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Dan Brown on IA Lenses

“For art, we have the language of aesthetics. For IA, what do we have?”

Dan Brown is the co-founder of UX design studio EightShapes. He’s also the author of Communicating Design, Designing Together, and Practical Design Discovery. In this conversation, we focus on Dan’s Information Architecture Lenses, a set of cards that help designers interrogate IA decisions.

Show notes

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Read the transcript

Jorge: Dan, welcome to the show.

Dan: Jorge, it’s fantastic to be here. Thanks so much for having me.

Jorge: It’s such a pleasure to have you here. I believe that you are one of the very first people I ever met in person in the information architecture community. And I am not going to reveal the year because that’s going to peg us as old, but, I’ve known you for a long time, Dan.

Dan: It has been a long time and I love it! It never occurred to me that I would end up in a field where there would be a community and that community would be strong enough where I would have relationships with folks for decades. Do you know what I mean? Like to me, that is one of these unsung parts of the world that we find ourselves in. I don’t know if that’s still true. Like, I don’t know if you become a UX designer today if you’d still feel that same sense of community, but for me it was… it’s been one of these aspects of being in this world that I have come to appreciate more and more with each passing year.

Jorge: Hear, hear! It’s been a true privilege to be part of this community. And to… like you’re saying to have these very long-standing relationships with people who have a real commitment and passion to the discipline. And I certainly place you in that category. Now, it’s clear from what we’re saying here that we know each other, but some folks tuning in might not know who you are. How do you go about introducing yourself?

About Dan

Dan: Yeah, that’s… it depends on who I’m talking to, but in the field, I will say that I run a small web design and user experience design company. It’s kind of a boutique shop, based in the DC area. Most of my professional career has been in the Washington DC area and I specialize in information architecture but also the discovery process, as part of the design, and I like thinking about… let’s call it, sort of the dirty underbelly of the design process. So how do we work together effectively and how do we improve our collaboration and how do we embrace the mindsets that are essential for creativity and collaboration.

Jorge: You have written three books on the dirty underbelly, in part. And, you also share a first and last name with another writer, which might be problematic for folks searching for your books, which is an IA problem.

Dan: Yeah. It’s… you know what? As long as they eventually find me, I’m okay with that. Actually, my hope is that people go searching for that other Dan Brown, and they discover me. So, you know, it works both ways, honestly.

IA Lenses

Jorge: That’s great. Well, I’m going to include links to your books in the show notes, but the books aren’t what bring us together today. Rather, I wanted to talk with you about your Information Architecture Lenses, which started…. why, I think I first encountered them as a Medium post?

Dan: Yes.

Jorge: But then they manifested as a set of cards, and I’m holding the deck in my hands right now. And they’ve gone on to take on other forms, and I was hoping that you would tell us about the cards and the forms they’ve taken and where they come from and everything about it.

Dan: Yeah, yeah. I think I unveiled them at the IA conference in 2018, I want to say, and I honestly don’t remember what city it was in. But I gave a talk on the lenses, and really what it was a talk about was typical information architecture problems and the lack of tooling that we information architects have, in doing our work.

We’ve got tools that help us test IA, like tree testing. We’ve got tools that help us do some investigation, like card sorting. And everyone will talk about how they use spreadsheets to think about categorization. But I think the complexity and the abstractness of the spaces in which we work, make it difficult for us to really meaningfully have tools to help us do the work.

And one of the things that I realized while I do IA work, is that I ask myself a lot of questions. And so I will ask sort of, “what if” questions. Like, what if we create a new piece of content, where does it fit? Or I’ll ask myself how might questions like, “How might someone who’s new to this product navigate through it, or be introduced to it?” I’ll ask questions about how do we balance the needs of users with the needs of the business.

So, I realized that I have all of these questions, and so I just started writing them down. And as I’ve said before, I just couldn’t stop. Like I just… I thought I’d maybe have a dozen, and I kept writing. And I realized that even though some of these questions are overlapping, they each provide a unique perspective or a meaningful, distinct perspective. And it comes from my instinct to try and understand how I do what I do, and how other people do what they do.

My hypothesis is that we all… information architects, you know, people think in a systems sort of way. Even designers look at something and ask ourselves questions about it. But we don’t always know… can’t always say it out loud or don’t know exactly what question we’re asking. But that’s sort of the mechanism. And so, I started writing down and then elaborating on them and then giving them names, and that turned into this set of lenses with the cards, which turned into a talk, which turned into an interview, series, which I completed over the summer.

Jorge: And the interview series manifests in two ways, right? There’s a set of videos on YouTube and now there’s a podcast, yes?

Dan: Yeah. Basically, I recorded it… and this is purely an old dog refusing to learn new tricks. Like I figured out a couple of years ago, how to post videos to YouTube. I could record an interview session via Zoom and I can post it to YouTube. I learned that through some other hobbies that I have outside the business.

And I was like, okay, “well I can just do this.” And then I realized that I could just grab the audio from those videos, and I found an easy way to post it as a podcast, and so this is… it’s literally like to me, the content is what’s important. To me, kind of hearing from 50 different people about information architecture, is what’s important. So finding easy ways to get it out there, was my priority.

Jorge: Well, that’s great. And I want to circle back to this idea of the lenses as tools. And you mentioned that in information architecture we have certain tools that we… or what we think of as tools, right? You talked about spreadsheets and tree jack tests and card sorts. In just those three there’s kind of practical tools. Like, a spreadsheet is an app, right? Like a tangible thing that you can… well, tangible as far as a digital artifact goes, but something that you can open and examine, much in the way that you can pick up a hammer to do stuff. And, a card sort is more of a practice, but that is also kind of tool-like. But the lenses I see not in that realm, but more as kind of conceptual tools, right? Is that the intent there?

Lenses as conceptual tools

Dan: Yeah, I guess each of those is used at a different part of the process. So to your point, some of them are more like methods that we apply in certain moments. And I felt like there were no tools; there was no conceptual tooling to help us think through the complexities of the structures that we’re designing. We could visualize them, yes. We could try and lay them out as best we could in a diagramming program. But really the word I’ve been using is interrogating them. Like really, really doing the work of a creative person, which is to sort of look at something that we built and ask ourselves, “Is this good?” You know, for art, we have the language of aesthetics. For IA, what do we have? And this was, I guess, my swipe at that, right? It’s sort of my attempt to give us that.

Jorge: And folks who might not have seen the lenses might be wondering how these things manifest. And I’ll give an example. I pulled out one of the cards from the deck here just randomly, and it is titled, “Comprehensiveness.”

Dan: Yep.

Jorge: And it says, “the navigation should encompass the entire domain, especially if users come with pre-existing expectations about the domain. If it doesn’t, it should be clear what is excluded.” And then it lists a series of questions that you can ask yourself to assess the comprehensiveness of the structure that you’re working with, right?

Dan: Right.

Jorge: And there’s 51 of them currently, yes?

Dan: Yeah, 51 cards. 51 lenses. Yep.

Jorge: You use the phrase, “interrogating them,” which I loved. It makes me think of something like the… Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards. He did them with someone else; Peter Schmidt, I think, is the name of the artist that he worked with. It sounds almost oracular, like the I Ching or something like that.

Dan: Yes.

Using the Lenses

Jorge: So, what I’m getting by that is that the intent of the deck is when faced with some kind of… let’s call it “architectural conundrum,” you consult the cards. Is that the idea?

Dan: Yeah, I think there are at least two ways I conceive of using these things. One is sort of the way I had to do a lot of my work early in my career, which is, I was not encountering a lot of folks who were good at systems thinking. And so I developed these questions so I could have a dialogue with someone, i.e., myself, about the work. I would design a structure and I would then serve the role of a critique person rather than a design person and try and critique it. So, the intent is to give you that voice — to give you the voice of another designer who might look at this thing and ask these kinds of questions, because you’re too close to it to ask them yourself.

Another mode of using these is to facilitate a conversation, which is not something that I had intended or really thought about when I designed them, but as I get feedback from folks, they are indicating that they bring these cards to meetings so that they can put them out on the table, and have people zero in on maybe what their chief concerns are. Or challenge people to ask questions about the structure. So, it ends up being a tool for facilitating conversations that are otherwise maybe difficult to facilitate or unstructured or hard for folks because they don’t have the range of experience that they need to facilitate these conversations.

Jorge: Well that’s really fascinating. I’m really intrigued by this notion that the lenses are a catalyst for conversation either between groups of people, or in groups of people, or with yourself. I find that really fascinating. And the way that I imagine that would play out… I mean, I’ve used them myself, but not in a group setting. And in a group setting, I would imagine that you would want to be able to gravitate to the lens that is most appropriate to the issue under discussion, yeah?

Dan: Yeah. I mean I think so. The other thing that I’ve heard is that people will use it to highlight issues with the team that they feel like the team is not adequately paying attention to. So, I did try and include… you know, there’s a lens of ethics in there, and there’s a lens of who benefits. And these are difficult conversations for folks to have when they look at their structures of their designing and are really trying to ask themselves, am I really designing this for the users, the actual consumers of this content? Or am I designing this with some other bias in mind?

I’m working with an organization right now. I have the opportunity to provide some IA coaching which has really just been very gratifying for me, but it’s really interesting to see them struggle with getting out of their own heads, getting out of their own space, and design a structure that will be meaningful to the actual end-users — to use an antiquated term — of this system. And even just in our first few conversations, just by virtue of explaining the system to me, just that process of explaining it, they have been able to see their navigation in a new way and understand how they need to bring new perspectives to the table.

Jorge: So, it’s kind of a framework for the articulation of things that might otherwise go unspoken.

Dan: Yes. Well said.

IA Lenses video series

Jorge: That’s awesome. Well, speaking of making things spoken, let’s talk about the first video series and now podcast. You’ve interviewed different practitioners and released a video, one on each lens.

Dan: Yes.

Jorge: And, the range of practitioners is both wide and deep. And I’m hoping that you’ll tell us a bit more about the video series, how that came about. And more importantly, I’m curious to know how your understanding of the lenses themselves has perhaps shifted or evolved, after hearing them reflected from other people.

Dan: Oh, yeah. I wish I had a better origin story for the video series. I was wrapping up a project in the late spring and I saw in front of me that I would have a gap in time. I just, I didn’t have a project to fill it, and I was thinking, “that’s fine. I’ve just rolled off this really big project.”

I have a business partner at EightShapes, Nathan, and he and I frequently give each other permission to take some time to think about our practice or think about our portion of the business or what have you. He was very encouraging of me to not necessarily worry about filling my plate with billable work, but just think more deeply about…

At that moment, I was really interested in thinking more about IA and the IA practice, and the phrase “a lens a day,” popped into my head. And I pitched it to my colleagues at EightShapes and they asked me a lot of really, really, really good questions. And I’m a middle-aged man and did not heed any of their wisdom. And instead said, “you know, I’m just going to do this. I’m going to see what happens.” So I was about to go off on my summer vacation, and what I did was I kind of put together a pitch, an email that I sent to folks, and a Google Form… I think it was a Google Form or a Calendly or something, to sign up, and I had recorded a pilot episode.

So, the first episode I recorded with my old friend James Melzer, also at EightShapes. And the point was just to see like, could I get a 20-minute conversation out of a lens? And it was not really a good test because James and I can talk for 20 minutes about anything. But it was still enough for me to feel like this could be a thing. And then the Calendly signups started rolling in and I was like, “Oh, I think I need to do this now!”

And I would record sometimes ten episodes a week because they were quick little half-hour conversations. And I would change my shirt each time, to maintain the illusion that I was recording a lens a day. And then a couple of weeks after that, I just started posting them. And it was incredibly gratifying.

It was just fantastic to talk to so many different people. I mean, I got to talk to folks like you, Jorge. You know, old friends, people that we’ve known for a while that we don’t always get to dig in and talk shop. Like, really talk about the work that we do.

One of the last interviews I did was with Karen McGrane and that was just so great. You know, we’ve… again like two ships passing in the night, we’ve seen each other at conferences year after year. See each other on various Slack groups, but here to just sit down and talk about the work was awesome. But then I also contacted folks who I barely knew, and just had been following on Twitter, and seen Tweet about information architecture stuff. Folks who were relatively new to the field, and relative meaning three to four to five years into their career, as opposed to twenty-five years in.

And for me, it became an opportunity to do the thing that I get to do at the IA Conference, which is meet new people in a very controlled, safe environment. And have a very specific agenda for that conversation. And that was great. It was really… it was really great. You asked me if I now see these lenses in a new way, and I think it’s really hard for me to think about that at the individual lens level.

I do feel like a lot of my feelings about the world of information architecture were validated. And maybe that is not a good objective for a podcast, but maybe it’s what I need at this moment. But one of the things that people talked a lot about was curiosity and how that plays such an important role in their work and their process, in their identity as an information architect. And that was really gratifying to hear how important just questioning the world was to folks. But also finding joy in… which is what I take curiosity to be, is sort of finding joy in uncovering and learning.

Jorge: Finding joy in finding out.

Dan: Yes. Exactly. Exactly. So I’m not sure I can point to any specific lens on say, “Oh, I got a ton of new insights about this lens in particular.” What was cool was no one looked at a lens and was like, “I have nothing to say about this.” Or if they did, like a couple of people did say that, and then when we got into it and I had a million things to say about it. So, there was also some validation that these lenses as a framework were useful and provocative in the way that I had hoped they would be.

Jorge: Part of what I see as the value of the series is that it gives these lenses wider exposure. And I’m wondering what kind of reaction you’ve had from folks, perhaps folks who might not be as aware about information architecture. Have you heard about anyone who’s discovered this through the series?

Dan: No. That would be ideal, right? If I were to outline what my objectives were, And, I mean the dirty little secret is, the idea for “A Lens A Day” popped into my head, and then I backed into these objectives. And if you listen to the conversations, you’ll hear that the lens plays really just a… kind of a narrative role in sort of propelling the conversation. I don’t force anyone to talk about things that they don’t want to talk about — I hope! And I don’t sort of force us to come back to the lens if, you know, the conversation goes in a different way. It’s really just an excuse. It was literally just an excuse to talk to fifty-one different people and maybe dig a little deeper on information architecture.

So, that was my goal was to talk to as many folks as I could, and maybe create some momentum around deep thinking around information architecture. I don’t know if I was successful in that goal. There’s interest. People are subscribing. People are listening. I get some nice comments and feedback on it.

At the end of the day, it was maybe as much for the interview subjects as it was for the listeners, right? It was as much for them to give them a place to talk about the work that they do. I’m happy to use whatever cache and platform I have to provide that. That is important to me, to lift up other voices.

One of the things that occurred to me way after the fact was that this is a snapshot. It’s almost a time capsule of where the state of information architecture is in 2021. And I understood the… or I imbued — I don’t know if I understood, but I certainly imbued the work and the series with a sense of importance, because I recognized that even if it doesn’t create any momentum, what it is doing is capturing where we are right now with the practice of information architecture. And to me, in some ways that was almost more important or at least equally important to thinking of this as a vehicle for promoting IA or promoting myself or promoting the lenses.

Jorge: Would you be willing to share with us your impressions of what that snapshot looks like?

Dan: Yeah, and I do want to do a deep dive and look through things. I did try and capture some themes as I was recording the interviews. So, as I said, curiosity is one of the big ones. I think there are two things that stand out to me and that is — and again, the sample that I was working with was you could say biased because it was just people who said yes to some random guy emailing them — but two things stand out to me, one very positive and one very concerning.

The positive one is that people see this work is highly collaborative. I think I was forged in the fires of being a sole practitioner of IA. And one of the things that was very clear when I first moved to Washington and started practicing IA here is how desperate we all were for collaborators. And what I’m hearing today is that is largely changed. I would ask people like… I did ask people about their collaboration practices, right? So I was sort of biasing the conversation in that direction and then about halfway through, I was like, “okay, well, let me change up my first question.” and let me… instead of asking about how do you draw people into the process? Let me ask, “What does it look like when you’re just sitting in thinking deeply about IA?” And this is not a knock on my guests, but none of them could answer that question because they would all say, “Well, I’ll usually go and talk to someone.”

And I’m thinking to myself, that is literally not what I’m asking, but it is very telling, right? That when they’re doing IA work, their instinct is to draw other people into that process. Even though I can say for certain that a lot of… you know, that there’s still a good portion of my IA process that involves just sitting and staring at a spreadsheet and building connections in my head. So, that was one thing that I really appreciated: that there’s an acknowledgment that this is complicated work and that it needs to be collaborative.

I think the other thing that occurred to me is that the fears that I have about the lack of emphasis or the lack of resources that are being given to IA are still very much true. I interviewed very few people who called themselves an information architect; they were either UX practitioners who did IA, or they were content strategists. Which was by design, right? I wanted a wide swath, but it became very clear to me that IA is still something that a few people do and draw other people into that process, but there’s not as much dedication to it in the organizations that probably really need it.

when I’ve come to realize… actually, maybe this is one of the things that I realized through this interview series, is that information architecture is yes, in part, interrogating your structures, answering these kinds of questions. But sometimes the answers are framed in terms of trade-offs, and that by doing one thing in the navigation, we’re not doing another thing, right? Or creating content types in one… you know, following one scheme, are deliberately choosing not to do it in another way.

And so my next project, the next tool that I’m thinking about for information architects, is understanding what those trade-offs are. And I mean, like everything in my life, I’m conceiving of it as a deck of cards where, you can sort of make provocative choices of, you know, if you’re thinking about how to structure the items in your menu, one choice that you can make is that all the items have the same weight and another choice that you can make is that some items are weighted more heavily in that menu right? That’s a trade-off that you would make.

And so, I’m really, really curious about identifying the range of tradeoffs that we make when we’re designing a structure. So, that’s one direction that I think this has provoked me to go in, and another direction that it’s provoked me to go and hopefully I can do this — find the stamina to do this — is to keep up the series and keep interviewing people. It will not necessarily focus on specific lenses, because I think I’ve done that. But I do like the idea of having people help us understand the lens through which they see the practice of information architecture. So I will… my intent is to pick up on that theme and keep going with it, but using the lens metaphor to turn our attention to the practice of IA itself.

Closing

Jorge: I’m sure that folks are going to want to find out more and keep up with all the work that you’re doing. Where can folks follow up with you?

Dan: For better, for worse, I’m still enmeshed in Twitter. And so I think my handle on Twitter is @brownorama and I tweet a lot of work-related stuff, but also hobby-related stuff. The IA Lenses have their own Twitter account. It’s @IAlenses. And that may be better if you just want pure IA content in your timeline. Yeah. And EightShapes has a YouTube channel. I don’t know how to tell you where to find it, but EightShapes… you can see the interviews on EightShapes’ YouTube channel, or you can look @IAlenses’ Twitter to see links to the podcasts as well.

Jorge: And I will include links to all of those, including the YouTube channel, in the notes.

Dan: Thanks.

Jorge: Well, fantastic. Dan, it’s been such a pleasure having you here. Thank you for sharing with us.

Dan: Jorge, I love chatting with you. I just wish we could find more excuses to do this throughout the year.

Jorge: Well, let’s do that. Let’s make sure to do it again.

Dan: Cool.