IA lenses: Helpful perspectives for content strategists


Featured speakers


Dan Brown: There are a lot of people here, and if you’re anything like me, it can be hard to make new friends, to meet new people, so I’m going to tell you about the Sarah rule. The Sarah rule says you have a responsibility to meet only one new person every day. When I learned this rule, it made coming to conferences like this a lot easier for me.

Many years ago, I was at a conference called the IA Summit, and thinking of the Sarah rule, I sat down at a table at lunch where I didn’t know anybody there, and I thought, “I just need to meet one new person.” I got talking to the folks at the table, and it turned out that one new person that I met was Lisa Maria Martin, who also lived in the DC area at the time. She went on. We had several conversations, and she went on to also edit my last book, so I’m just saying, if you meet one new person, that person can change your life in a very positive way.

You might be wondering why this is called the Sarah rule after I met Lisa Maria. This is the rule that my wife, Sarah, told me when I came back from a conference once and she said, “Did you meet anybody?” And I said, “No. I hung out with my friend, James, the whole time.” And she said, “Okay, Dan, you’ve got to try and meet just one new person every day.”

So I’m going to go from that piece of advice to something very nerdy. I’m going to talk about information architecture at a content strategy conference. So either this will go really well, or I will never be invited back. IA Lenses are a tool that I’ve been working on for a little while, and if you attended my workshop yesterday, you know that I am a stickler for defining terms, so we’re going to spend at least 5% of this talk defining our terms.

So when I talk about information architecture, I’m talking about the design of virtual structures, right? The things that we create that people live and work inside of on their screens. And when I talk about a lens, what I’m really talking about is a way for us to consider, and explore, and really interrogate our design work. Interrogate is a really strong word. I get that. I am from Washington, DC, so I understand the strength of interrogate, but I do feel passionately that we don’t subject our own work to the kind of interrogation that it needs to be subjected to.

But really what I want to talk about here is perspective, the idea that we’re looking at our work from lots of different viewpoints. So I’m going to do this, and I’m going to do this, and then we will proceed. A lens is actually many parts, there are many parts to lenses. It’s got a title, to kind of give us a sense of what it is. It’s got a little description. It’s got a bunch of prompts to help us kind of think through, and then it’s got this kind of key question at the bottom.

I’ve been thinking about these lenses for a little while, and I started making a list of all the kinds of questions that I ask myself. Then I realized I was making a really long list. There are 51 of these lenses, and I was like, “Whoa. That is a lot of lenses.” What happened was, is, I just started making this list, and it just kept going. I thought maybe I would have a dozen or so of these different perspectives that I use to look at the IA work that I do, but it turned out to be many more than that.

I’m also going to tell you a story. It’s not sad. You don’t have to feel bad for these people, just to be clear. This is an organization called the World Bank. Their headquarters is in Washington, DC, and we have done a bunch of projects for them over the years. In this case, we were doing a project to redesign their navigation. This was what the site looked like when we got started in 2016, and it was cool. It was maybe the first real deep IA project I had worked on in a while, so I dug up this article that I wrote back in 2010, which was scary that that was how old that article was, about... What did I call them? Principles of information architecture. I was like, “Well, let me see if I can apply these principles,” so I started doing that, and then I realized I don’t really have principles so much as lenses.

Since we were working on such a deep IA problem, I thought maybe I could update this and take a look at it. So as we were going through this project, I made a bunch of observations, like this one. If you can see, the navigation includes research and publications, and I didn’t know what the difference was between those two things. Can anyone tell me why they think there are two navigation items that are very similar? Just shout it out.

Audience member: [inaudible]

Dan: Say again?

Audience member: Internal teams.

Dan: Yeah. There are two groups at the World Bank. One is called...

Audience: Research

Dan: And the other is called...  

Audience: Publications

Dan: Right. I don’t know if this is the saddest part of the story, but while we were working on this project, the publications team got dissolved, so it sort of solved one of our problems. Observation number two is this navigation doesn’t tell me what the World Bank really does. In fact, when we showed this screen to people who were not familiar with the World Bank, what do you think they think this site is about?

Audience: [crosstalk]

Dan: Climate change. Guess what. Climate change is real, but that’s not what this site is about, right? All right. Then the last observation is the navigation didn’t really help me understand where I am in the website, right? It didn’t give me a sense of place on the website. So we made these three observations, and now we can start asking ourselves questions. We can ask ourselves questions like, “Are there better words that I can use to describe what’s available on this site?” We can ask ourselves, “Do users really understand what’s available?” And we can ask ourselves, “What would actually help people figure out where they are on the website?” But it turns out we can ask ourselves many, many, many, many questions about navigation. There’s so many. There are just so many questions, turns out at least 51 questions.

So why is it important to pose questions on the work that we do? Actually, I will quote my good friend and colleague, Erika Hall. She says, “The question is the most important tool we have in our toolbox.” But why is it important? Why does that help us? What value do questions have? Well, I’m going to give you a three-part argument to why questions are crucial to the process of information architecture.

The first thing is that IA is filled with clowns. I’m just kidding. IA has scary consequences. I was so happy to see this book is for sale out in the lobby. This is a book by Stewart Brand, and it’s really about conventional architecture. It’s about buildings. He has this model in the book called pace layering. It basically says there are parts in the house that change constantly, the décor, right? And there are parts of the house that don’t change rapidly at all, the foundation, right? And this is a great metaphor for the work that we do as well.

You know, we can look at this from a very macro view, right? Things like commerce, it’s changing constantly, but the way nature works moves very slowly. And again, if we apply this to the work that we do, we have things on our websites, on our products, like visual design, which can move faster. You know, it’s presumably easier to make changes there, and when we make changes there, the consequences are really to the user interface. But when we make changes to the underlying structure, we see that the... or the navigation, those have much further-reaching consequences. This is why the IA work is scary. When you make a change to the structure of something, it has a lot of downstream effects. Either way, I was able to use pace layers, so everybody gets to drink now.

All right, that was part one, IA is scary. Part two, IA deals with abstractions. Yes, words are hard, and one of the reasons why words are so hard is that they’re trying to describe ideas that are difficult to see and touch. When we’re talking about the World Bank, they do lots of things that we can’t point to necessarily, talking about consulting, and analysis, and research, things that aren’t concrete. Because of this, we’re dealing with or trying to organize concepts that are difficult for us to grok. That’s Karl. He’s a local boy. Karl Fast is based here in Minneapolis. He is a very good friend of mine, and I love this quote, and I didn’t know where else it’d fit, so here we are.

All right, part number three to my argument is that even though we’re designing structures, and even though we’re working with abstractions, we’re still doing design. We’re still making deliberate choices, and we know that critique makes design better. We know that we can’t do our work successfully without having a conversation, without getting feedback on that work. So this is my three-part argument. IA has scary consequences, it’s about abstract ideas, and we need feedback on it.

This is you, I’m sorry, but it’s me too, right? We’re nerds. We love this stuff. We love getting into the weeds of a complex structure, and all we want in life is another nerd to share this with. Some of us are very fortunate that we have other nerds in our life, and some of us find ourselves working in organizations where when you talk about the abstract, they get... You know, this is not a reflection of them as a whole person. It’s just a reflection of them when you start to talk about information architecture. That is also us. Alright.

So these lenses, they give us questions that we can ask ourselves. They don’t take the place of a conversation. I was hoping for that too. What they do is they give us a way of interrogating our design decisions, so then when I look at a design that I’m working on, or a content strategy that I’m working on, or a navigation system that I’m working on, I can ask myself questions. And what’s great about them, I think, is that because they are from lots of different perspectives, they give us ways of reflecting on different aspects of the design.

So let me give you an example of how to use these lenses. This was the proposed navigation. Actually, the World Bank team, who I really love a lot, they came to us. They said, “This is what we want our high-level navigation to be, so we need to be able to validate and elaborate on it,” and we said, “Totally.” So one of the things that we looked at is stability. You might remember the poor publications team, right? You cannot name your navigation after silos for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that silo may go away. So one of the things that we look at is are these terms stable? Well, it turns out things like, “Who we are,” and, “Where we work,” those will always be relevant, right? Even understanding poverty, that’s what the World Bank does, so if that has to go away, there’s something much more existentially wrong with the World Bank.

Let’s look at another lens. This one is called narrative. It asks, “How does the structure contribute to the story?” That made us realize that this navigation alone doesn’t do a good job of telling the World Bank’s story. But what we did was we proposed using mega menus here, so that we could embed the story in the navigation mechanism itself. This tested beautifully, and it was really gratifying to see people who thought the site was just a news site originally came to understand not just what poverty was, but what the World Bank’s role in that is. It also allowed us to look at things like the concept of country, which is incredibly complex in the context of the World Bank, and trying to understand when we have something like country, that can really fit in all of these categories, how do we address it? How do we deal with it?

I could tell you all are really cool, but when I go to other conferences, they’re like, “You’re taking away my spreadsheets,” and they get all huffy about the tools that they have right now. I know you guys know I’m not trying to take anything away from you. I’m just trying to give you more to choose from.

So, I came up with these 51 lenses, and what do you think I did after that? Come on, you know me. What did I do?

Audience member: You used the lenses on the lenses.

Dan: I used the lenses on the lenses. Thank you. That was good. See me after class. I categorized the lenses. Oh my gosh. It was so great. I came up with eight categories, and you might not know this about me, but eight is my favorite number. It was great. So now I’ve got a way of talking about what I do, using actually, I think, relatively plain terms. So I’m going to go through each of these. I’m going to pair them up, just to make it easier to go through them, but there’s not really any other relationship between the pair.

There’s some lenses that help me understand how do I present the structure on the site, right? Something like a plain language filter or lens. Pretty straightforward, right? I’m presenting the structure, I want to represent it in the plainest terms that I can. But I also need to figure out how do I guide people through this structure, right?

There’s some lenses, like distraction, that let me figure out am I drawing people away from their desired path? One of the things that people like to do is put a navigation on a screen and keep it on the screen for every page on the website. Then navigation is a distraction from the purpose of the page. It could be a distraction from the purpose of the page. There’s some lenses that help me figure out where content fits, how to classify it, and there’s some lenses that help me think about how does my structure flex to accommodate content that I might not have thought of?

For example, one of the things that I look at when designing a navigation is, am I really trying to make this comprehensive, right? So there’s a comprehensiveness lens. Navigation is a thing that needs to be managed, so some of the lenses help me think about what does it take to manage the structure? And at the same time, I need to explain how the structure works to the people managing it, so there are a bunch of lenses, like familial relationships, that let me look at my structure in those terms, so I can explain it to the people who are responsible for managing it.

Last pair here, and maybe this is where we get user-centered. A structure should bear some responsibility for drawing users in and making them feel like they belong there, which might sound like a tall order, but it’s 2019, so when we look at inclusive, how to include, we look at things like ethics, right? We have a lens that says how might this harm someone? Which structures can very much do.

So, I felt like I had a really... After arriving at this set of categories, I felt like I had a really good handle on what I actually do, and it’s only been 25 years that I’ve been doing this, so I felt pretty good that I could do that. Those categories are useful not just to kind of be able to explain what information architecture is and what it does, but it also helps me zero in on what I’m struggling with. So when I’m presenting new ideas, I can use these lenses to go, “Well, do I have a good way of explaining what I’m doing, or what the structure’s meant to be?”

All right, so I know what you’re thinking. “How do I get me some of these lenses?” No, that was tacky. I think you want to see another example. I think you want to see these lenses work just one more time, but I’m going to do better. I’m going to give every one of you a lens. This is the biggest group I’ve ever done this with, so please be patient. I’m going to ..I’ve got packs of lenses here. I’m going to give it to a person on the end of the aisle. That person is going to take one and pass it down, and that is because we are all grownups, and the principle of distributing the lenses is what? You get what you get-

Audience: And you don’t get upset.

Dan: Thank you everyone who has had a child in kindergarten. I was in Africa about a month ago doing this, and I was like, “I’m going to teach you an ancient American proverb. You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.” And do you know what the African people said to me? They said, “That does not sound American at all.” That’s fair. Alright.

So I’ve got two colleagues to help me. I’m going to do these two sections. I’m going to give a set to the people on the end here. My colleagues are going to do those two sections over there and those two sections over there, and you get what you get and you don’t get upset. All right, are we ready to go, volunteers? Are you good?

Volunteer: Ready.

Dan: You good. Cool. Here we go.

Volunteer: Thanks, Dan. (singing)

Dan: No, you get one. (singing) You’re welcome. (singing) I’ll be back. (singing) I’ve got plenty of extras, if you don’t get one. Come on. Raise your hand if you do not have one yet. All right, they’re coming down. They’re coming down. Be patient. Extras? Anyone need any more? I think they’re coming down.

They’re coming down right now.

Tenessa and team have some, so if you didn’t get any, raise your hand, didn’t get one, raise your hand. That whole back section still needs them. We did it, guys. Oh my gosh, I’m so proud of us. Any others? All right, I’m going to leave these up here with Kristina if the volunteers need to get anymore.

Kristina Halvorson: Or if I just get to keep them.

Dan: Or she can keep them, but all right. Oh, I forgot my punchline slide. Everybody gets a lens. Okay. So here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to put you all to work. I want you to take a moment to look at your lens, and I want you to look at the title, admire the craftsmanship that went into thinking of that word. I’m going to give you a website to look at. I want you to think about the question relative to the website. I’m going to give you two minutes. You can write down thoughts or hold them in your head. Erika told us that we’re not good at remembering things, but I have faith in the people in this room to remember their thoughts.

I always like to choose a website that is relevant to the location that I am in, so I chose the City of Minneapolis, and I don’t know what it is about you people, but you always do things in twins, because there is another website for the City of Minneapolis. I don’t know why there are two. I don’t know why there are two. I realize that someone in this room might have worked on this website, and there may be a good rationale for two websites, and I just want to let that person know, I don’t care. We will pick this website, because it has a lot more navigation.

You see, we’ve got some navigation items on the top, starting with city services, and residents, and business, and then we’ve got that navigation down the left-hand side of the page, of course. I was really glad to see that all the ands are ampersands, and it’s not mixed and spelled out and ampersand, because that drives me crazy. So now you’ve got some different navigation items to look at. So take a couple minutes, look at your lens, think about the question, and think about what does that make you think about relative to the City of Minneapolis’s website. Okay? (singing) This is good thinking music. (singing)

Does anyone need more time? All right, it’s because you’re quick thinkers. I appreciate that. Or were you just preoccupied with “Uptown Funk“? All right, so who has one they want to share? What did your lens tell you about this navigation? Come on. Yep, what’s your name?

Jeff: Jeff.

Dan: Jeff says-

Jeff: Well, I got scannability.

Dan: Scannability, good.

Jeff: So I need to know how well can users glean content of this middle at a glance.

Dan: How well can users glean content of this menu at a glance. What a good question. What’d you come up with?

Jeff: It’s kind of hard, because all I want to do is keep just staring at the map and then staring at the city. That’s all I want to do now, and I’m not paying attention to the content.

Dan: That’s great. Jeff is saying, “The map is dominating my attention, so it’s hard for me to concentrate on where I want to go.” I also feel like because there’s two menus to choose from, and there’s a lot of overlapping stuff, it’s hard for me to kind of zero in on what do I want to get out of that? So Jeff, thank you for sharing. As a consolation prize, I’m going to give you a copy of my book, my latest book. No problem. I got one more thing to give away. Who has something else they want to share? Front row, go for it. Tell me your name.

Erin: I’m Erin.

Dan: Erin.

Erin: I got context, and how does the structure communicate context.

Dan: She says she got context, and how does the structure communicate context. What a good question, and what’d you come up with?

Erin: I think similar to Jeff, I kind of kept getting bounced between the two navigational bars and the map, where I wasn’t sure what I should be paying attention to, sorry whoever may have worked on this, so my context is I don’t know why I’m here and which one I should be going to, so the context is, I don’t understand.

Dan: That’s fair. Good feedback. I also feel like, and I’m realizing this now, this may be part of that other website, because I’m in the government section, which I am only just seeing now.

Erin: That context-

Dan: We are iterating on the fly here. And that context, to your point, was lost on me too. This is a game I designed called Surviving Design Projects, which is fun to play with your team. All right, so just a couple more thoughts before I get you to your excellent snacks. You can follow @IALenses on Twitter if you want to learn more about what I sound like when I’m tweeting as a lens. I don’t know, and if you’ve got some thoughts and reflections on the lens that you got, feel free to drop me a line. I get a lot of email saying, “I got the perfect lens. How did you know?” I’m like, “I literally just handed them out at random, so I didn’t know anything.”

I’m working on... Basically every new project that comes into my shop is some variation of this. “We’ve got a business process.” This is the client speaking. “We’ve got this business process, and over the years, we’ve built a number of applications to support this business process. And now we’ve got a proliferation of applications to support a singular business process, and what we really need you to do is build us a portal.” And I’m like, “The P word,” or maybe they call it a launchpad, and I’m like, “I see through your tricks. You are asking for a portal, but someone told you not to use that word around me,” so maybe they call it a guide, or maybe they call it a dashboard. My colleague, Chris, and I can’t even say this word, dashboard, without sounding cynical these days.

So they basically want me to build some kind of unified portal, dashboard, guide thing to bring all of this crap that they’ve been accumulating over the last two decades, into alignment. They want me to organize their stuff. That is a scary problem, and it’s hard, so the thought that I will leave you with is that there’s still lots of work to be done in this field. Thanks so much for your time.

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