in Civic Tech, Libraries, Providence, Tech

Interview: Practicing information architecture

This spring, I had the joy of reconnecting with my first professional colleague, manager and mentor Susan Teague Rector, who gave me some really excellent guidance during my job hunt. She’s teaching an Information Architecture class at the University of Tennessee’s iSchool this fall and reached to interview me for her class. I was excited for the chance to talk about my new gig as a full-time information architect working in the civic tech space.

This is a lightly edited transcript of our interview in September 2023, shared here with her permission.

Erin joins us today to talk about what it’s like to be an information architect within an organization and how IA’s utilize organization, labeling, navigational systems in their day to day. Welcome, Erin.

Thank you. So excited to be here.

I know, we’re really excited to have you. Before we dive into IA, why don’t you tell us a bit about yourself and your career journey?

Yeah, sure. Like like many folks in the tech space, it’s been kind of a winding path for me. I’ve been making websites since 1998, since I was like a teenager. Didn’t really have many friends but I did have a dial-up modem connection!

Eventually I found myself in a graduate program for information science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I knew that I wanted to do digital things and I was really interested in building for the web, but I wanted a theoretical match for that, to understand why we do what we do. I learned a lot and came out on the other side as an academic librarian.

And you know this, because you hired me for my first job!

Okay. I was just thinking about that today. I think you were my first hire ever.

Yeah! It was January of 2009. I interviewed for the job at Virginia Commonwealth University. I came in as a as a web developer, and at that time, “full stack web development” was – the word didn’t exist yet, but that’s basically what I was doing. Web design, web development, a little bit of usability and UX research and a little bit of information architecture.

And then I worked at VCU Libraries for 13 years. When I left I was a department head, leading digital strategy. By the time I was in that role as a department head, I wasn’t so much doing that hands on work anymore. I was leading a team, which I loved. Eventually, though, I was  looking for something new. My family relocated a year ago, my wife got a new job, and I took that as an opportunity to pivot my career.

Over the past 15+ years, the roles in web work have specialized a lot as the field has matured. IA had always been one of, like, 20 things that I’d done as part of my job. When I was job hunting earlier this year I decided to try to go all in on information architecture as a career. There’s not a lot of roles out there; there are a lot more in corporate settings and or in large scale government settings.

I had been interested in entering the federal space for a while, then applied at Ad Hoc, and here we are.

We talked a lot at my last organization about Squiggly Line careers instead of the straight path. It sounds like you’ve definitely been on that journey.

Yeah, once I got rid of that idea that I needed to have a career path that just looked like a graph going up, that it could just sort of meander, and I didn’t necessarily have to manage people in order to advance in a career or feel like I was achieving things – I think that’s when I really was able to embrace an individual contributor role, on a team.

It’s different. My current role is really…it’s been a nice fit so far.

Fantastic. What do you find in this transition to a full-time IA since you had other things in the mix – web design, web development – what’s it like to have this full time IA role? 

Well, for one thing, it feels like kind of a luxury to be able to just focus in on one practice area. With larger digital shops, you have people who are able to really be focused in on their area of expertise. You have people who are content strategists, who are UX researchers, who are developers. So to to really be able to focus in on the practice area of IA has been really great, and it’s allowed my knowledge to increase really rapidly, because I’m doing it every day instead of it being, you know, one of 20 things that I’m worried about.

Another thing I’ve noticed is, there’s a permeable membrane between information architecture and more strategic work on these projects. I’ve started to work on issues at my job that are not just specific to web interfaces or digital products, but that are more 30,000-foot messy information problems. For example, if we are trying to get a handle on a set of concepts, or how to categorize or group clusters of objects, ideas, etc.

It’s been cool to be able to focus on the website, but also to know that there are thorny info problems that really need that IA brain to be able to to conceptualize, put words on things, and be able to move the conversation. It’s about creating that generative space where you get people together talking about something and you’re asking the questions to move the conversation. IAs do that a lot and it’s a skill that really translates.

Yeah, definitely. When you think about, you know, the traditional things that we learn in IA: organizational systems, labeling systems, navigational systems – how does that appear in some of the day-to-day work that you do?

I think about this a lot in day-to-day work. I’m working on a huge federal project and my team specifically is a governance team. So we work with all the other teams that are working on this digital ecosystem to make sure that what they create is consistent based on standards, and that it’s going to be a unified experience for our users.

I’m not necessarily creating site maps or generating user flows, but what I am doing is working with others to give them guidance and review their work, and make sure that we’re all solving good problems.

We talk about organization a lot. One of the cool things about about this project is that we do a lot of user research. We talk to a lot of people and really try to use that research to understand people’s mental models of what they’re doing, understand how they think, how they group items together in their brains so that we can try to match what we’re building to those conceptual models. Everybody’s got a different brain, but you can observe themes and trends and make some decisions based on that.

On the flip side, we’re working often with legacy systems and designs. This isn’t the first time we’re building, a page about a service. There was a page or entire website about that service that was developed 20 years ago. And at the time, the way that we made websites was different. We didn’t have an emphasis on user research. We were building websites that matched our organizational structures.

That’s Conway’s Law, where the software you build matches your org structure pretty much one to one.

Yeah, Conway wrote that in the sixties and we’re still seeing it in a lot of sites.

Yeah, I saw it when I started at VCU! I was joining you in your work and you were like, oh my god, this website is the library org chart, and we need to undo that.

Yep, exactly.

So there’s a lot of legacy work untangling that and reorganizing to better match how people might actually use the site and understand things.

That’s really awesome to hear about the user research. Within this class, we’ve had a lot of emphasis on user research. One group has done a card sort, and they’ve also interviewed each other to try to dig in to how people think about labeling, and really making sense of any mess, to quote Abby the IA. You know, it doesn’t matter whether you’re in a meeting or not; IA is really integral to being able to connect those dots, but also simplify language.

Yeah, absolutely. And I feel like a lot of times the IA is also the person who will be saying, “Okay, I’ve got the 30,000 foot view of the ecosystem. Let’s talk about how how all of it ties together, and how folks might understand the whole picture of what they’re working with.”

UX folks are also going to be asking those questions. There’s a really strong kinship between IA and UX, and also with accessibility. There’s been a huge emphasis on accessibility with my team, which has been great because we’ve been forefronting the needs of folks with disabilities. Not just talking about folks who use screen readers, but folks with mobility issues, with cognitive impairments. Folks who are experiencing the digital product in ways that maybe people who are abled, are not.

So that’s one that’s been one of the really cool things, just seeing how everything sort of threads together.

Absolutely. A few people in this course have pointed out different ways – they watched a video from the 90s from Dan Brown from IDEO, and there were a few things in there that weren’t really thinking about how people with disabilities might use certain things.

Yeah, and there are good articles on A List Apart as well about accessibility in general, but especially designing for cognitive differences.

One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot, especially since COVID, is that folks are dealing with either situational or long term cognitive impacts of COVID. More and more we’re seeing folks who need more considerate design, who need captions along with their videos – not necessarily because they can’t hear the audio, but because they need to be able to read and hear to understand.

So it’s, it’s just been really eye opening, especially in the past few years, how much that accessibility emphasis is coming to the fore. We’re talking about it and we’re making moves in that direction.

But the more time you spend on a product, the more you see that needs to be improved.

It’s UX vs UI. It can be beautiful, but it can be completely unusable.

Exactly. Switching gears just a little bit, how have you designed for search? Especially given your library background, I would imagine that would be a huge part of that, but maybe in your current role as well.

We think about search a lot.

The big search on the brain, of course, is our favorite consumer search engines: Google, Bing, Duck Duck Go, the big ones. We assume that most of our traffic is coming in from search rather than someone saying, “Let me just type in the web address and click  through and find the page.” None of us behave like that anymore. Search is often the default.

So, that encourages us to create digital products that are going to be optimized for search.

The good news is that if you structure your content and your site well for humans, it’ll also be structured well for robots! When you create pages that are accessible and that follow standards, best practices for web creation, that boosts your search engine optimization.

Some of this may be kind of basic information, but things like,

  • Do you use headings to convey the structure of the information?
  • Is there a single level-one heading that is the title of the page?
  • Does the page title that shows up in the browser tab, the title tag, does that clearly reflect what the page is?
  • Is there text on the page that describes, “here’s what this page is about”?
  • Are you using plain language?
  • Are you using clear link text? Instead of links like “click here” or “learn more”, the link describes the its destination.
  • Are you not stuffing your page with keywords, because most larger search engines disregard that, and they actually often weigh against keyword stuffing.

There are other things that can be done in your content management system too, like smart title tags, adding things to the meta description for the page. If you’re using WordPress or something, use an SEO plugin and make sure that you’re structuring things well. Use some of those common navigational elements like breadcrumbs in your theme that’ll show search engines how a site is structured, alongside your site navigation.

So that’s the things that we keep in mind for big search.

Many folks in the class are professional writers, and the things that you brought up about the structure of the page are so important. In an IA class, everyone’s thinking about navigation, but there’s all these other structural elements that you brought up that are really important.

Yeah! The navigability within the page, being able to place make and understand, “What am I looking at?”

Nobody’s reading every single word on a page. I don’t do it. You don’t do it. Nobody reads every single word on the page. So we gotta design for scannability, and use words that aren’t, you know, $12 words.

There’s some really good guidance from about how to write for the web and how to clearly structure things for folks. It not only helps search engines, but it helps your users to access the information quickly.

And, it’s an accessibility thing. It helps folks who maybe have brain fog, or folks who just need something simple and not something clever.

Right! Well, we’re almost at time, but I have a couple last questions for you. You mentioned that IA jobs are, not as abundant as other types of roles. What do you see in some of the challenges and the opportunities for the future?

There’s a ton of opportunities. The joining of the IA and the user experience spheres is very strong. We’ve got a lot of the same concerns. “How are people using our stuff? How can we make it better? Is the interface actually doing what we want it to do?”

One thing I’ve observed, and have been thinking about a lot, is how the web is transforming from this page-based model that we had. Especially in the late nineties, it was like, “Oh, it’s a website. It’s like a book. We have web pages. Sign my guest book.” We used that book mental model to think about the web.

Now, that’s kind of blown up; it’s no longer a thing. We’re having interactions that are nonlinear. We’re having chatbot interactions. Which, chatbots are a whole information architecture tangle. We’ve got people using mobile apps and mobile websites. We’ve got people interacting with different devices in different ways, across entire ecosystems with organizations.

And then we’ve also got third party websites that have information about us. So, you know, Google has information about us. But also we might have a page on Facebook or some other site where we have claimed a page.

So being able to tie that all together in a meaningful way, and to have consistent correct information, is the challenge.

One other thing that I’ll say: I’ve learned recently about Object Oriented UX, which is similar to information architecture in that it steps back from the interface part of the UX and is asking, “What are people’s mental models? What kind of objects to people envision in their brains in this space?”

That object oriented UX approach allows you to then operationalize within an interface, but it’s much more abstracted, and that’s where I really think IA is headed.

This has been amazing. I think everyone is gonna learn so much from you in this session. Is there anything else you wanted to add before we sign off?

I’m glad you said that. I would say, consider government service. There’s a ton of good work to be done, there’s a lot more attention to it recently, and there’s some legislation coming through about technology modernization that will increase the amount of funding. So there are ways to get in, especially if you’re in UX writing and content strategy.

With government work, you’re not necessarily worried about selling something. You’re worried about, are people getting what they need?

It’s mission-driven work and can be really satisfying. So, a little plug for public service.

Gov tech is taking off. I’ve noticed it too, and many of the things that we’ve looked at in class, examples for personas, we’ve pulled from Gov.UK. We’ve also pulled some examples from the USDA, which has an amazing customer experience site. So I think that definitely is helping to amp up government sector.

Yes! Gov.UK is excellent. They’re really leading the charge on a lot of civic tech and design things. Good work being done.

Thank you so much. We really appreciate it and I think this is going to be just amazing for the students.

Thanks so much for asking me.