For our closing plenary, the IA Summit is thrilled to have the always fabulous Karen McGrane share her inspiring and never-filtered perspective. For more than 15 years Karen has helped businesses create better digital products through the power of user experience design and content strategy. We recently spoke with Karen about her ideas for the plenary, and the challenges facing information architects everywhere.
IAS: So what would you like to talk about when we get together in Baltimore for the IA Summit?
KM: For starters, two things. First, and I’m borrowing from Jared Spool here, it is a great time to be an information architect. I talk to lots of companies that need help from people who practice information architecture. They don’t always call it “information architecture,” but they know it is exactly the kind of work that they need.
Challenges that organizations are facing with mobile content strategy, content management infrastructure, publishing to social channels, and all these other trends in the digital marketplace have not always filtered down to the way that organizations get work done. As a result, the world needs information architecture more than ever right now. I’m not just saying this to make information architects feel good; this is a real, serious problem.
That leads to the second concept: all of the work that we do is change management. You can look around our industry and see so many people doing work that in the past was done by management consultants. You might be someone that says “I’ve been an information architect for awhile, and I’m still doing tactical work, like taxonomies, functional specifications, wireframes, and prototypes. What’s next?” We need to embrace our roles as an agents of change. We must recognize that our ideas have a huge impact—not just on the interfaces that users see, but on organizational structure: on how people do the work that they do, and how that work is valued.
One of the biggest drawbacks of working in digital design is the rapid pace of technological change. There are new things all the time! As a result, there is a lot of digital fatigue in organizations. “We are sick of having to adapt to new things: first social, then mobile, and now more new interfaces, platforms, and the like.” But if you want to advance in information architecture, you should be prepared to understand and change the culture of organizations. Information architects are more effectively positioned for this than a traditional management consultant, because our core value is empathy: the ability to put ourselves in the shoes of the users of interfaces and products.
IAS: Organizations that don’t know what to do with digital design projects look to information architects, user experience designers, and other design fields for screen-based solutions. But more often than not, we spend as much time on the design of an organization or a process as we do the design of the website or app.
KM: The dysfunction of internal corporate structures is often reflected by the poor quality of internal interfaces that people use to do their jobs. You can see how screwed up a company is by looking at their CMS. Another way to put it is that you’ll never deliver a good end user experience if you don’t have a good employee experience. One of the biggest challenges we face in the digital space is that organizations evolve really slowly, and no one can figure out where digital should live. Baked into organizations at the highest level is the idea that you have a marketing side and an engineering side, and those are two completely different things. You have a chief marketing officer and and chief information officer, and those people have two different organizations, with separate cultures, motivations, incentives, etc. But people that do the work that we do? We have to do both. By definition we have to straddle both camps.
For us this is a generational issue, and it’s our life’s work to help contribute to organizations’ learning how digital design (and information architecture) should fit into their organization. If we are going to be successful, we may not fix it for ourselves, but for the next generation of digital designers, I want to leave those organizations better off. There will also be some social darwinism, where the organizations that successfully navigate this transition are the ones that are going to survive.
IAS: We can’t wait to hear your talk. Have you had a chance to look at the rest of the program? What do you think?
I’m really, really excited. I thought Scott Jenson was a fabulous and inspired choice as a keynote speaker. I’m always impressed by how many first time speakers there are at the IA Summit, and I can’t wait to see some of them. The workshops look great. Having Leslie Jensen-Inman is fantastic, and I’m delighted Paul Annett will be there. I’m really excited about the Lisa Welchman and Peter Morville session. That’s worth the price of admission right there.
Want to catch Karen’s plenary? Register to attend the IA Summit.