in Teaching

Teaching in Sound Bites

Some time ago I helped create a classification scheme for a very large company’s website. Several months into the project, when most of the coding to power this scheme was finished, some executives objected to it. Some of the objections made sense, and with some tweaks we were able to incorporate additional concerns like marketing issues without harming usability. But some requests flew in the very face of the reasoning behind how the classification worked (in usability testing, not just theoretically). And a lot of the classification wasn’t even innovative; it leveraged what had been working for sites like Yahoo for years.

Somehow this reminded me of After the Dot-Bomb: Getting Web Information Retrieval Right This Time. In it Marcia Bates argues that the rest of us were reinventing information seeking when the library and information science field had already solved many of these problems. In the light of my work’s executive manhandling, I saw Bates’ insistence that we were ‘ignoring‘ this discipline as inadvertently admitting, "We in the LIS field failed to communicate what we know and make it accessible to those who need it."

I’m not laying blame; I don’t think anyone was prepared for the Internet explosion of the 90’s in which millions of people suddenly had access to a plethora of information used in new ways. But it would be nice if the absolute basics were universally understood. In my example of the painful case above an absolute basic would be ‘Classification is complicated and particular skills are needed to do it effectively.‘ And only as much argumentation as is necessary should accompany that point to make the point.

In the pursuit of perfect information science, our basic taxonomies still suffer from arbitrary decisions. I hope the information architecture field will communicate these essential points – recognizing that the best is the enemy of the good. It’s a matter of summarizing in executive-sized bits ideas similar to what the first principles do for us.

An example of a teaching sound bite might be Enabler vs. Driver Technology: Breakthrough technology can be a driver of new products and services. Less innovative technology is an enabler of some other strategic advantage – such as design or marketing. The way you structure your projects should reflect whether technology is an enabler or a driver.

Maybe these are written as patterns? Not for the sake of compiling into a language and used, but just for reading and learning.

This idea cropped up listening to Brenda Laurel in Texas. Teenagers use SMS more than email or the phone. Lots of carefully constructed, tiny, messages. How will this generation cope with the skills needed to find a good job in the market of the 2010’s? What sort of IA education do they need?