IA Summit 2013: Karen McGrane’s Closing Plenary
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This podcast is Karen McGrane’s full presentation from the 2013 IA Summit.
Technology changes quickly. A lot of organizations struggle to keep up with this change. It’s not just mobile design that’s throwing a wrench in the spokes. Content strategy and information architecture are more important than ever in this changing, multi device landscape. Karen McGrane believes in the not too distant future IAs and UXers will be leading organizations in the face of these changes.
Karen shares her view of this landscape in this, her closing plenary from the 2013 IA Summit.
Recorded: April, 2013
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Karen McGrane: Last year I had like a big round number birthday. More precisely I should say last year I had this, and just this past Thursday I had another one, which was vexing to me.
It’s like you turn 40 and you have the big party and, you know, you kind of get through it all and it’s like, “Hey. Yeah. OK that wasn’t so bad” and then a year later you turn 41 and you’re like “This is terrible. Is this just going to keep happening?”
Karen: So anyway, having the big round number birthday is sort of, you know, it’s a time of self reflection and having been asked to give the closing key note at this conference, like I’m so honored to be here. It really has gotten me thinking a little bit about my career and sort of like where we’re at as a field, as a discipline, and what it really got me thinking about is what kind of a world do I want to leave behind after I retire.
And you know, let me be clear about this. I got a long career ahead of me. You guys aren’t going to be through with me any time soon, but you know, it’s a good time to sort of think about “Hey wait a minute. I’ve had some career successes and I have many years ahead of me. By the time I’m done doing this, what do I want that world to look like?”
So let me take you ahead to the year 2043 when I plan to be living on a retirement island and I want to talk about what are some of the characteristics, what are some of the things that we are going to have in this profession, in this world, when we finally reach that date?
So my first hope for you all is that we will all have an electronic home library that will allow us to access all of the information and services that the world has to offer from the comfort of our own homes. You all might reasonably say “Karen I think we already have that. It’s called the Internet”, but I think that my vision of having microfiche canisters that display the text of the Internet on our ceilings has not yet truly been achieved.
Karen: I also hope that we will one day see a one world job market where job candidates and their employers will be able to connect from any where in the world and we will have video conferencing that will allow people to collaborate globally on projects. And you might also reasonably say “Karen we have that already. Right now I personally can collaborate with colleagues who live any where in the world” and for that I would like to say we really have not yet achieved my vision of having a truly usable joystick based home video conferencing software that would be way easier to use than Skype.
Karen: Maybe, you know, in the future what we’ll have is like push button education where instead of having the youth of tomorrow entrusted to teachers and trained professionals, we can hook them all up to robots and let them learn through massive online educational programs. Maybe we have that already.
In the future we will have factory farms in which, yes all of our produce and our livestock will be grown in vats and silos. We will have giant Chernobyl tomatoes that are the best that science has to offer. You know what guys? We’re living that dream today.
Karen: It seems like so many of the things that I want to achieve in the future are things that we’ve actually kind of already done. Like what else is there? Rocket mail men. Rocket mail men are the future guys.
Karen: So this is my quest for you. Jet packs people. Jet packs are the future. I want you to get working on this right now. Setting aside my question about where is my jet pack, I have some things I want to tell this audience about where I think this field, this industry needs to go. 2043, on of the thing that I want you to know is that IA is still going to be around.
Samantha Bailey made a post this week where she lamented the fact that there have been many major texts that presume to talk about what the user experience is that make no mention of information architecture, or navigation, or structured contend, or really so many of the things that underlie the tradition and the values of this field.
I know that this topic has gotten some discussion here. It also has gotten some comments on her blog and one of the commenters said something that I think I would strongly agree with and it’s this “I think the smart move right now is actually to double down on information architecture and I mean that guys. It’s like heck yeah.” A shout out to Jarred Spool here whose talk at an event apart this year is called It’s a Great Time to be an Experienced designer.
I want to tell you guys. It’s a great time to be an IA. Back in 2008 I had a meeting with the executives from the Atlantic, and I met with the president, the CEO, and the owner of the company. To me the really surprising thing about this meeting was that they came to my office in New York.
This is totally a kind of meeting that I would’ve happily gone to DC for, but they came to my office, and they’re sitting in my conference room, and the thing about this meeting is I didn’t really have to say very much because the president of the company kind of did my job for me.
He told the other two guys, he’s like, “Look. You know how on our website you kind of can’t find anything, and you know, it’s really hard to know what you should click on, and you know, you don’t really know how to get around and when you want to search for something you can’t find anything? Well, she calls it information architecture, and she can fix it.”
Karen: And I remember sitting in there and thinking to myself “Damn! It worked.”
Karen: And I was so pleased with that. I told the story before and I was so proud of the fact that we had done such a good job of connecting up the work that we do with problems that people could identify. It didn’t matter to these guys. It didn’t matter how information architecture happened.
They didn’t need to know the nuts and bolts of what I did, and in fact I’ve said that, it didn’t matter that knew that. All they knew is that they at least had the label to call it information architecture and they knew that they could come and talk to me about it. That was five years ago.
In the last six weeks I have had no fewer than six C level conversations. Six meetings with large corporations. These are like board room level meetings. I am meeting with the CEO, the CTO, the head of digital, you know, the entire executive team, and we are having in depth conversations about their need for structured content, about their need for taxonomy.
They are telling me thing like “We are not able to achieve what we want to do because we don’t have the underlying structure to support it” and the message that is coming through loud and clear from these conversations is that number one, this is more than just a usability concern for them. This is more than just saying “Oh, people can’t find what they’re looking for.”
They are saying “We are not able to achieve our business goals. We are not able to do all of the things that we think we can do because we don’t have the underlying structure, the underlying taxonomy, the underlying information architecture in order to make it happen.
The second thing that’s coming through loud and clear is they’re all telling me, you know “We got people who can design the website. That’s not the problem. We got tons of people who can do that, but we don’t have anybody who can figure out how to make all so this happen. We don’t have the expertise in information architecture.
When I look across this space today, all of the problems that I see, if you’re l thinking about the challenges faced in mobile. These are two photographs of St. Peter’s Square. One was taken in 2005. The other was taken just a couple weeks ago with the employment of the new pope. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better illustration of the change that mobile has made in our society in just the last few years.
This is just kind of my whole shtick right now, but if you’re an organization that is trying to figure out how you’re going to get all of your stuff on mobile, how you’re going to publish to mobile, this is not a design and development challenge, or this is not strictly a design and development challenge.
The challenges that are faced on mobile are to me classic informational architecture problems where we are figuring out “How do we make sure that we have the underlying structure in our content needed so that we can get our content out into whatever platform it needs to live on.
If you’re an organization that’s dealing with social, and I don’t mean that in the sense of going around collecting likes and clicks on things.
I mean, if you’re really adapting to the change that is wrought through the idea that you are not in a one way conversation. You are in a dialogue with your customers. They are saying things about you on the Internet. They are talking to each other about your products and services, and you have to find some way to make sense of that.
You have to find some way to make sense of that. You have to find some way to gather up all of that data, sift through it, make sense of it all, and use the insights that you are getting from your customers in real-time to make decisions about your business. There is no way you can do that without an underlying information architecture.
If you’re worried about content management, and everybody should be worried about content management, I’m fond of saying that CMS is the enterprise software that user experience forgot. Many of these things are global or social and kind of rah-rah, information architecture, you guys, huge opportunities.
Here, I almost want to be a little bit more harsh with you and go, we are abdicating our responsibility as a field to go in there and make sure that the information architectures that are defined in content-management systems actually align with what the ideal user experience should be.
Not just for the users on the front end, but for the users of that system. I do a fair amount of work in the CMS space, and I will tell you. Right now, in a lot of those development shops, they are independently evolving information architecture. They’re having to figure a lot of this stuff out themselves, and when I tell them, hey, you know there’s entire field of people who do that for a living? They’re always a little bit like, whoa, really? You mean there are people who do this all the time? I’m like, yes, and they’re good at it, and your work would be better.
If people who had expertise in information architecture were helping you make these decisions properly. If you care about API, this is one of the topics that I talk so much about. How are we going to set up devices and systems so that they can talk to each other effectively? Again, here’s an area where the user experience community really needs to be in there talking about, what is that developer experience? How do we make sure that developers have the right insights about how APIs work, how they talk to one another. This is a UX problem. This is an information architecture problem.
All of these issues, they sort of sit on this framework of wanting to set up the work that we are doing, so that we take into account what might happen in the future. We at least try to be future-friendly. No one can predict the future. No one can know what’s going to happen.
It’s hard to really set things up so that you feel confident that the work that you do today will be elastic and flexible and adaptable for the future. I’m really fond of this quote from Jason Scott, the archivist. Metadata is a love-note to the future. It suggests that the work that we are doing, we are the best hedge against the constant change that you see in this environment.
The work that we do, matters. Not just for the user experience of today, but for the ability of organizations to be able to do what they want to do now, five years from now, ten years from now. The pace of change, it’s not going to stop. Things are going to keep changing as fast as they have, even more so. One of the things that I think can give organizations stability is a strong foundation of structured content and taxonomy and metadata. What I believe to be classic IA. Classic library science IA.
Karen: I know that this field is bigger than that, but the need for the world to have this right now is so strong, and there is no one else out there who will do it. This is squarely in the bulls-eye of what this community can do.
To me, this is exciting. I want to say, I get it. I get that our world is bigger than this. I tell people, I am a bit of a rare bird in this industry, in that I think I am one of the only people who actually came in straight-on through the front door. I did not come in sideways from any other field. I actually have a graduate degree in technical communication and HCI.
When I went to graduate school, I went because I was a word person. I went because I understood that there were jobs in tech writing, and I was really good at structuring things. I was really good at making outlines, and I really loved the language side of things. I loved categories, I loved words, I loved everything about the idea of communicating things in text. When I got to graduate school, my eyes were blown wide-open by the idea that there was this whole other side of design. The look and feel of things.
That the meaning of what I wanted to communicate would be shaped and controlled by the fact that I had to make it visual. I had to make it tactile. I had to consider the spatial form of the information, that there was this whole other discipline where I had to give my words shape, and that shape would influence the meaning of those words and the meaning of those words would influence that shape.
Information architecture, you guys. Have you ever heard a more beautiful or more elegant way to communicate the idea that language has a spatial component, that language has a physical component, and that the idea that you navigate or move through that space influences meaning? Influences ideas?
I remember where I was the moment I first heard the term information architecture. It was 1996, it was way before the polar bear book came out, and oh my god, guys. It was like a lightning bolt went off in my head. It was like, this is it! This is what I was meant to do.
There are still times where I feel like heroine of a William Gibson novel when I think about that phrase. I think it is a beautiful encapsulation of the idea that the best work that we do holds together. The work that we do with words, and the work that we do with look-and-feel. But the center doesn’t hold. The growth of our industry means that we have seen a cleavage, a splitting, into disciplines where we can focus on one or the other. I believe that it is right and good, that this happens.
I am not here to foment internecine warfare. I understand that the work that we do requires the focus of people being able to develop expertise in one or the other. I have always maintained that disciplines and in particular, hiring, should tend to map towards people’s natural skill-sets, and I know just from my own experiences in hiring, for one thing, that there are people who are really good at words and they’re not great with feel, and design, and tactile stuff. There are other people who are great with design and making things tangible, and they’re sometimes not great at words.
I can understand why, as our profession has grown, that we have developed these more focused sets of expertise. I’m a uniter, I’m not a divider. That’s why I believe that more than ever, it is important that we have this bridge that holds these things together. Now, UX is bigger than this slide here. I don’t want any of you taking a picture of this and putting it on Twitter and say that I think that this is what UX is. I got things to do this week and I don’t want to spend it arguing with people. [laughter]
All the other things that make up UX as a design discipline, whether that’s research, or prototyping, or strategy, or a process or project management. All of those things are common to every design discipline. Whatever design discipline you would have, whether it’s architecture, or an industrial design, or even fashion, they are going to have a component of research, and strategy, and prototyping, and process management. This stuff…this is, for UX, this is our unique differentiator. This is what makes UX, UX.
To me, the real power of what I think makes UX, UX is the fact that we have a discipline that forces us to bridge the linguistic and the categorical with the tactile and the spatial and the visual. I think that we…historically, the fact that this is where we started is one of our strongest selling points. It is what makes us great.
I think that if we were to lose this, I think if we were to lose the focus on saying, the only way that we do good work is to make sure that the work we do with words and the work that we do with things that are tactile or visual, that those things have to be tightly melded together. They can’t be solely, like they are entirely separate domains. Let me give you a couple of examples.
You guys ever have nightmares about public speaking? I have this recurring nightmare that I’m going to be on stage in front of a large audience of user experience professionals, and a slide is going to come up where I’m going to have to talk about whether or not people should make wireframes. The only thing that is keeping this from being my worst nightmare ever is that I am still wearing clothes.
Karen: So allow me to just state for the record, I do not give a rat’s ass whether you make wireframes or not. You can use whatever tool you feel like. That is your choice. However, to Cennydd’s point here, his analysis of why he doesn’t wireframe much is to say that a wireframe is not good as a quick sketch, meaning that it is not good for making quick, in the moment decisions about layout and priority and hierarchy.
It is not good as an interactive prototype, meaning presumably that it is not good at communicating the tactile and spatial aspects of the design. And it is not good as a detailed comp, where presumably you want to communicate the high fidelity visual direction. All of these things are true if you believe that the only purpose of a wireframe is to communicate the interaction design.
What this misses is the underlying content model. It misses the idea that the deliverables we choose, the tools that we use, are not simply there to communicate what something is going to look like or how someone is going to interact with it. They also need to be able to communicate what the content is going to be.
So at pretty much the same time that Cennydd made this post, there was a conversation on the content strategy Google group in which someone asked, how do you communicate a complex content model across platforms — meaning, how do you communicate the idea that you have a base of content to work with?
You have multiple content objects. You’ve got a headline, and a summary, and some body copy, and some little bits of content. Those little bits of content can go lots of different places. They might appear one way on the home page, and one way on the sidebar, and one way on the mobile site, and one way in an app. How do you get that across to somebody?
The underlying deliverable there is obviously a giant spreadsheet, but a giant spreadsheet is often not the best tool to communicate to clients, or stakeholders, or developers how that content is actually going to work. So what did the content strategy conclude was the best deliverable? A wireframe. Reasonable people can disagree as to whether that is the appropriate choice or not. I won’t even get into that right now.
The point that I’m trying to make here is not wireframes forever. The point that I’m trying to make here is if we have communities of practice that are going off and solving their own problems without the bridge between them that forces them to collaborate and forces them to say, “Hey, why are you building that prototype or that spreadsheet for your content model? How do we make that real?” We lose something as an industry.
I think knowing that there are lots of other disciplines out there, lots of other design disciplines that do not have the tight connection between words and form, that…the work that we do needs it. Similarly, if you are lamenting the lack of information architecture coverage in UX books, there’s a bit of a Trojan horse in that you can find a very fine book by Sara Wachter-Boettcher called “Content Everywhere”, which I’m going to encourage you to go out and get right now.
It is an excellent work that describes information architecture for cross channel publishing. I have only good things to say about Sara’s book, but I will tell you something that is a flaw in my own book, “Content Strategy for Mobile”. It’s this. I don’t talk about anything having to do with interaction design. I don’t talk anything about any of the tactile, tangible ways that you make that content accessible to people.
Actually, I’ll confess to you. I even tried to include a section on navigation in there. It didn’t fit right. The editor told me it wasn’t very good. I snipped it out. Not long after this, Donna Spencer sent a note to the IA mailing list to ask, “Hey, has anybody solved the problem of navigation on mobile, like real hardcore navigation on mobile? Like, how do you deal with a site that has tens of thousands of pages and multiple layers of navigation? Has anyone figured out how we’d do that on a smaller screen?”
I was like, “Nope. I haven’t figured it out.” Then I was like, snap. If I haven’t figured it out and Donna Spencer hasn’t figure it out, that means nobody’s figured it out yet.
Karen: This is a huge problem. Seriously, this is the problem where I’m like, man, we can’t treat decisions about touch screen interfaces, and gestural behaviors, and how you handle things like navigation on mobile solely as if they are interaction design challenges, solely as if they are things that involve touching, and swiping, and making things tangible.
That’s not the real problem. The real problem is with the underlying taxonomy and metadata. The real problem is how do you make that navigation visible so that someone can make their way through the experience on a much smaller screen. We lose that. Edward Tufte just said this recently. “Information architectures matter enormously, because what they show us is what we see.”
Content experts and designers are our friends. I had to make one tiny little edit in that, but that’s the message I want to get across. The work that we do is enormously important to communicating what it is that people see. We need to maintain those bridges, both to content and to design. By the time I retire, IA still going strong.
Having achieved that, I think my next item on our to do list should be fairly easy for you to accomplish. I think we can knock this one out in a weekend, guys. I would just like to see a complete transformation in how businesses operate.
Karen: I did the redesign of the New York Times back in 2005, 2006. It was wonderful, because it’s like going to work each day in the New York Times building, in the eponymous Times Square. The history, and the smell of the ink, and the feel of going in there with the news staff, it was so electrifying. Except this wasn’t actually the eponymous Times Square building. This was a nondescript office building in the Garment District.
See, back in those days, New York Times Digital was a separate business. It was a separate office. They didn’t even work in the same building as the rest of the team. This was back when the Internet was still some exotic pet kept in the corner of the publishing world. Throw some kibble at it. Watch it dance on its little leash. Oh, quite cute. It definitely won’t kill us in the night.
The New York Times, since then, has restructured. They actually built an entirely new building. One of the reasons why they did so was that they wanted to make sure that they could fully integrate their print team with their digital team. So now their digital…they have digital production people that actually sit working with the print team on the newsroom floor.
So I think what this reflects is sort of a transition that we are going through, an evolution that we are going through in the digital space. Where previously, digital had to live in a cage outside, and now digital’s been allowed into the house with the owners. It’s not allowed up on the furniture or in the bedroom or anything, but it’s sort of integrated. Even if it gets to be in the same house, it’s still treated as being not quite up there with the real business.
I spoke to another publisher recently where he described literally this. He was like, “Our digital team used to be an entirely separate business. We recognized that that’s not how it should be, so we integrated the entire publishing house, but who is going to run that team? Our print editor has 40 years of experience. He has won dozens of awards. He sits on corporate boards. He has a massive rolodex where he knows everybody in the industry. Our digital editor is a really nice guy, but he’s just some guy.”
So who’s going to be in charge of that team? Of course, it’s going to be the guy who runs the real business. This is an evolution. This is a long term evolution. Someday that guy, who’s in charge of the real business, he’s going to retire. What we are going to see is in the years and decades that this takes, we are going to move to a place where there isn’t a sense of digital being something different from the real business.
Every business will be digital. The people who will be running each of these departments, who will be the heads of these things, will be people who are experts in digital. That means that every business is going to be in the user experience business. This is what we’re aiming at here. What we are aiming at is this fundamental transition where we move away from these organizations thinking that what they can do is push their stuff out, push out what they want to do, with no dialogue, no interaction, between them and their customers.
Instead, we are going to live in a world where it’s taken for granted that everybody’s in the UX business and that the organization structure, and the processes, and the culture all have to be geared around delivering great products and services for other people. It’s going to be a huge transition. Not everybody’s going to make it well.
Our role in that, I think…I see sometimes this sense of…comments that I’ve seen recently, “We need to look beyond user centered design. User center design, it’s just not good enough.” Jared tells us, “User centered design, it never even worked.” “User centered design may even be considered harmful,” says no less than Donald Norman.
I get a little bit concerned when I hear about this, because what I think is that we are taking a value system around user centered design, the design methodology, and we are suggesting that maybe that as a process is not good enough, that there are other approaches like activity centered design, or genius design, even self centered design that may as a methodology be more applicable to some of the challenges that we solve.
That may all very well be true. I simply don’t want anyone to lose sight of the fact that the real value that we bring to these organizations is in the fact that we focus them. We force them to be user centered. David Foster Wallace has this anecdote. A couple of young fish are swimming along, and this older fish swims past and says, “Hey boys. How’s the water.” The two younger fish swim off, and one of them turns to the other and says, “What’s water?”
I feel a little bit, standing up here, like I might be at the fish conference asking everybody, “Hey, water. Water is awesome, right?” People might be scratching their heads going, “Yeah, this is super obvious, Karen, right? User centered, that’s just what we do. That’s who we are.”
But it’s not obvious. It is, in fact, one of the most transformational things that we do. I think, living it in so much, you lose sight of the fact that to be able to actually change businesses around the idea that they have to have a dialogue with their customers, that the success of their work is only measured through whether that customer engages with it and finds value in it…the world didn’t always work that way.
I teach design management in the MRA Interaction Program at SVA. If you want evidence that you have to be eclectic and know a lot of different things to work in digital, I have a BA in philosophy, I have a Masters in science from an engineering school, and somehow this has made me qualified to teach a business class in a fine arts program.
I teach design management, which I always describe it as business skills for UX people. I try to explain to my students, here’s how your work gets valued. Here’s how the success of your work gets evaluated. Money is a fantastic yardstick toward defining value to your work. So when a business wants to talk to you about money, businesses care about money. I’m not trying to teach you to be a craven capitalist. I’m trying to teach you that money is the best yardstick that many of these organizations have.
I go in there and my goal is to help these students understand how business works because I want them to be change agents. Cennydd, when he gave the closing plenary at the IA Summit, a couple years ago, said, “We need to change business, not become it.” To me, I think, this is my secret message to you all. Learn how they work so that you can infiltrate them and change their ways. This is what we are trying to accomplish here.
Back when I left graduate school I was the first information architect hired at Razorfish. When I went around interviewing for jobs, back in 1997, I talked to, literally, every agency in New York. None of them knew what to do with me. I was like, “I’m a user experience professional. I’m an information architect. This is what I will do.”
And every interview that I had was people saying, “Can you code HTML? We need somebody to code HTML.”
I’m like, “I can code HTML. But that would be a really dumb way to use me.”
Razorfish was actually the only company that when I walked in there and I said, “I’m a UX person. I do IA,” they were like, “Oh. Yes. We need this so badly.”
Razorfish, back in the day, back in those days, had this tagline, “Everything that can be digital will be.” I found this to be inspirational. I found it to be motivating. I found it to be quite meaningful in terms of making you recognize what the work that we did meant.
This tagline was sort of intended to serve as a tagline for an overall positioning that they called “digital change management” which I thought was a load of crap. It sounded like corporate consultant marketing speak. It just sounded smarmy, like, “We don’t do change management. What is that even? We make websites. We make websites. Companies need websites. We make them websites. Websites are what we do. We are really good at making websites.”
The longer I do this, the more I realize every thing we do is change management. Every single thing we do. Our whole job. Our whole career. Every single one of you, your whole career is change management.
I’m like, “I don’t think I can tell you how to solve the change management problem in your organization in my hour long keynote.” But what I did is I thought about a few things that I thought really kind of resonated with me, things that, in my mind, helped me understand how the work that I do fits in. So let me share a few of those with you.
When I was a little kid, one of the things that I absolutely loved to do was to go into the store and reorganize the soup cans. The ability to do that kind of pattern recognition and impose order on chaos, I felt like a god. When I was a little kid, I’d get kind of like “in the zone” with can organizing. I’d get really tense about it. I’d be like, “I’m organizing the cans,” and I’m trying to keep things in my head.
My mom would come up on me and she’d be like, “OK, it’s time to go.”
And I’d be all tense and I’d kind of snap at her and I’d be like, “No. I want to finish this.”
Not everybody gets to live out their childhood dreams. But I was lucky enough to find a job where I could organize soup cans for a living. And the Internet has a lot of soup cans that need organizing on it.
I realized that in the early years of my career I would bring that same kind of tension to the work that I was doing. I would be very focused on getting my work right. I can get it right and I was trying to figure it out. And there was a lot of the people side of things that didn’t seem to matter that much. And that kind of vibe that you’re giving off…that really matters.
I see it a lot now in more junior…junior UX people, you’ll see it a lot. And like junior project management producer types. It’s like they are trying so hard to get all of the details right that they are vibrating so fast that they are like emitting a high pitched squeal that might shatter glass.
It’s like they’re setting everybody’s teeth on edge around them. It’s because they are trying so hard to get all the details right that they are missing out on the fact that there is this whole other world of what it means to do good work that has got nothing to do with those tangible facts.
What you find is that people who are good at doing work, who have what you might call technical skills, they are really good…they would rate themselves very high in their ability to do that technical skill, to do that IA work, to do whatever that task is. They would rate themselves, often, lower in terms of having external skills, in dealing with people, managing people, facilitating things with people. And they would rate themselves really low in what you might call their internal skills, which is essentially their ability to calm themselves down, make themselves feel confident, feel good about themselves for things other than external things.
What you see happen with people like this is that they’re so focused on their technical skills that when something is not going right for them they keep trying to maximize that technical skill. Essentially, it’s like, “I’m going to go into this meeting and I’m going to be more right. I’m going to be more right than you. You don’t like my ideas? I’m going to be more right.”
The thing is, you’re already right. The problem is, if your stuff isn’t being implemented, your ideas aren’t getting the traction you want them to have, the way to actually get that to happen is not by being more right. It’s by understanding that there’s this whole other side of things.
People call it soft skills and it always sounds so squishy to me. But what it means is that somebody who is charismatic, somebody who is a leader. Someone who is a change agent rates themselves very high in terms of their external skills, being able to navigate the world of people, and rates themselves very high in terms of their internal skills, in terms of being able to say, “I am confident. I am doing a good job. I feel good about myself.” They know that their technical skills aren’t great. And that’s OK. They don’t have to.
Another way to put this is, all of the people that you work with, you could rank them on two axes, how good they are at their job, how competent they are, and how likable they are. So if you are both competent and likable, you are a dreamy rock star and everybody will want to work with you.
You, undoubtedly, have met people like this. They are neither competent nor likable. They are incompetent jerks. It is really easy for an organization to route around this kind of damage.
Have I ever had to fire anybody? Yes I have. Have I ever had to go to HR and explain why I was firing someone and told HR, “Because you cannot be a jerk and suck at your job?” Yes, I have done that. These people, it’s like even if they’re still in the organization, people just tend to route around this damage.
But there are other types of people. If you are competent but not that likable, you are a competent jerk. If you are likable but not that competent, you are a lovable fool.
And you laugh. You laugh. Everybody thinks…I’m sure people who are good at their jobs, people who are good at some tactical aspect of their job, say to themselves, “Well, if I can’t be a dreamy rock star, I’m at least going to be a competent jerk. I’m at least going to be good at my work.”
Do you know who the most damaging people are in an organization? It’s the competent jerks. It is the people who, by the fact that they are good at their job, stick around in the organization but they limit the organization’s ability to evolve, to change, to grow, because they are not a good cultural fit, because they have a bad attitude, because they don’t collaborate well, because they’re jerks to be around.
Do you know who the most valuable people in the organization are, especially in terms of effecting change? It is the lovable fools. They are the social glue that keeps the organization together. They are the people who can socialize ideas, can bring information from one group to another. They provide the lubrication that keeps that organization running smoothly.
When organizations do layoffs, they’ve already gotten rid of the incompetent jerks, then they go for the lovable fools. And that is why it is often so hard to make change happen. It’s because you have people who aren’t good at the social side of things. You have people who…you have the competent jerks running the show, basically. And they’re so focused on maximizing their technical skills that you miss out on the fact that there’s this whole other world of how you get people to do things.
It’s understanding people’s motivations that really matters.
One of my favorite articles that I like to cite is this one. It’s called “On the Folly of Rewarding A While Hoping for B.” It’s great article. It’s very funny. It’s easy to read. What it basically says is you have to look at the incentive system, you have to look at the reward system, you have to look at what an organization tangibly says it values and how does that differ from what they say they value.
I guarantee you, right now, for most of your organization, one of the key rooks for the problem is that you have incentive systems, you have reward systems, that are set up to encourage people to not create great products and services. You have incentive systems that are basically set up to, in some way, tell everybody, “Hey, yeah. You know what? Customer experience really matters to us.” Except, underneath it all, there is a reward system that does not encourage people to do that.
I tell my students. I’ll tell you. If you are interviewing for a job the number one question you can ask is, how is the work that I am going to do going to influence whether or not my boss gets his bonus? You may not get an answer to that question but if you can get an organization to articulate for you what it is that is actually motivating your boss to get his bonus, I guarantee you that is what’s going to happen in that company.
If you can understand that, if you can get underneath, “OK. How do they tangibly evaluate your work? How do they assign value to what you do?” That’s the only way you’re going to be able to get in there and say, “OK. How do we make change happen?”
This next one, I’m going to tell you guys something and you’re not going to like it. It’s going to be a little bit hard but we’re going to get through it and we’re going to move on to something more fun. OK?
The next one is that compassion matters. I think you’re all probably a little bit like, “What? Karen! We are user experience professionals. Empathy is our middle name. We eat empathy for breakfast. We like went to empathy and got the T-shirt.”
I think you all really care a lot about empathy. I think you all really know that it’s important. I just don’t think you are always very good at it.
I have a friend who said that when she started out she wanted to work in the mental health field. She said her reason for wanting to work in the mental health field was that she thought that that’s where all of the sane, self-actualized people would be working. Once she got in there, she realized that that was where all the people who knew they were crazy were working. They had chosen a profession because they had enough self-awareness to know that this was something that they had to work on in their lives and so they were able to do that 9 to 5.
I think, for a lot of us, this is how we feel about empathy. This is how we feel about…it’s like we know other people. They’re an interesting puzzle to solve. They’re something we want to understand better. But we’re not always instinctively good at it.
What most people can get to, where I think a lot of us are at, is what the researcher Daniel Goleman calls cognitive empathy. What that means is that we’re pretty good at being able to take somebody else’s perspective. We’re pretty good at being able to kind of get inside somebody else’s head and sort of model their task, model how they are thinking about a problem. But that cognitive empathy, that’s actually just one level of empathy.
There’s actually a much deeper level of it that you would call compassion. What that means is that you have genuine emotional feeling for the struggles that someone is going through and you are spontaneously moved to help them because you feel them. And the people out there who are most in need of your compassion are not these abstract users who you are so eager to go talk to. It is the people who are right there in front of you. It is your coworkers, it is your colleagues, it is your stakeholders, it is your clients. It is the people you work with every day.
I think these people are really tired. I think these people are sick of the Internet.
And, for all of us, we are enthusiastic about the Internet. Do you know why? Because it’s our careers. I’m telling you, you may not have that job today but, guess what, by the time I retire you’re going to have that job.
So you’re all kind of looking at your organization and being like, “God. You guys are such idiots. Why don’t you understand? I know what the right answer is here. Why don’t you listen to the way that I want to do it?”
I’ll tell you a little story here, to Kevin’s introduction for me. I really did spend a fair amount of time, after I left Razorfish, just kind of running my own little shop and doing projects and just kind of doing stuff that came my way. I happened to be invited to speak at a conference in Chicago a couple years ago. The theme of the conference was “Going Mobile.”
It was in Chicago and I have a good friend who is a CMS developer who lives in Chicago. So I asked him if he would work with me on the talk, if we could co-present, because I like him and it would be fun. So we’re sitting there and we’re prepping for this whole talk and at one point he kind of looks at me and he’s like, “This would be a lot easier if either one of us knew anything about mobile.”
And I was like, “I know.”
He was trying to explain to me about how API’s would work. He was like, “OK. You’ve got your existing CMS and you’re going to stick an API on top of it. The API is what’s going to allow you to publish to mobile.”
I was really struggling with it. It was really not making sense to me. I was frustrated. I was confused. I was kind of angry. I remember, so vividly, having this moment where I was like, “Mobile. Not for me.” It’s like I didn’t want to get it. I was like, “I know the web. I’m good at the web. I like the web. Can’t I just do the web? There’s other people out there that’ll figure mobile out. I feel out of my league here.”
I had this moment. I had this flash of insight that genuinely changed my life. It was that if I felt out of my league, if I felt stupid…I mean, I grok this stuff. I get this at like a cellular level. I think I was put on this Earth to do information architecture and I was struggling to understand it. I was like, “If I don’t get this, think how everybody else must feel.”
That moment, that feeling, that flash of genuine compassion for all of the people out there who are struggling to figure out mobile, has animated the work that I have done over the last two years. I would never have written the book that I have written if I hadn’t had that perspective. I would never be going into clients, right now, and talking to people about mobile.
And I believe that I am doing some of the best work that I have ever done in my life. It is because it is coming from such a genuine place of compassion and sympathy and kindness for the pain that every organization must be feeling as they are wrestling with yet another wave of digital change.
I think it’s so important for all of us to remember, when you go out and think about your clients and what they’re struggling with or people that you work with, remember that they are all this guy.
Twenty-first century life in this country is karaoke. It is a never ending attempt to maintain dignity while a jumble of data uncontrollably blips across the screen. If you can tap into that feeling of compassion for the frustrations that everybody else must feel in dealing with all of the challenges that we face, you will do better work.
OK. Here’s what we’ve covered. We have succeeded in ensuring that information architecture will be a viable discipline for decades to come. We have effected the complete transformation of how businesses operate. I don’t know what happens next but that “whoo,” profit. It’s always profit, guys.
My next slide here…this slide, to me, I think it encapsulates everything that I have learned about design management and the business side of the work that we do. Over the last 15 years I’ve done a lot of this. I teach a graduate level class. I think this really sums up most of what I know about how all of this works. I confess, it’s a little bit complex of a slide but I’ll walk you through it.
First, there’s some kind of problem. And then some stuff happens. And then money comes out the other side. That’s it. That’s how it works for us. We have one of those problems that everybody is like, “This is a terrible problem but a good problem to have.” And it’s this, that there are way more problems in the world than there are designers who can solve them.
Jared talked about this in his talk, yesterday. I know. And any of you who have any responsibility for hiring knows this to be the case. We killed our supply chain. It’s like the bottom dropped out of the market in about 2000. I remember, at that time, joking. I was like, “Anybody who is still working in this field, really wants to be working in this field. They’ve had a lot of opportunities to not be working in this field anymore.”
We had this whole gap of five or six years where we weren’t hiring, we weren’t training, we weren’t growing, and then oh snap, people really liked the Internet. Oh man, this thing’s going to take off.
And so the work exploded, but the base of people that we have did not explode. We may never have enough designers, or you know, I shouldn’t say that. By the time I retire I want there to be enough designers to fill the needs that we have, but in the next decade or so that isn’t going to happen.
What that means is for all of us we have our pick of what types of jobs we want to take. We have more work than we can take on. Sometimes it may be frustrating. It may not always be, you know, in an organization that necessarily reflects or respects what we do, but there’s plenty of work out there.
What that means is that, for somebody like me, I can have the easiest UX job in the world. The work that I do, I am lucky. I am incredibly grateful because I only ever have to work with clients who are pre-qualified. I only ever have to work with clients who know who I am, who want what I do, who have already pre-selected that what they want is the kind of user experience services that I can provide.
I am very grateful for that, but I also know that I am lazy, and that the real work that needs to be done in this space, in this community, is done by the people — done by maybe you — who will be taking some of these difficult jobs in organizations that will have to be transformed.
I tell my students that, maybe not tomorrow, maybe not in 5 years, but sometime in the next 15 years, what I want for them is I want for them to be given an opportunity to go into an organization that recognizes that they need to change their entire process and workflow and structure and governance around delivering great products and services for people to use.
I want them to know for themselves. I want them to be able to look into their hearts and say, “Is that a job that I, myself, am capable of doing?” I think the people who are doing the best work out there are the people like Livia Labate, the people working on the team at GE, who are going into large organizations and trying to effect change.
I don’t believe that every organization should be able to survive this. I think that they need you more than you need them and I think that the evolution that we want to see happen here should reflect the idea that we have to go in and do the tough jobs to affect change in these organizations, but we should also be careful about which one of these organizations we work with.
You know, I tell people one of the saddest things that I ever heard a UX person say, I was interviewing her about her position and she was like “You know, my job shouldn’t be trying to convince you that I should get to do my job”, but on the flip side, this isn’t going to be smooth sailing. The work that we’re going to have to do is going to be hard. This is our life’s work. This is something that’s bigger than any individual project. It’s bigger than any individual design system. It’s bigger than even identifying what your process du jour. This is a transformation that I think we all need to go into with our eyes open and recognize that we’re playing the long game here.
The thing is we’re lucky. I mean honestly. You look around the industry, you look around the United States economy, the global economy, there are a lot of people out of work. There are a lot of people who will never get jobs. A lot of people who are struggling to pay the rent, pay the mortgage who do not have the opportunities that we have.
I mean, I feel reasonably confident, it’s like “Knock wood”, but I feel confident that I will probably be able to work for as long as I want in a field that I love doing something that I’m great at. And I am so grateful for that because I know so many people don’t get that opportunity, but the truth of it is “To whom much is given, much is expected.” This is a quote from Mary Gates, Bill Gates’ mom. She sent it in a letter to Bill and Melinda Gates when they got married. He said this inspired them to create the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation and it’s something that I personally find really inspirational too, that we’ve been given a lot in this field. We are lucky. We have interesting work. We have no end to the jobs that we can take on, but what that means is that we also have great responsibilities in front of us and that the work that we do is going to take time, and it’s going to be hard. It’s going to be a long slog, but it’s the challenge that we have.
Let me leave you with this. Right now the world needs IA more than ever. The world needs you. The challenges that organizations face, and how they deal with mobile, how they deal with social, how they manage their content, how they set themselves up not just for success today, but success in the future, all of that sits squarely on a foundation of information architecture, and I believe right now is the time to double down on IA.
Second thing is that I believe that change management and compassion are the same damn thing. Your ability to feel genuine compassion for the challenges that your organization faces, that’s something that goes beyond mere ability to map and understand the tasks that your users perform, or the mindsets that your users take, and to a genuine sense of compassion for what your organization is going through trying to adapt to what is this literally historic transformational change in the way that businesses work. Your ability to get yourself to a place where you feel that compassion is what is, I believe, your ability to do your best work.
Finally, I believe that for all of us our real job…what I think my real job is, is to set up the next generation for success. I know that 30 years from now I’m going to be on that retirement island, and there’s going to be people — maybe people sitting in this room, people who attended this conference — who are going to be the leaders of these organizations.
They are going to be running the show, or they’re going to take the expertise that they have in the digital space, and they’re going to use that to create a better organization, create better products and services. I think all of us, we’ve got to recognize we’re playing the long game here. This goes way beyond an individual project that you’re working on and goes way towards all of us asking ourselves, “What do we want the world to look like when we finally retire?”
With that, I want to say thank you to Crystal and Kevin and Giles for inviting me to speak. I’m so proud and so honored and so grateful to all of you for letting me stand here and talk to you, so thank you very much.