Quick: Explain why the long E sound in the word treat is spelled “ea”, but for the same sound in the word wheel it’s “ee”. Now explain how one-third is the same as two-sixths. Now explain why a ten-cent coin in the U.S. is smaller than a five-cent coin. But wait, you have to do all this without referencing the evolution of the English language, numerators, denominators or the price of silver in the late 19th century.
Welcome to helping my six-year-old daughter with her homework. Or, (in the universe’s constant reminder to me that everything is really one thing) helping a recently graduated designer tackle her first information architecture work. In both cases, the challenge is to build a foundation strong enough to support all the learning that comes after it.
Our new hire is short on experience, but long on talent and potential. I’m not going to, but you could argue that any college design curriculum today should provide at least some exposure to the concept of user experience if not to the specifics of information architecture. You could also ask what the hell were we doing hiring a raw designer and then expecting them to learn IA on the fly. I can’t defend the practice, but I have to say something I bet you already know, that right or wrong, it happens all the time at all sorts of different organizations. It happened at mine and now one of my responsibilities is to help make it work.
In doing so, I find that I’m more concerned about fighting mediocrity than protecting against failure. Everybody thinks they’re a designer (whether or not it’s their role or expertise) and most project teams include people who have some kind of experience creating Web applications or sites, so you can pretty much count on something getting built. But the pastiche of knee-jerk solutions patched together from earlier projects results in plenty of mediocre design and accidental IA.
This may all sound like I’m mocking the non-UX folks doing design and IA work, but the truth is that we as an industry have unintentionally encouraged it to happen. Plenty of firms and consultants have been selling cookie-cutter solutions for more than a decade, so we can hardly bitch when the people outside of our profession use the same approach.
Our real value has never been about picking the right template for the right challenge; our value is to fully define a problem from the user experience perspective and then to craft practical solutions that address that problem in specific and measurable ways.
At this point, the new kid at work can’t do that much better than the rest of her project team. And like all other user experience professionals, she won’t develop her expertise evenly. It may turn out that her interests and skills stay within visual design, or she may find passion for user research or content strategy or IA or interaction design or all of the above. But regardless of what kind of an expert she evolves into, I’m trying to instill in her a responsibility for a holistic user experience approach.
Regardless of our role on a project, we’re the ones who need to focus on our users, their goals and their needs because that’s how we deliver superior solutions even for the most sophisticated, complex challenges. That’s our foundation and our real value. Regardless of our areas of expertise within the user experience field, that’s what we do.