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the evenings out here - Thoughts, rants and musings about absolutely everything except photography. Or cats.

What am I doing here ?

in General , Thursday, May 12, 2005

What am I doing here ? It sounds like a Big Question. This bit of existential hand-wringing is to do with my professional identity. I'm not really sure What I Do. I tell people I work in "software", because it is an easy get out and I'm often not terribly interested in getting into lengthy explanations. However, I can't really write code ? at least not these days, since there's not much call for sequential programs written in Fortran or C in my line of work ? I'm not really a specialist in system architecture, and I'm not the world's greatest project manager. What I believe I can say is that I can make things happen. I can come up with reasonably good ideas and I can turn them into succesful projects or products, for example Multimed (others such as Fantastic Replicast or Vilkas Waypoint are sadly sunk beneath the frozen lava of the dotcom meltdown. I used to say, sort of semi-seriously, that I was a "conceptualist". Probably if it wasn't for my unfortunate tendency towards self-deprecation and self-parody, I would call myself that and I'd have written "Conceptual Design for the World Wide Web" for O'Really. But I'd never be able to promote myself like this. All this isn't just academic. I urgently need to define my role within my new team. I work in the User Interface Solutions team of a Large Swiss Company (it has three initials), which in itself is suffering a severe identity crisis as it is mainly staffed by usability or interaction design experts who are not happy with having to take on broader tasks. I'm perfectly happy to be a jack of all trades (providing I can choose which trades I like most) but I'm not happy on being typecast as a project manager (because I'm the only one who can be bothered to RTFmicrosoft projectM) or a Requirements Manager (because I'm the only one who took the time to understand UML notation before using it), but I need a label. I was allocated the HR label of "Application Engineer" which I'm actually quite happy with ? it is so overloaded that it has lost any specific meaning, which suits me just fine, but it doesn't really fit in the team ethos. So I thought, ok, what do I actually do ? Well, I look at user needs, I look at market conditions, I consider business requirements, and I design products?and document them, market them, and sometimes code them. So am I a Product Manager ? Possibly, but then again I devote an LOT of attention to logical organisation, workflow, user experience and pragmatic usability. So, looking through my unrealistically vast collection of books on all this stuff, I start to believe that maybe I'm an Information Architect. And that is where the really trouble starts. It seems that Information Architecture (IA) has a mega identity crisis of its own. One leading exponent of IA, Christina Wodtke, says that the role of the information architect: ?(is) to create a design that balances the users? desires with the business?s needs". This seems to fit with my philosophy. In an interview recently published at Boxes and Arrows, Steve Krug says "...For me, one of the differences between the two fields is that information architects can actually build things, whereas usability folks mostly help people tweak things they?ve designed", which also pretty much sets out where I think I stand. Another leading light, Peter Van Dijck, certainly goes well into the holistic design process in his excellent book "Information Architecture for Designers", although his definition of the role of an IA stops a little short of full involvement in the construction. Again, Peter Morville and Louis Rosenfeld, in their seminal "Information Architecture for the World Wide Web", seem to present IA as a fairly holistic process, perhaps even going to the level of overall "User Experience Design", taking a co-ordinating role for other specialists. However, in that book they spend a lot of time talking about "Structuring, Organizing, and Labeling" and "Finding and Managing", and whilst a distinction is drawn between "information" and "data", there does seem to be a trend in IA which is to define the role as somewhow data-centric, especially on the IAWiki. The problems of taxonomies, classifications, labelling etc existed before the Web, and I'm pretty sure they had (and still have) their own specialist practioners (Document Engineering maybe ?). The other thing about all this stuff is it is so totally focused on the Web. The web is big but it doesn't cover the whole IT world, let alone the world in general. There seems to be too much fixation on the web, as if if you don't mention "web", you won't sell your book. Talk about letting implementation dominate the design - here we have a mega implementation decision - a web based solution - way up front. Sometimes the web is not the best, or the only way to deliver an application. Having said all this, when you take away the debate about what IA is, and just actually read what the practioners write about it, it is pretty fascinating stuff, and an area I feel I want to get engaged in. Or more accurately, an area I've come to realise I'm at least partially active in. I have the possibilty to work on this stuff in a corporate environment that most certainly needs it, will benefit directly from it, and sort of realises this fact...sometimes anyway. I'm not sure I'm ready to call myself an Information Architect yet. I'm still pretty sold on "Concept Designer" (actually in my job description), or better "Conceptualist". Or of course user experience samurai. That sounds pretty good :-)