I.A is just a communications tool

There’s a lot of discussion around the office and the industry about I.A and it’s role… how it should be done… who should do it (clients and account staff have started handing me ‘wireframes’ and saying “I want that” which is just plain dumb & subjective!) and what level we should be producing it. I have a very straight-forward take on Information Architecture and that is “It’s JUST a communication tool” which could infuriate some people who think they’re more than that.

So let me quantify that train of thought. In 15 years of working in ‘The Big D’ I have had to continuously adapt and refine my style of I.A to the audience who are going to be working with it. I’ve also had the great privilege of working in so many different types of agency now that I’ve constantly had to swap and change the way I produce I.A work. I’ve worked in tactical advertising where we were churning out lots of rich, interactive micro-sites with short shelf-lives and even smaller budgets where I had to scrimp on the objectivity and use a bit of best luck & judgement + knock out rusty wireframes crudely in no time at all so the designer & the developer sitting next to me had a rough steer… All the way through to massive technology companies like Sapient Nitro where the rigor has had to be there because we’re building giant platforms that get developed off-shore. I’ve done a start-up where we had the luxury of being able to take a more Lean approach and most of the I.A was just drawn on the walls. Then there’s the agencies where we were doing more ‘Optimisation’ type work and we’d build detailed Axure Prototypes to do rigorous user-testing. But one thing unifies all those different approaches – whatever I was doing it was always about communicating back to the internal or client audience. It’s always been about showing people the way.

Advertising is a great analogy. You have a message that you need to tell the audience of consumers. You choose the media types best suited to that identified audience. I.A is the same. We have a message and we have to work out the best way to communicate that message and solution to the audience pre-public consumption.

If I meet another I.A who ‘only uses Axure’ or ‘only does Balsamiq’ because it’s their favorite tool then I’m going to explode. It doesn’t do you any favors being that one-dimensional. You have to choose the right tool for the particular job but more importantly you have to be an effective communicator. If you can show me how something needs to function on a wall with a pen then do that… if you can get across the detail using paper and pens then do that too. How it’s presented is secondary to the strategy, insight, research and thinking that’s gone into it.

I’ve tossed away CVs / Portfolios of IAs before because it’s jam-packed full of glossy wireframes… all in the same style, all Omnigraffled with such precision that they’re almost works of art on their own. Why? Because they might be brilliant, but they don’t show me that you’re adaptable and fluid. They show me you’re a great crafts-person with great thinking but they don’t show me that I can throw you into a multitude of scenarios and that you’ll be able to adapt your communication to the audience. Your I.A work is an interpretation of a brief, make people paying attention to it the reward.

A technique or look is no substitution for substance

So in summary – Just be mindful that I.A is a way of communicating the idea, solution, product, vision and function to an audience. That is all. Mastering the art of communication is more important than mastering the art of the wireframe. If it’s objective then it’s UX. If it’s subjective then it’s Design. But whatever it is you have to twist & mould.

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