Catching the Big Fish — reflective practice in information architecture and UX design, IA Summit 2017, EuroIA
Using the model
Throughout 2017 I shared a model that I’ve been using to consciously focus my attention on the challenges I face and the value I bring to teams and projects.
The model is in the shape of a fish — a rough approximation of the divergent and convergent process I go through on most projects.*
I use the fish as the basis for reflective practice and in coaching conversations with members of our UXA team at the BBC. The fish helps me think about where I am in a project. I can consider the challenges we face and the activities that lie ahead. It can help me identify why I’m finding something hard and how I might make it easier.
I might write more about how I created the model in the future — and suggest how you could make your own. But as it’s a useful and generic model — and people at IA summit seemed to like it — I wanted to share more details about the modes and activities it describes.
The fish is made from 9 “scales”. These describe a sort of tactical focus or the discrete skill or activity that you might engage in during a project.
You can also imagine that these activities combine to form three modes. I use the Modes to consider how I might strategically affect the direction of a product, service or project.
Mode one focuses on meaning and communication. These activities help to build understanding, consensus and direction for the ideas that emerge in creative practice.
Mode two is focused on the core skills our team uses as user experience architects — and how we work alongside other disciplines.
Mode three considers cross-channel and service architectures — how we ensure that as well as creating the best specific thing we also think about creating the best connected thing. It helps us think about the ‘next biggest context’ that contains our design.
I thought it might be useful to describe each ‘activity’ scale and give a taster of the questions that the model prompts. This should give you a sense of how you can use this model to become a more reflective practitioner.
Mode one: Meaning, Creation and communication
Design is the management of ideas to create value. We can’t create value if we’re not able to capture, develop and interrogate an idea — and to ask what we mean when we talk about it.
Most projects start with an idea.
Someone has a flash of inspiration. It might come to them in the shower. Or during their commute. Or in a design research session — everywhere holds possibility.
When you have an idea a thing can come into being that didn’t exist before — a shiny, shimmering, glistening thing that’s delicate and newly formed and maybe hasn’t even settled on a shape or set of language it likes to be described by.
Ideas power creativity. Ideas inspire, direct and provide the energy for creative projects.
Ideas also warp, flex and evolve.
Ideas often sit on the edge of conscious thought, twitching with nervous energy. They are a raw and unstructured material.
- Do you need more ideas — can you encourage divergent thinking to create more ideas?
- Can team members consciously shift mindset to have more ideas when needed (and also stop ‘creating’)?
- Do you have a way of capturing your ideas — a notebook or something similar…
- Have the assumptions within the team altered — are you all talking about the same idea?
- What assumptions underpin the idea — are these assumptions shared by others in the team?
- Do you always notice when a new idea arrives?
We can take these ideas and unwrap them to discover what makes them tick.
If an idea is worth pursuing you should put in the effort to pursue it. In that pursuit you find out more about it. Maybe shape it, find words to tell yourself a story about it.
We take those effervescent, fluid and delicate ideas and through processing or play we discover more about the strengths and weaknesses they contain.
This interrogation also helps us to frame the idea as a testable hypothesis. Once we suspect what makes the idea a good one, we can play with different formulations. We can frame the idea in relation to a particular outcome. We can consider ‘what good looks like’ for different possible implementations or expressions of the idea.
- Most innovation occurs through the combination and management of ideas — how do you pursue and develop creative thinking?
- What are the ways you consider and test ideas before sharing them?
- What potential or possibilities are contained in the idea? What makes it good? Does it contain possible dangers or weakness?
- Can you express the idea as a testable hypothesis — how will you know when the idea has been tested or achieved it’s potential?
It’s rare that I have an idea that I can do anything else with on my own, other than admire it.
Depending on the idea, I can communicate it before or after an initial effort at understanding and defining it. Sometimes the communication is the only way to do the definition and synthesis. You can bounce an idea off another brain to work out the physics of the thing and how it behaves in the real world.
Other times you move from idea to synthesis to communication.
I need to be able to do this well — and usually need to do it repeatedly throughout a project.
Communication is the way of checking in that the idea hasn’t changed in the minds of those I work with. Ideas evolve quickly. This is great. It’s why creativity is exciting and energising. But when you want to exploit an idea you need it to stand still long enough to let you. Communicating codifies. Locking an idea into a description helps you wrangle and tame the idea. Naming the thing will give you power over it.
- Have you communicated the idea?
- If you asked others to explain the idea, would the same understanding result?
- How dependent on context and assumptions is your explanation of an idea?
- Is there an artifact that you can point to? This helps communicate, track changes and remind teams what they’re committed to.
Loops and combining Mode one mindsets
Moving with ease and intention between the three activities of Mode one is the mark of a reflective practitioner. You should be able to identify when you need some creativity and directed idea creation. When will you benefit from time to structure and develop ideas individually? How are ideas communicated?
Ideas don’t just happen at the start of a project. Ideas emerge throughout design projects — how do you acknowledge and exploit this. Is your team comfortable acknowledging a new idea as it emerges? Is there confidence to stop having ideas?
Also consider how integrated the activities of Mode one are in your practice. Do you have processes and techniques for combining the activities — collaboratively creating, developing and communicating ideas simultaneously? At times that’s the most efficient way of operating in Mode one.
Mode two: The core
I’m an information architect, so the core of my fish reflects that specialism. The middle of the fish describes how I add specific value to multidisciplinary teams.
Likewise — the questions and reflections that are appropriate in Mode two are probably more contingent on the particular project, mindset or specialism. The bullet points in this section may be a little less useful across projects or contexts — but they’re examples of the things I might be asking.
For most IAs, our default method of interrogating a challenge or opportunity is to think structurally.
We start to think about the parts and relationships between the parts which are implied during the definition stage.
We explore the ways we can turn an idea into a functioning thing. We consider the ‘thingness’ of the idea. We think about the parts or levels of granularity contained in the thing. We consider the arrangement of parts to deliver a ‘thing’ that is greater than the sum of those parts. We think about what the actual expression or implementation might made up of.
When I enter Mode two I carry forward the insight from the definition activities and begin to think structurally and strategically about translation and implementation.
I like Dan Klyn’s description of Ontology, Taxonomy and Choreography here. There’s probably a loose reflection of that model. Mode one gets to the heart of the idea. Mode two breaks it apart, puts it back together and thinks about connections. Mode three continues thinking about connections, context and use.
- Ideas and concepts contain and imply parts. Take the definition of the ‘thing’ you created and communicated in Mode one and consider how you might render this in your chosen medium (software, hardware or physical stuff).
- There are usually different structures and arrangement possible — how might you balance efficiency and resilience in the structures you create?
The day-to-day of doing my job as an information architect is usually focused on core, hard skills. I play a specific role, focused on the IA and work with other disciplines to create something that works and makes sense for an intended audience.
I work with other people to understand the requirements and the desired experiences so that I can play with the arrangements of parts and capabilities to match those requirements. We also develop our understanding of the feasibility and potential of the idea during implementation. We might even notice that we’re having new ideas — mixing Mode one and two together. Is that a good thing?
- What’s expected of you when you perform your core role?
- What artefacts and deliverables result from your work? Do you have a good understanding of what these things are for? Do you need to share your working documents — or translate these to communicate their consequences and conclusions?
- Do you and the team always know when a decision is a commitment? Do you have a process and agreement for co-ordinating the team when things change?
Is there any existing underlying technology or infrastructure that we could exploit and that we have access to?
Sometimes I think IA is a balancing act. We construct an equation with requirements on one side and capability on the other. Having the ability to work on the equation from either direction seems like a good idea. Building something cheaply on existing technology speeds things up and costs less — but ties you to the existing stuff that you’re inheriting and exploiting. Other times you might have the time and resource to build out your whole solution.
But most times you’ll want your well-architected system to be connected to other things. Considering infrastructure gives you a better picture of the connections within and across your design, as well as the foundation that enables it.
- Do you understand the constraints imposed by existing systems or architecture?
- What might you exploit for free — and what do you inherit because of it?
- You might also think of working with other disciplines or general productivity — what dependencies exist between the different work in the project?
Mode three: Concurrent systems
Infrastructure connects systems at the bottom. But there are other connections to be formed (or avoided) throughout well-designed systems. Sometimes you can increase resilience by keeping things separate. Sometimes you can increase coherence and efficiency through forming connections. Mode three is concerned with making the “best” connected thing as well as the best specific thing.
And note that its “best” connected — not necessarily “best-connected”.
The delivery mindset of Mode two helps us make the best specific thing. So I’m consistently thinking about how I can test the ideas, architecture, designs and systems that I’m creating.
In some ways the definition and communication stages are tests of a sort… do people laugh when I explain my ideas…
But they also provide that framed and shared understanding that enables further validation. Once we’ve refined and shared a common vision of the idea, it’s easy to have developed the implementation in a way that’s predisposed to evaluation. We know what the idea is, what it’s hoping to achieve and so can frame a hypothesis that we can test.
When we understand the challenges we might face we can think about the ways we’ll know if we’re overcoming them. We can start to describe what good looks like.
Of course, research and validation resurface throughout a project. They’re evidence that the fish model isn’t a linear A–B representation of the stages to work through. Rather it’s a toolbox of activities and mindsets to slip into and switch between as you work.
In some ways ‘Communication’ and ‘Validation’ provide the counterbalanced source of gravity for the whole model. Communicate and “test” throughout a project.
- Does everyone share an idea of ‘what good looks like”? Is it measurable? How and when will you test your ideas?
- How might you move different ideas and perspectives from opinion-based decisions to be based on information? Is there data (or sources of data and insight) on which to base development?
I also think regularly about the emergent systems we’ll create through the implementation we choose.
I try to identify opportunities to create networked and exploit concurrent architecture. This should make more sense and offer more value. There might be ways of increasing efficiency, resilience, connections or coherence within the systems and across the larger system of which it’s a part.
I have never had an idea that didn’t turn into a thing that connected and was contained by other ideas, situations or systems. It’s a dangerous sort of arrogance for an IA or organisation to only concentrate on creating their thing, without at least considering the ‘things’ around it in the lives of the audience or actors experiencing it.
- What surrounds your design? What does this mean for you and your audience?
My ultimate ambition is to create connected, efficient networked systems that get the balance right between efficiency and resilience on the one hand and connectedness and coherence to the surrounding context on the other.
I try to think about the arrangement of the parts not just from the perspective of the performance of the part, but in the role the part plays in the system. And I also want to think about my design as a part of a broader context for my audience. How will my architecture and design interact with the larger system or context that will surround it?
Lots of the time the people we’re designing for haven’t begun their ‘journey’ where we imagined they would. They’re sometimes not even the people we imagined, even when we’ve researched them conscientiously. They might have 24 tabs open. They might be eating a hotdog. Our well-constructed architecture is, to them, just a tiny corridor on a world wide web of information. What doors and other affordances stand on and around our corridor?
- What is within and outside my control but experienced as a whole when my design is used by the audience?
- How might the architecture and design evolve over time? What does this mean for the success of the design and architecture?
The reality is that most projects are actually many ideas that are emerging and evolving simultaneously. They’re defined and (hopefully) described and shaped by us and our colleagues. As we develop and deliver them, we translate them from implicit, ill-formed, floopy, gloopy, bumpy and brilliant little thing-a-ma-bobs into more structured ‘things’.
We translate the things into lines of code or physical objects — stuff to be experienced.
And then these ‘experiences’ sit out there in the real world, latent with meaning and waiting to be brought to life and made sense of — waiting to be had.
The real world is full of humans hoping to make sense of it. And I think sense is like a lasagne — while ready-made sense might exist — the homemade stuff is better. Information architecture empowers audiences to make sense of stuff for themselves. We don’t give away our influence in this view of IA. IA can still be coercive or directive. To paraphrase Jorge Arango, we ensure the ability to make sense of something across contexts by creating a degree of structural integrity. We usually want to make sense-making as easy as possible for audiences as they exploit and are directed by this ‘structural integrity’. But I tend to think that sense is made most effectively with (at least) a little conscious effort that is well-directed.
In our work as designers and information architects, we also make sense of stuff as we create. And conscious, well-directed effort definitely makes us more effective.
My model is designed to consciously direct my attention to the most useful part of the projects and teams that I’m part of. This conscious, reflective practice helps me to make things that are easier to make sense of, use and enjoy. I hope it might help you too.
This is an organic system. And it’s sometimes hard to catch the big fish. I can’t really explain all the ways it’s useful and helps — but I’m always happy to answer questions and comments.
If you want to know more then please get in touch.
This article was originally posted on danramsden.com
[* I was reminded recently that many of the original ideas for my fish were inspired by a workshop created by John V Willshire of Smithery. John spoke about the mapping techniques the workshop was based on at World IA Day 2021, here: https://smithery.com/2021/02/27/zenko-mapping-inception-and-pace-layers-wiad2021/]