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Bulletin, December/January 2010


IA Column
 
Making a Profound Impact

by Thom Haller

Thom Haller, the Bulletin’s new associate editor for information architecture, is a speaker, writer, user advocate and teacher of principles of performance-based information architecture and usability. Since 1998, Thom has taught classes on architecting usable web/Intranet sites. As a teacher, Thom enables students to structure information so people can find it, use it and appreciate the experience. He can be reached at thom<at>thomhaller.com

I’m sitting with my elderly parents at the lunch table. My mother folds the newspaper, hands it to me and says, “You’ll find sad news in here.” “Oh, no, an obituary?” I ask and then read of the sudden passing of an 87-year-old woman I had known for seven months. Actually, I had not really known her for seven months. I merely met her seven months ago when she shared a rehabilitation room with my mother following their respective surgeries. Yet Wanda’s passing was a surprise. I would often think of her as I drove near her house, and she had come up in conversation the day before. Despite her age we didn’t think of her as someone who would pass away following a “sudden illness.” 

I don’t take well to sad news. So I raked leaves. Drank bourbon. Rubbed my eyes a lot. And tried to figure out why I felt moved by Wanda’s passing. What was it about Wanda? I only spent “visiting hours” with her for one week. Yet I felt a big loss.

After some reflection, I suspect I appreciated Wanda’s big spirit, unorthodox nature and robust energy. I also realized that, in a short time, she made a profound impact on me. 

And that’s why I’m mentioning this story in my new Bulletin column. I always wanted work that made a profound impact on others. I gravitated to the field of information architecture because I was attracted to the profound impact available to practitioners in this field.

Years ago, when I was beginning work as an information architect, I was sitting at a local café. I listened to a young woman, a recent college graduate (or so I assumed as someone dipping into her conversation), who sat nearby describing her work-world frustrations to her father. “Don’t you see, I don’t want to be a marketer,” she whined. “I want to be in a field where I can help people.” 

“Information architects help people,” I might have blurted. 
Surprisingly, I didn’t. 

As a teacher I get to evangelize about the possibilities inherent in our work as information architects. I show a photo of Thom, grumpy in his mauve cubicle, with the text: “Early work days. Often built deliverables nobody wanted to use.” The slides show a problem with the process – how the contracts define and the attention is paid to the deliverable, not to the use of the product or site.

As information architects we tend to build a lot of deliverables – products we provide to communicate design (preferred) or clarify the end of a period of work (costly). Deliverables can be fascinating and useful. But the profound impact of our work takes place at the moment someone is able to use a product or content we have helped develop.

I see we do our best work when we think about the helping humans. Although I have attended eight IA summits, I’ve only attended one ASIS&T Annual Meeting. But I do recall the enthusiasm that practitioners brought to their case studies on helping people retrieve information. I wonder if our enthusiasm for helping others differentiates us from other professionals. 
How profound is our impact? I’m still trying to learn that, but I think it’s a question worth addressing. I’m hoping this column provides me a space to investigate and articulate that question. And perhaps, synthesize and share some answers.

Help me out:

  • Do you see your work having a profound impact? If so, how? If not, why not? 
     
  • Do you find inherent possibilities in your work? Do you share these with others? How?
     
  • Is helping people part of the reason you pursued your schooling or professional choices?
     
  • How do you perceive information architecture – especially as someone who didn’t enter the field from a design or user experience perspective?