Familiar Patterns, a Conversation with Andrew Hinton (3/3)

Familiar Patterns: A Conversation with Andrew Hinton

Andrew Hinton is the author of Understanding Context, on how information creates and shapes context, and what that means for design.

We had the chance to interview him after UX Week 2015.

Here’s the final part of our conversation. You can find part one here.

Where Do You Fit in the Software Development Cycle?

In built environment architecture, they have something that at one time they called programming. It was basically getting together with the people who were going to make and use the building or whatever it was, and decide, what’s the purpose of this, and what do you need out of it?

Going through some very high level talk about structure is a way to suss out completely what decisions, definitions, and priorities really mean.

When I worked with The Understanding Group, we did that with our clients in every possible engagement that we could.

Then it went through the analysis and synthesis work where we go out and we do research and all of that.

As far as my own skills, and the way my career has developed, I’m somewhat of a generalist. I do all the user experience things. I don’t code, because I’m terrible at it, so if somebody else can code, let them do it.

I don’t do pixels, either, for similar reasons. But in terms of figuring out structure and priority and definition and to some degree some interface quirks, I’m still doing all of that. Even when I’m primarily doing interaction design, I’m doing it with an architectural perspective of how these interactions fit into some larger multi-interface reality.

What Does an Information Architect Do from 9-to-5?

Well, most people doing IA aren’t called information architects. Sometimes you’ve got people doing a lot of information architecture but they are business analysts. And they don’t necessarily even call it that.

Or you have people who are called information architects and they are really just wire framers. And they aren’t asked to figure out anything systemically. They are just asked to do one thing after another based on some requirements which I don’t think is Information Architecture.

So I think it’s really impossible to say what an information architect does day to day.

[An Information Architect], I think, is someone who wants to bring some of the best of what has come out of the discourse of information architecture in terms of the community of practice around it and the on-going evolution of what it is. They are bringing a systemic structural perspective to their work. They are always thinking about the next one, or two, or three contexts beyond the current focus.

Early on in the information architecture community, I was obsessed with this idea of what we are doing when we “do information architecture.”  I honestly grappled with the question: “Why do we need to call something information architecture?” If we are already doing it when we are doing interaction design or some other practice, then we don’t need a separate name for IA.

But I do think there’s a domain of work that isn’t covered by the other disciplines, at least not as their main focus. Making sure everything makes sense as a whole, and the preoccupation with what things are, where they go, and how they are connected … to me that’s the work of IA, regardless of whatever job title you might have or what part of the design lifecycle you’re assigned to.

In the End, All this Complex Information Turns into What Kind of Deliverable?

To some degree, information architecture uses language, spatial diagrams maps, and models.  You are basically creating structured understanding with language or “semantic information” which is what I call it in the book. And semantic information is made of signifiers.   So anything that helps bring clarity and coherence to the way people make sense of their environment, or to the work of design itself, counts as an IA deliverable of sorts, to me.

A lot of the work of IA is about making invisible things visible.

So you work to understand what the hidden, tacit stuff is in a project situation, for example, then you   pull it out and name it and put a shape to it. And show that it relates to the other big things. IA delivery is about understanding how to bring clarity using a lot of mapping, modeling, and diagramming. They are really powerful tools for that.

Then when you start getting into things like making screens, wireframes, and stuff—I really consider that to be more interaction design  But IA needs it in order to say, here is what all of that structured meaning is and here is the reality of a thing.  Here is how that structure is going to be represented in a UI, or in the way my Fitbit listens to what I do when I’m walking around.

What Is Your Advice for Designers Jumping into Information Architecture?

Rather than worrying about what any of this is called, the question is whether you have an itch to scratch.  Are you motivated to understand the broader context of what you are doing?

If that doesn’t matter to you, fine. Just work on that thing. But if you are interested in those kinds of questions and you want to be a part of figuring them out, then start doing it. And the way to do that is to look around and see how this thing you’re working on connects to everything else.

Before you know it, you are going to have to write it down, so you start mapping it.

And then you start asking people questions, like, I was mapping how this fits in here and here but you are calling this over here. Just trying to understand your own map, you’re going to have conversations with people to try to get to the bottom of what things means.

Before you know it, you are doing information architecture whether that’s what you call it or not. Because you are figuring out meaning and structure in a systemic way.

Be curious. Start asking questions. Try to figure out how a thing fits into everything else.

Don’t just work within the boxes you are given. Maybe you need to be a pain about what you want to do.

You go and you say, ‘Here is the value I can bring if you let me do this extra piece of work.’

That’s hard for most bosses and clients to turn down unless you are trying to charge too much or something.

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About Andrew

Andrew Hinton, formerly a Senior Information Architect at The Understanding Group, LLC, is now  Senior Digital Experience Architect at State Farm. He’s the author of Understanding Context from O’Reilly Media, and a frequent speaker and workshop leader in the United States, Europe, and beyond.

Over the years, he’s worked with clients and employers of all shapes and sizes, including Kimberly-Clark, RF Micro Devices, SRC.org, Vanguard, Sealy and Lowe’s Home Improvement. You can find more information at andrewhinton.com.

Audio with Interactive Transcript

You can listen the my conversation with Andrew, recorded live.

And Finally…

For more, you can contact Misael Leon at [email protected].

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