Thoughts about IA’s role vs. title and the future of the UX group
This isn’t what I threatened to blog about yesterday, but it’s on my mind now, so here goes.
How to structure a user experience team is something I’ve been thinking about as of late. Related to that, obviously, is a role of each member on the team. Currently, all members of the UX team at POP are called information architects, and we (including myself) all perform information architecture tasks day-to-day.
But that’s not all. I feel like we do so much more, and the label of IA doesn’t always adequately describe everything we do. We’re starting to see IA as a service or a task instead of a role. Other tasks might include user interface design, usability testing, user research, and here’s the part that begs for some clear delineation — strategizing with clients about their online marketing goals.
For a while now, many folks have been talking about the impact a designer can make on not only the design decisions, but on business decisions that clients make. In the product world, IDEO and Frog come to mind as the pioneers in this area. In the online world, Luke Wroblewski has been talking and presenting about this for quite some time.
The debate about IA’s title/definition is not exactly new, either. As long as I’ve been an IA (since 2000) all listservs and discussion platforms I’ve been part of see this topic flare up at maybe about once every three months. I never paid much attention, because I always liked the term IA and I understood it just fine for what I did for my career. Lucky for me, I suppose then, that the title of “IA” seems to have gained sufficient traction and acceptance inside the industry, and most people these days have a pretty consistent understanding of what an IA does.
And personally, this strategy thing never really came into my career path until the last year or two. I don’t doubt that it’s always been a part of some other IA professionals’ skillset or responsibility. But not me, and not most other IAs I have worked with. And if helping clients with figuring out their digital strategy was always part of being an IA, it was always done implicitly as far as I could tell — like it’s a byproduct of our real focus which is creating excellent user experience — rather than an explicit offering. But like I said, that’s been changing lately, at least at POP.
So I’ve learned that it’s important to recognize being a UX-minded strategist as one of the essential skills for a member on a UX team, along with being a good IA and researcher. Perhaps I should refer to this role as — hmm — UX strategist, or maybe take a step back and call it UX designer.
But here’s the dilemma. I also think that while anyone can learn the skill of providing strategy work for clients, not everyone would want to take their career in that direction. Some UX designers/IAs want to focus on solving complex UI problems rather than being involved in stakeholder-level meetings and presentations. I personally see that as a fork in the road for UX designers and IAs, and the two options are not hierarchical, but rather two equally valuable roles within a company with multiple offerings. I say it’s a dilemma because I think it’s a simple matter of personal interest. And because the two paths stem from the same set of basic UX design skills, one path should not be automatically associated with a higher pay grade. But most places consider strategy-related work to be of higher value than the “tactical” task of solving UI/IA problem, no matter how complex. (I think how you determine the value of each role should match the type of work your company is interested in taking on.)
I would stress that all UX designers should be familiar with and practice a certain level of strategy-minded approach. But as a UX designer’s career progresses, I think there can be different paths for someone who wants to focus on providing strategic value for clients from UX point of view, and someone who wants to focus on solving that great UI puzzle so users can get the job done easily and efficiently.
I don’t have the answers yet, and I’d imagine this will be a moving target because other issues play into how you create a structure for a team. Unless you’re starting from scratch with no ceiling, you’re always dealing with an optimal head count for your workload and the levels/skills/preferences of your existing team members.
But by recognizing that there is a fork in the road, and that it’s OK to have specialties under the umbrella of UX team, I feel like I’m starting to have a clearer idea of how to prepare ourselves in the coming months or years ahead. POP is definitely growing, and it’s exciting to be able to take part in shaping the company’s future.