Tag: <span>Information Architecture</span>

Where do you want to be in 5 years time? Hands up everyone who has been asked that in an interview at some point (now quick, put your hand back down or your colleagues will start to stare..).

Having been in my current job for just over 3.5 years, I thought it would be interesting to look back at where I started and ahead to where I want to be, and it was at that point I realised I have a problem (well, I have many, but I’m not discussing those here, thank you very much).

The thing is, I’m not entirely sure where I want to be in 5 years time, all I know is that I don’t want to be doing the same job I’m doing today. Which is lucky as, given the continuing impact the internet has on our profession and the software industry in general, and that my company is always willing to embrace new ideas, it’s entirely unlikely that I’ll be doing exactly what I’m doing today, even if I wanted to.

Which begs the question, what WILL I be doing?

I’m not entirely sure but looking at the way a number of discrete jobs are starting to come together, I’d imagine it would be some sort of merge of Technical Writer, Information Architecture, Content Curator, Community Manager and Social Media Advocate all bundled into one, an Information Advocate Content Curation and Interaction Specialist?? (Ugh, I hate job titles).

As we continue to explore and understand how people want to access information, as well as how we can streamline our own production processes, it’s looking more and more like the traditional technical writing role is on the way out. Admittedly that might be a long slow path of evolution, particularly for the heavily regulated industries, but more and more it seems that the expectation of customers is to have access to information online, rather than in printed form. This is not a new trend, and let’s be honest, we are not exactly quick at adopting new ways of working here in the UK, but it’s certainly where I’m looking when I consider my role in the future.

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I’m a member of the Information Architecture Institute (IAI) but I’m still not really sure why.

I joined about a year ago, although I’d been following the website and reading articles in this area for some time before that. During that time I developed a sense that, at a fundamental level, there is a lot of crossover of knowledge and approach between practitioners of Information Architecture and those of us in the land of technical communications.

The IAI website states that:

As the information age rolls forward, our businesses, markets and societies are being transformed into adaptive, connected networks. The Internet of today only hints at the ubiquitous communication infrastructure of tomorrow. The construction of this brave new world requires a new kind of architecture, focused on digital structures of information and software rather than physical structures of bricks and mortar. As we spend more time working and playing in these shared information spaces, people will need and demand better search, navigation and collaboration systems.

Whilst a lot of the work of an IA is focussed on the web, the basic principles of good design hold true regardless of the medium. Given that many technical communicators provide online help which may, or may not, be delivered in a web format or via the web itself (as opposed to viewed locally in a web browser) those same principles can be used here. Even if we consider the production of information for print, the same considerations of information access and structure, personas and task analysis, require a level of understanding and design in which both IAs and Tech Writers specialise.

As an aside, this type of thing is one reason why you should hire a professional Technical Writer and not rely on other people in your organisation “filling the gap”. They may be able to write acceptable english, but information is next to useless if badly structured.

Looking further into the lair of an IA, we find many are now involved in what is commonly known as the “social web” (aka Web 2.0). With information being shared and promoted across many different areas, both geographical and social, the structure and usage of that information needs to be careful considered, and with more and more information sources moving from traditional outputs (print) to modern outputs (web), then the modern day technical communicator has, essentially, become what is now known as an Information Architect.

Strictly speaking it’s more another ‘hat’ for a Technical Communicator to wear but the idea is the same. As well as writing, design, illustrating, and doing everything else that is involved with creating technical documentation, now may need to consider an additional mode of usage, one which has grown rapidly in the past couple of years.

The more I learn about Information Architecture, the more parallels I find. Designing information structures, leveraging an ever increasing set of tools, is fast becoming part and parcel of our jobs (well, ok, MY job at least). Add in the fact that we are, frequently, the people populating those structures then it’s easy to see that there are many lessons we can learn from those in IA.

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I’ve been chasing this train of thought for a while now and decided to start writing my thoughts down in the vague hope that they come together in a way that makes sense to others. It seems to make sense to me but, as yet, there are a few grey areas into which I may stumble. So, not so much a train of thought but a car crash of ideas, if you will.

Shoddy metaphors aside, the main crux of my thinking is based in my efforts to find a central point around which I can arrange my knowledge. Obviously my knowledge of some areas is greater than my knowledge of others, but part of this exercise is to start to identify the areas in which I’m lacking and so allow me to investigate them further, to feedback into my train.. no.. car… umm, driveshaft??

OK, let’s start over.

The role of a technical writer is fairly varied, and merrily traipses through several distinct fields. Most technical writers will know a little (or a lot) about many topics, how to structure information or how to create a usable index, they will be also have some knowledge or awareness of, for example, typography and readability issues, they will have some knowledge of working with graphics, and they will also gain knowledge of the various tools they use. Suffice to say that the skill set and ‘earned’ knowledge a technical writer posseses is almost endless.

And that’s all before you consider how much they know about the products that they are documenting

So from that starting point we can see that technical writers already dip their toes into various pools of expertise.

Now, let me just changes hats for a second… right. I am now a web designer.

Look at the knowledge I have attained as a technical writer, with a web designer hat on, there are a lot of parallels. Some are direct, some not so obvious but still discretely linked, after all, regardless of the medium the two disciplines share key facets of importance; content and audience. The delivery mechanism is secondary to those at all times.

Web designers also span several different fields, with some knowledge of HTML, CSS and other languages (usually text based), they too worry about layout and typography to ensure readability is maintained, they plan what type of content will be created, and understand the need to structure that information in such a way that it is explorable. The parallels are many.

So, somewhere in my head I’m wondering why the two disciplines don’t seem to be talking to one another. Is it lack of visibility? Is it just me that thinks it is this way? Are there secret meetings going on as I speak?

One of the reasons I ask is because there is a wealth of information out there that focusses on web design, even spilling over into the social/community aspects of information sharing, which the technical writing world could use and leverage. Have a look at some of the articles on A List Apart, for example. Those which aren’t specifically about code tend to talk in terms of analysis, planning and design. All things I do as part of my job as a technical writer. Boxes and Arrows takes you into Information Architecture territory, with user experience key and, for many of us who work in software development and who can influence both the UI and the Use Cases that help constitute a software application, there is a lot of useful information that we can adapt for our own use.

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Another week, another list of articles that I’ve found interesting or useful. As usual they are spread across various areas, from technical writing, to information architecture and web design. Hope you find them interesting:

  • Scenarios and Minimalism – if you only visit one of the links today, make it this one. To summarise hugely, it’s all about user and task analysis, and matching the outcomes of your analysis to your writing methodology.
  • User Centred design – a paper investigating the different theories and methodologies evolving in this area. A bit dry at times.
  • MIKE2.0 Wiki – I’ve been looking into MIKE, purely out of curiosity, and this wiki is the best place to start.
  • 7 Lies of Information Architecture – an excellent starting point with links to respected resources. Should help debunk some myths, e.g. Lie 2. “There is a magic number (plus or minus two).”
  • What is Success? – “Success means… engaging with a social world: a world of clients and employers, but also of readers, users and other designers. It is those things that make us rich.”

Other than that, I’ve updated the TechComms RSS list (over on the right there), and if you do download it and find it useful, please let me know. I’m maintaining it for myself but happy to take requests if there are any sites you think I’ve missed.

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