any more either. All of which is to say: the site was being destroyed by bad IA, and the head of the IA team knew it. I want to make clear here that the site’s bad IA most likely has absolutely nothing to do with the skills of the head IA or his team, all of whom were smart, ambitious, and I’m sure quite competent at what they do. Instead, I blame the fact that they were all on the staff of the company.

I have worked as both an on-staff IA at a content site and several agencies, and have also been an external consultant, and I’ve noticed a huge difference in how the work of on-staff IAs is regarded within an organization as compared to that of external IAs.

    1. Organizations that have an IA working on staff start to take them for granted.
      IA is no longer a specialized thing that highly paid consultants do, but rather something Joe down the hall is working on. The major benefit to having Joe down the hall working on IA is that you can pull Joe into any number of meetings and get his thoughts on UX at any time of day. The downside to pulling Joe into any number of meetings is this allows a team to erroneously believe that they are following user-centered design simply because Joe was in the room when decisions were made (see: Grip site).

 

    1. Organizations that have brought in a UX consultant are more likely to listen to that consultant’s recommendations.
      Organizations that bring in UX consultants have made a significant monetary, psychological, and time commitment towards developing a great user experience for their product. They’ve invested time and energy to find the best consultant they can afford, they’ve gotten buy-in from upper management in their organization, and they have made the important realization that they do not have these highly specialized skills within their own organization. All of which means they’re more likely to actually listen to their UX consultant.

 

    1. On-staff IA teams frequently do not report to people who understand IA.
      On-staff UXers are a part of the team. While many people believe this is a benefit to having an on-staff UX team (They know our business! They’re in the building!), it’s actually a major drawback. When you’re “on the team” you are also part of the larger hierarchy of the organization, which means you have to worry about getting approval from your superiors, who may or may not have a deep understanding of IA, and who may or may not understand how their decisions impact user experience.

 

  1. Effective IA comes from thinking like a user, not a member of the organization.
    Perhaps the biggest problem for on-staff IAs is that they’re a part of the company. And when you’re a part of the company, you’re enmeshed in everything. You start to speak the company’s special language, you use acronyms no one else understands, you get involved in the drama of which department hates which other department. But when you’re a consultant, you don’t know about the behind the scenes drama, language, or divisions, and neither do the product’s users. You’re able to approach an organization as a complete outsider, and this in turn makes it easier to communicate with other complete outsiders—your users.

Returning to the problem of the Webby Award nominees, there is a direct relationship between the use of on-staff IAs and the lack of Webby judges with any significant UX experience. In order for IAs to raise our profile, to truly come into our own, we need to step outside of organizations, not work from the inside. We need to work as valuable consultants to companies who understand the need for IA but don’t include IA as one of their core competencies. We can’t let companies pretend we’re just another cog in a larger organization, an add-on that companies can hire into their organization and claim to be doing user-centered design. We’re not accountants, copywriters, lawyers, or any of the other types of positions that frequently make up a large organization. We’re a unique and special entity, and we need to be positioned accordingly.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Hana Schank is the Principal and founder of Collective User Experience, a user experience consultancy which works with Fortune 1000 clients to help make their sites and applications more usable. She has over 14 years experience in information architecture and user experience design. Hana blogs about IA in the real world at beautifulbutdumb.blogspot.com, and has finally broken down and started tweeting @hanaschank. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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Comments

21
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Great article, Hana, completely agree.

I've seen this in-house IA behaviour before too. It's important for companies to get an objective outside perspective on their products. That said, I've also seen some internal IAs do great stuff and really fight their corner in the name of UX. However, in those cases they tend to be fairly new to the company.

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To be honest, this article could have been written about practically any specialist employed by any company in any field and, as such, I have to disagree.

Also:
"We’re not accountants, copywriters, lawyers, or any of the other types of positions that frequently make up a large organization. We’re a unique and special entity, and we need to be positioned accordingly."

This is the kind of crap that depresses me slightly about this industry. I think of it as the "Wizard of Oz" complex - aggrandising your skill into something greater than it really is and expecting some kind of worship for a specialism that's maybe 10 years old.

I wholeheartedly agree that UX/IA is a vital part of any serious website, but it's only part of the team of specialisms that make it all work.

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From experience working both internally and as an external consultant, I agree to a certain extent.

It is easier to get more influence as an external consultant because the organisation has a $$ value on what they have paid for, which they don't consider as much with internal resources.

The bigger issue I see though is what value the organisation really places on UX. I've seen companies add 'UX" depts and staff just to say that they do it, but they don't actually believe or trust in the process. In these cases, it's difficult to get true results, and and solutions if any are just band aid fixes to bigger issues.

I guess its the journey of UX maturity within the organisation which needs to be understood, to see where the best use of UX staff would be.

I can imagine a company who is at the beginning of the journey would use an external consultant and would get good benefit from it. But once it has established a UX environment, and embraced it as a culture, then internal UX staff would have much more influence, with the ability to know the ins and outs of the organisation and be able to iterate and continually improve.

But the bottom line is that it needs to be embraced by the organisation if it's to get any real results.

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Grip Ltd is a marketing/ad agency. They'd no more listen to an IA (in-house or not) than they would, evidently, to an accessibility developer. Nuff said.

Webby Awards...what a joke.

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No truer words have been written about the lack of regard for value that an IA/UX position has internally. I'm currently leaving my position with a large company for this very reason.

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If a major benefit of an external IA is that they approach the task with the mind of an outsider, which allows them to think like a user and create an IA users will understand - then David Bowie is a perfect judge for your IA.

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I respectfully disagree with each of your 4-points.

Point #1 - Organizations that have an IA working on staff start to take them for granted.
If you work for a company of any size having one "joe down the hall" may not be adequate. And if Joe is being used the way you've outlined, then it's time for Joe to make it clear how the process works effectively.This is the perfect opportunity to work from within to raise the profile as you say.

Point #2 -
Organizations that have brought in a UX consultant are more likely to listen to that consultant’s recommendations.
The fact that companies listen to outside consultants bc they invested time and money is exactly why you shouldn't hire from outside. They're listening for all the wrong reasons. You should listen to an IA person because they know your industry and competitors and they're good at what they do. I can't tell you how many times I've seen this go wrong. The company spends a good amount of time and money just catching the consultant up on what they do and how things run. The consultant has no long-term commitment so they're not as motivated to work.The consultant leaves having "completed" the project then the in-house guy (me) fixes it.This sounds like a bitter rant, but it's happened to me too many times.

point #3 - On-staff IA teams frequently do not report to people who understand IA.
Again this is a perfect opportunity to raise awareness within the company. You can't just say, "Oh well, they don't understand" and walk away. Fight the good fight. Evangelize. Start with a small project that goes through the entire UX process and show the results.

point #4 - Effective IA comes from thinking like a user, not a member of the organization.
If you can't separate yourself from the company and see things from the point of the user you shouldn't be in IA/UX.

I think it's more crucial now that UX is becoming accepted to fight from within. It's more challenging to do this for sure, but that doesn't mean we should give up and retreat to our corners.

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It seems there is one thing missing: the fact that having any information architect involved is better than having none.

Not so long ago only large companies considered IA important. Nowadays more and more people know about it and many medium sized companies care enough to dedicate exclusive resources to it.

AI may only be taking baby steps, but it is moving forward.

Cheers.

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Although I don't know that it's true of all company cultures, the risks you describe are real and certainly not limited to on-staff IA counsel.

Sometimes, companies that don't WANT to take a user-centered approach will assign a user-centered role simply because they believe they can then sell themselves as user-centered -- no matter how often that person's suggestions are actually adhered to. And after a certain amount of rejection, even the best IA loses his passion to speak up.

At the same time, a company that hangs on every opinion of the "IA expert" is also at risk. Without user research, therecare few guarantees to be made -- most opinions are hypotheses.

It's up to the individual to recognize a culture that's not valuing their role -- and ob the flip side, to be transparent about the limits of his predictive capabilities.

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Excellent and thought provoking article and comments. Full disclosure I am one of those full time ux people so I will respectfully disagree with some of your points. Some ok a few have merit. Ok quite a few! But I do believe a lot of what we do is about influencing those around us including our bosses regardless of whether or not they are ux literate. I've found academic research past success and common sense to be great tools in this area. Plus if you are lucky enough to have people around you who trust and respect your work, you're miles ahead of the curve. Thanks again for writing - you sure got us all thinking!

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The fact they have an IA on staff doesn't always mean the IA's advice were heeded. What you say has merits but I won't blame the IA entirely in every case.

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This is a thought-provoking and interesting read. I would tend to agree with your assessment, but with a caveat. It is possible, at least in small-to-medium-sized organizations, for marginalized UX groups to educate stakeholders as to the extent of what we can do and how our work can have a direct impact on their jobs, and if our work isn't taken seriously, how that will impact the organization negatively. In turn, we build trust and gain more authority. It's a slow and laborious process for sure, but it can be done.

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Thanks for writing such a provocative article.

From the last paragraph, which sums your argument up nicely:
"In order for IAs to raise our profile, to truly come into our own, we need to step outside of organizations, not work from the inside."

I might argue the opposite.

I've been working full-time for agencies since 2007. Prior to that, I worked in-house. I was a developer back then with limited UX knowledge, working alongside talented designers, developers, and programmers. During most of my time there, we had no UX person on staff. Not one. (And trust me, our site suffered for it.) And when we hired one it took quite a while for him to get up to speed on our systems, institutional knowledge, and so forth. If he had been just a consultant, he would have had a limited time with us. And our site would have suffered again after his departure.

There's something to be said for the fact that full-time employees have a deep understanding of the product and the challenges surrounding it. They live with it and grow with it. It's not the same with an outside consultant, even if they're hired on a long-term basis. Full-time employees are less likely to be dismissed when budgets shift or become tighter.

Thinking back to that time, I don't know that an outside consultant would have been taken any more or less seriously than our full-time UX.

Thanks again for the article!

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@Chris - great comment

I looked through some of the webby award winners when they were announced and my head practically hit the desk in disbelief. I now completely agree with your sentiment that most awards are bogus.

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Very interesting read.

I have to say, I've also found these things to be true at some agencies--even digital agencies.

My freelance work tends to be valued pretty highly, and I credit that to the fact that I've worked with a dozen different teams in the last few years. I've absorbed as many methodologies, concepts, lingo, and deliverable styles as I could, and carried them with me to the next agency. And instead of settled interpersonal dynamics where my toes are getting stepped on, I've got a mental list of archetypes that I know how to deal with.

I normally don't say this kind of thing out loud, though, because I don't want to sound like I'm knocking IAs who've gone the full-time route. There are a lot of great ones out there. But being completely independent has definitely given me an edge.

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So, the premise of your point is that the Webby's are, like most awards of any kind, largely bogus? Is this really a surprise?

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I appreciate you taking the time to present your viewpoints, but I must beg to differ based on the following:

Re on-staff IAs being taken for granted, while I'm sure this might be true for some, the IAs on our team (of which I'm one) are considered to be an integral and valued part of our organization's operation. As a matter-of-fact, over the past several years and being a part of 3 IA teams, this has always been the case.

Re folks being more likely to listen to external consultants, I have found that this is a mixed bag, based upon (usually) politics and the clients' grasp of UX principles. Many bring in IA/UX consultants, pay dearly, and still don't listen.

Re on-staff IA teams not reporting to people that understand IA, again, while your experience may have great influence upon your perspective (no doubt), I have never been in this position (directly), nor have I met anyone that has such a testimony. The one time I did have a non-UX person leading our team, this was due to our former boss taking on a new job and a need to replace him from a business hierarchy perspective. That state was short-lived.

Re thinking like a user and not a member of the organization, I and all of my cohorts over the years have always operated in like manner. The variables never impacted us. We knew we were the voice of the user and we knew that we were required to "marry" user and business goals.

I understand where you're coming from and how your views have been shaped (and am not seeking to discredit you or take away your perspectives by any means), but thought I should chime in on the topic. While people who have my testimonies may very well be in the minority, it should be known that we and our circumstances and scenarios do exist.

Keep writing and keep pressin' on. I look forward to your next article and to further discussions.

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Typo in second graf: "inforamtion architecture (IA)" should be "information architecture (IA)"

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You make some really good points. However, companies can and do create cultures within their organization where UX can thrive and remain adequately objective. It's true that most the time it's not the case, but I'm fairly certain the exceptions aren't as rare as this article suggests. Keep in mind that I am considering this fact relative to the same problem in any department, whether it's customer service, accounting, or sales. They also need an outside view from time to time to get them back on track.

Having said that this is article complements Daniel Pink's recent article very well. Perhaps you've read it. If not, it can be found here: http://bit.ly/k4R9ff

I think your view is mostly right and I wish that decision makers were more aware of the value of consultants and the problem with in house atrophy. Nice job!