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The Case Against On-Staff IAs

by Hana Schank
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For IAs to come into their own, they need to step outside of organizations, not work from the inside.

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.

post authorHana Schank

Hana Schank, Hana Schank has been in Information Architecture for 14 years. She began her career at Andersen Consulting where she designed an award-winning interactive training program, and went on to work on designing the first website for CBS News. As the first hands-on Information Architect at OgilvyInteractive, Hana helped to establish a detailed documentation methodology and information architecture process which led to successful engagements for several clients who were designing and building sites for the first time. In her role as Director of Information Architecture at Zentropy Partners, she developed an IA process for the global organization, as well as leading the information architecture development for a range of high profile clients. Hana founded Collective User Experience in 2003, and now oversees all IA and UX work in addition to working directly with a range of clients to help make their web sites and applications more usable. Hana and several of the team members from CollectiveUX blog about IA in the real world at beautifulbutdumb.blogspot.com. She has finally broken down and started tweeting @hanaschank. Hana lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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