Staffing Information Architects for a World of Topic-Based Information

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October 2008

Staffing Information Architects for a World of Topic-Based Information

CIDMIconNewsletterLori Fisher, IBM Corporation

One of the most powerful aspects of DITA is that it also supports an underlying topic-based architecture. The true power of reuse and componentized information comes from leveraging this architecture. Merely tagging information in DITA is not enough. To maximize the return on the investment in DITA, information development teams must invest in the architecture of their information, both by restructuring existing information and having a clear design for new information. As information development teams move to architected information, the role of the information architect becomes critical. What skills are required to be a successful information architect? How does an information architect differ from an editor or a project manager? Should managers hire from outside or develop this skill in house? This article discusses challenges and recommendations related to developing and staffing architects within information development organizations based on ten years of experience with this role in an existing information development organization.

Why Do I Need an Information Architect?

Before hiring an information architect, it is important to understand and be able to articulate what information architecture is and the role and skills of an architect.

What Is Information Architecture?

Information architecture can be described as the underlying model that drives decisions about delivering information: the organization of, structure of, and relationships between thoughts and ideas that enable users to build a mental model of information within a specific context. The design of technical information and its underlying architecture must be based on a deep understanding of users, their business and task domains, and a company’s technology solutions in those domains. The architecture reflects decisions about the appropriate organizing structures (such as navigation) and signposts (such as labels) that guide users to access the appropriate information for the task at hand and improve retrievability across chunks of information, as well as, at a deeper level, decisions about and design of the classification schemes and metadata that enable searching and customization of information. Information architecture also includes the application of minimalist design principles and the application of appropriate information design methods to improve scanning, information access, and comprehension within a chunk of information. To optimize for reuse, it is also important to apply component modeling techniques to the information design. All of these factors contribute to the overall architecture of that information.

What are the Skills and Role of an Information Architect?

To develop the best overall information architecture in the context of specific users,
tasks, and domains, information development
organizations have established the role of a specialized skill, most often referred to as an information architect. Some of the most critical skills to be successful in this role include the ability to understand, model, and expose information relationships; strong organizational skills; an understanding of human factors and cognitive approaches to processing information; knowledge of information modeling techniques; and experience with the design of information delivery. Another key skill for success is technical product expertise in the product domain.

The role of an information architect generally includes several main responsibilities, such as defining the content model for the information development team; designing the navigation; driving information packaging decisions, for example with the goal of optimizing plug-n-play or reuse through componentization. The information architect is often expected to have the bigger picture across a company’s product portfolio, with the ability to ensure a “solution view” of information across products. In summary, the information architect owns the “total information experience” for customers who will use and look across all forms of information—ensuring linkages across the whole universe of information from your company.

Some helpful attributes of a successful information architect include the ability to envision the ideal information design, without constraints, and collaborate and negotiate back to reality based on available resources, schedules, and technical constraints. Architects must also be able to build a business case and justify architecture and designs based on customer and business impact. Architects must be effective team players as well as leaders, influencing the direction of information development teams and delivering on commitments through others. Effective delegation skills are required, as well as negotiation and networking skills. Like all good leaders, an information architect must demonstrate integrity, be respectful of others’ ideas and time, be a good listener, and demonstrate emotional intelligence. The best information architects exude enthusiasm for and evangelism of the information mission. They take ownership of decisions but are also careful to take input from and give credit to the team. Their style is most effective if consistent but not rigid, consistently reinforcing the goals and concepts of the overall information vision as a path for the team while recognizing that tactical compromises are a necessary part of the path.

How Does this Role Differ from a Project Manager or Editor?

Perhaps the simplest way to differentiate the role of an information architect is to say that the information architect is focused on what information is delivered, including the design of its delivery (or the users’ “information experience”), not how it is implemented or when it is delivered. Traditionally, a project manager plays the primary role in achieving the goal of “on time and within budget.” This role entails project scheduling, project tracking, resource allocation and assignments, and management of the final delivery of the completed project. Some companies have developed the role of a tools expert or infrastructure lead, with primary focus on driving file storage and version control, information builds, automated testing, and tool development or maintenance. An infrastructure expert focuses on the process or how it is developed or implemented, as opposed to the architect’s responsibility for what. The role of an editor is typically focused on developing and enforcing style guidelines and working day-to-day with writers to improve content topic-by-topic—this work is done in alignment with the architecture guidelines provided by an information architect to ensure quality and implementation of the architecture.

What are the Typical Tasks Performed by an Information Architect?

The bulk of an information architect’s time is typically spent on three key activities: information analysis, information modeling, and information validation.

Information analysis includes researching and understanding user requirements for the information deliverables. With this understanding, the information architect models the users and tasks, using those models to define an appropriate information model. Related tasks include developing personas and scenarios. The information architect uses the results of this analysis to help the information development team understand who the users are and what they need.

The next activity, information modeling, includes working with the information development teams to model the overall information solution. The architect focuses on specifying the architecture of the information to support the UI task flow, modeling topics, and specifying the overall organization and structure of content. This structure is later implemented as DITA maps and depends on defining relationships in terms of navigation, linking, and search (later implemented as DITA relationship tables and metadata).

The final key activity owned by information architects is validation of the architecture and design. The architect works with the information development teams, as well as customers (users), to ensure quality execution, as defined by the users. This process verifies that the information model meets user needs, and that the information that is developed supports the overall model and users.

So Do I Really Need an Information Architect? Justifying the Position

The information landscape has changed dramatically in the last 3 years. Customers are no longer satisfied with sequential, monolithic, information deliverables (books and PDFs). Web 2.0, video sites such as You Tube, wikis, and blogs have changed users’ expectations for learning about and using products and services. Ubiquitous, web-enabled, and customizable information is a key requirement, enabled through componentized source material, delivery and display of which can be adapted to the needs and environment of the users. How will your information development team deliver information that meets these requirements, while optimizing for reuse and single-sourcing to control costs and ensure accuracy?

Architected information, leveraging an XML-based, metadata-rich technology such as DITA, is today’s approach to delivering reusable and componentized information. The key to success with this strategy is the careful definition of the information experience design and underlying architecture of the information content. Merely tagging information in DITA is not enough. To maximize the return on the investment in DITA, information development teams must invest in the architecture of their information, both by restructuring existing information as well as having a clear design for new information. As information development teams move to architected information, the role of the information architect becomes critical.

The business benefits of well-architected information include increased customer satisfaction as well as increased efficiency (reduced cost). Customer satisfaction can be positively affected by the ability to customize information by recombining reusable components of information, by increased accuracy through single-sourcing of information thus allowing updates and corrections to one source of information, and by easier updates at a topic or component level thus leading to information that is more current and up-to-date at all times. Customer satisfaction also increases when navigation is clear and information is retrievable, when content reflects actual tasks, and when the information architecture, model, and resulting information experience have been validated with actual users before delivery. All of these goals are the direct responsibility of a professional information architect.

Information development managers can demonstrate increased efficiency by leveraging a topic-based architecture to enable reuse. Single-sourcing of topics for multiple outputs means greater efficiency in making functional updates to only one copy of the content, maintaining only one copy of the content for defect corrections, and the ability to more quickly respond to product renaming, packaging, and other delivery changes by recombining plug-and-play components to reflect those product changes. Without a well-architected information set, information development is often the critical path in responding to marketing decisions such as changes to packaging or functional subsets. With a robust, topic-based architecture enabled for component-level reuse, information development teams can demonstrate decreased schedule dependencies and increased accuracy and quality.

Now, How Do I Get One?
Make vs. Buy

So let’s say you are convinced you need a trained, dedicated architect to analyze, design, and validate your information approach. How do you find the right person for the job?

There are two obvious choices, and some creative hybrids of the two. The two obvious choices are to hire someone from outside your company or to appoint one of your existing staff to the role. There are pros and cons to be considered for both.

The choice to hire someone from outside has the obvious advantage of selecting an experienced professional who will bring with him or her a breadth of experience across various information issues, familiar with common problems and a range of solutions. However, one caution about this choice is that an outside hire will not immediately be familiar with your customer base, your technology or service offering, your total information set, or your set of specific customer pain points with your information deliverables.

The alternative, to appoint one of your existing staff, has the advantage of leveraging that person’s existing knowledge of the customers, tasks, technology, and current information set. However, if that person has not been trained in information architecture, modeling principles, information experience design, and user validation methodologies, there may not be much more value-add beyond what the person has already been contributing in his or her role as a writer, editor, or project manager in the past.

In our real-life information development organization, we found it most useful to begin with one senior writer with strategic vision who was able to look across the entire information portfolio, driving the initial move to a topic-based architecture on one key product. As we completed the initial phase of re-architecture into topics and needed to begin more complex architectural tasks (restructuring of navigation, development of a plug-and-play component strategy across products), we then hired one very senior consultant into the organization to act as the mentor and coach for upcoming architects in the organization. We found that in many cases, our technical editors were good candidates to move into architect roles, with their current understanding of the information set, customers, and product technology paired with the mentoring by the experienced information architect. In our case, we did not have additional headcount to staff these positions; instead we asked the editors to focus half their time on architecture tasks and less time on editing for an initial period (one release cycle, for instance) to get the models and key architecture goals established for each team. We currently have a mix of both full-time information architects as well as additional “practicing” architects from the technical editing staff. They exchange best practices and continuously teach each other through participation together in an Information Architecture Practitioners Community at our organization (division) level. In addition, our company now has established a corporate-wide council of information architects to build this community, cross-train, and share expertise across divisions.

Challenges and Recommendations

Based on over ten years of experience with information architects on staff, we offer the following recommendations:

  • Start organically, without declaring the position outside the team. Find a visionary on your staff with a love of information design and find a way to dedicate part of his or her time to these tasks before you tell your boss you have “hired an information architect.”
  • Build on the initial successes of the architect and initial recommendations about changes that would increase customer satisfaction and increase efficiency. Demonstrate the value of the initial recommendations and potential additional value if you were able to dedicate someone full time to this role.
  • After you have someone designated as the architect, management must reinforce the role and differentiate it from project management, tools infrastructure, or editing. This is especially true outside your own team, when interacting with product management, development, or marketing. For example, it is important to label the role and its value by saying “Our information architect is responsible for navigation and will meet with you to….”
  • Define the relationship of roles within the information development team clearly (architect, editor, project manager).
  • Collaboration across those roles (prior bullet) is the key to success! Matrix communication becomes very important. The architect must know schedules and assignments; the project manager must know the goals of the information experience design, and so on.
  • It is important to maintain a balance of innovation (potential improvements) with the constraints and realities of your company’s information culture. An architect can define an ideal model and architecture but that is not helpful if the information development team does not have the resources (skills, tools, schedules, staffing) to implement it.

We have seen the real value to the company of information architecture as we expanded the information vision to the total user experience—seeing beyond technical documentation to the relationships among web-based marketing materials, service and support materials such as web-based support documents (FAQs and so on), and technical support information such as white papers, conference presentations, and customer publications. All of these together make up the total information experience for our company’s customers, and the information architects can add invaluable expertise to designing that total experience. The information architect is key not just to the success of our information developers, but of our company. CIDMIconNewsletter

Based on materials developed by Andrea Ames, Shawn Benham, Jennifer Fell, and Lori Fisher.

Lori_Fisher_bwLori Fisher

IBM Corporation

Lori Fisher is Director of User Technology for the Information Management division at IBM’s Silicon Valley Lab in San Jose, CA. She manages a world-wide organization of information developers, information architects, editors, user experience professionals, and visual designers. Her organization is one of the early adopters of DITA and architected, topic-based writing. Lori is a Fellow of STC.