Meet Abby Covert, Information Architect
“UX” is often used as an umbrella term to describe a user’s end-to-end experience with your site i.e. how they feel when using and interacting with it. The design of this experience involves numerous processes that often overlap but are each their own concept: content strategy, interaction design, visual design, just to name a few. And of course – information architecture.
Information architecture is an incredibly important part of UX. It’s the creation of a structure for your site; organizing the information in a way that helps users understand where they are as well as what they need to do (or where they need to go) to complete their task. Users need clarity, and IA helps structure and organize your site to achieve this. Without this, your users would be left confused, frustrated, and unlikely to return.
We sat down with Abby Covert, an independent Information Architect and author of the book “How to Make Sense of Any Mess” to get her insights on IA, its role within UX, and what makes her so passionate about it.
For our readers who aren’t familiar with IA, can you tell us what you do?
Sure! I help companies make structural and linguistic decisions so that user experiences are stronger and more well-founded towards the company’s intention.
So you could say IA plays an important part in UX?
Absolutely! There’s not a UX professional out there who isn’t practicing IA. They might not always know the terms but it’s still something that a UX designer is doing all the time. They’re dividing the product, service or website into a number of different places. They’re deciding what the labels are for the places, they’re determining the structures and paths that are enabling users to move through those places, and they’re doing all of that under the intention of the company and the understanding of users.
What’s the big difference between handling projects as a whole and just from an IA perspective?
I’d say it’s about resolution. In IA, I take work that clients need to a fairly high level of fidelity. When it comes to the resolution, when I’m done as an Information Architect, it doesn’t look like it’s going to look for a user. When a UX team works on a project, they’re responsible for not only the fidelity but also the resolution.
How do companies, especially those in the ecommerce sector, and enterprise companies benefit from an IA strategy?
I think that a lot of ecommerce companies fail to understand the importance of language and structure in the work that they deliver to their customers. I’m working on an ecommerce site right now and it’s almost like they think that the patterns alone that come out of their ecommerce platform are going to make it be good. And in fact, what’s going to make it be good is the tuning of it, very specifically, to what they are selling. Some examples of that would be – understanding the effect of over-categorization (when you have just way too many choices for people to go in), and the effect that organizational charts tend to have on categorization – where instead of categorizing your products by how users think about them, you’re categorizing them by how you pay people at your company to mind the farm. The marrying of these 2 realities – how things look and how people are able to find things – is what can make ecommerce sites fail or succeed.
This sounds like there can be conflict between IA/UX and other departments. How do you approach this?
I’ve definitely experienced the conflict. I’ve had times where my taxonomies have been discarded by designers who had been asked to work with them. I think for the most part the reason that that happens is because those designers did not feel like they were a part of the process in creating the taxonomies. I’ve definitely learned over time that I need to identify, in my projects, who is going to be affected by the work that I’m doing, and I need to bring them along on the path with me.
How do you communicate the value of IA to others?
Oh my gosh, I talk about it all the time! Anybody who’ll give me a microphone, a Skype line or a blog post, I make sure to talk about it. And this is because i’ve seen the effect that it has when people know about it. For the junior UX designer that is beating their head up against the wall with their 72 revisions of a wireframe, in a 10 minutes conversation with me after a conference talk, I see lightbulbs go off for them. They’re like “oh, so if I had solved some of these issues of agreement around what things mean and what things are, and how things might be structured, earlier, before I did these wireframes, I wouldn’t be on revision 72. I would have saved so much time and so much energy. It’s seeing the effect of talking about it to people and educating people on it and also knowing the effect that had on me as a young designer.
Is that what makes you passionate about IA, helping things make sense to other people?
Yeah! I think that the world is very unclear in many cases and information architecture is a way of seeing clarity where there is none. I think if I can teach more people to do that be more comfortable both with ambiguity and the resolution of that ambiguity, I feel like the world would be a better place. It’s what makes me happy!
What can you tell us about the IA process in agile environments?
I actually had an experience with a company that is completely agile. One of the things I learned through doing that, If you can do the IA in public, you can get through an agile environment a lot more swiftly. Instead of having a bunch of discovery meetings and going back to my batcave to work on things alone, we did everything in a facilitated manner where we came up with things in the room and we defined things as much as possible together. I then made a set of google docs that were open to the entire company and we hosted a one day collaborative session. During this session we broke the company up into teams and had them working on pieces of the user experience that were suffering from Information Architecture challenges.
You’ve used the cookie example in your book to illustrate how people can interpret things differently, do you have a business example where this has happened on a company’s website?
I was working with a company and In my heuristic evaluation I highlighted for them that as a customer I didn’t feel like I could easily find and understand pricing information, and because of that I had assumed that perhaps customers thought that it was a very expensive product. It created a lot of immediate reaction from the Marketing team that was in the room when I was giving this presentation. They were one of the least expensive alternatives on the market and wanted to showcase the value of the product instead of the cost. Their pricing page was buried because they had prioritized value over pricing. But by deprioritizing the price so much, they made themselves seem very expensive. They had also driven a lot of customer service volume, because people couldn’t find the pricing information and were calling to enquire. Nevermind the perception value of the customer not finding what they want, this company was spending time and money on people answering the phones.
You’ll be one of the key speakers at the Swedish UX event for Business to Buttons this month. What will you be speaking about?
(Surprise!) I’m going to be talking about Information Architecture. I’ll be giving a talk on the main conference stage about the three lessons for making sense of anything. Which are three lessons coming out of my book. I will also be giving a full day workshop that will be about giving people the chance to really learn the nuts and bolts about facilitating information architecture decision-making within their organization. So it’s going to be a combination of longer form lectures on some of the concepts behind IA and some hands-on exercises on understanding the importance of language and structure. It’s going to be a lot of fun!