Call Yourself a Practitioner? Prove It.

By Nathaniel Davis

Published: January 9, 2012

“Of the many professionals who say they practice information architecture, most don’t practice effectively. In fact, one could say the same regarding other professionals who operate within the domain of UX design.”

What I am about to tell you may come as a surprise. Of the many professionals who say they practice information architecture, most don’t practice effectively. In fact, one could say the same regarding other professionals who operate within the domain of UX design. While many of us may practice in the sense of the definition “repeated performance or systematic exercise for the purpose of acquiring skill or proficiency,” we don’t necessarily practice with the intent of creating a discipline—as in “a rule or system of rules.” As a result, many fall short in practicing effectively.

I tend to think that most UX professionals fail to recognize the subtle nuances of the terms practice and discipline. Indeed, it’s common to refer to the practice of information architecture and the discipline of information architecture as though both terms describe the same concept. But they do not. In fact, the difference between these terms is important, and understanding this can help tremendously in defining our expectations of the benefits each brings to academic and professional training.

In 2009, I became intrigued by the basic concept of practice and sought to understand how practitioners of information architecture might go beyond acquiring skill or proficiency to systematically discovering and sustaining discipline. In general, we might define these two terms as follows:

  • practice—Repetitive behavior for the purpose of producing and sustaining discipline.
  • discipline—Rules, methods, or processes, and predictable results—that is, work products—that derive from practice.

By the time I began my research, the field of information architecture had already discovered valuable rules that contributed to a discipline of information architecture. However, the IA community’s lack of a framework of IA practice has fueled some disparities in the discipline of information architecture—from the epistemology, or what we claim to know, of information architecture to processes and a constructive vocabulary. Such a framework would aid us in evolving a discipline with greater efficiency and coordination in the future. As a result, I had to decide whether to adopt an existing practice framework from a different field or propose one of my own. Always looking for an opportunity to apply my own theories, I was inspired to craft a new practice framework.

My efforts morphed into a type of IA management research that I call practice modeling—an inquiry into a formal approach to practice that promotes discipline and is agnostic of any professional occupation.

In this column, I’d like to highlight three useful insights of practice modeling that offer guidance on how to begin practicing information architecture with greater accountability. With these ideas in place, our identifying ourselves as practitioners has greater meaning—enabling the evaluation of our overall proficiency and establishing credibility for the discipline that we bring to a project and an organization.

Insight 1: Practice Targets Unique Competencies

“If you want to practice information architecture effectively, you should ground your perspective on a solid idea of what practice means.”

Of course, you need not be an information architect to practice information architecture. In fact, the majority of you who are reading this column probably call yourselves a UX Designer or UX Architect. However, your jobs typically require you to oversee or perform information architecture duties. Regardless of your title and your main responsibilities within your organization, if you want to practice information architecture effectively, you should ground your perspective on a solid idea of what practice means.

While the definition of practice that I provided earlier might be a useful enough definition as definitions go, it does not specifically mention the range of repetitive behaviors that would help optimize one’s approach to practice. For this, we need a more descriptive definition:

practice—“The collective behavior of intentional empirical probing around an area of interest, whereby the contribution of documentation of discovery enables consensus that builds and reinforces discipline around such behaviors.”—from the DSIA Research Initiative

I introduced this definition in a presentation that I gave at the 2010 IA Summit. I know it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue—technical definitions rarely do. However, this more descriptive definition expresses several points that our first definition doesn’t include. The idea of primary importance is the formal exploration of competencies, or what the DSIA definition refers to as an area of interest. With the exception of specialists, practitioners usually take on several areas of interest.

If you study my previous UXmatters columns, you will see that areas of interest are critical because they help frame a practice. These define the main focus of professionals’ work and immediately provide scope for all of their efforts. Further, with careful consideration, the mere mention of an area of interest should imply a value proposition. To see an example, read “Framing the Practice of Information Architecture,” in which I discuss what I consider to be the primary areas of interest of information architecture.

I’ve also summarized the primary areas of interest for UX design in my DSIA Research Initiative article “UX Design Practice Verticals.” To perceive the real value of information architecture, a review of the broader domain of UX design is necessary, because it’s important to understand how it relates to the other practice verticals that contribute to the design and development of computing interfaces. The areas of interest of information architecture (IA) are

  • information navigation
  • information organization
  • information relationship
  • IA management
  • IA strategy
  • IA research

Insight 2: Practice Is About Behavior

“If you choose to take the path of a practitioner, by definition, you’ll need to hold yourself accountable for a rigor of practice that cultivates discipline.”

Becoming effective at practicing information architecture—or any other profession—requires more than acquiring knowledge and pursuing the profession’s primary areas of interest. How we acquire competency in those areas of interest—through a set of professional behaviors—determines how proficient we become through discipline. Thus, if you choose to take the path of a practitioner, by definition, you’ll need to hold yourself accountable for a rigor of practice that cultivates discipline. This is valuable both to you and the organization for which you work.

Whether you gain discipline on the job or through formal training or an apprenticeship, the practice methodology of the DSIA Research Initiative suggests that the set of behaviors that produce discipline is the same for any of these educational paths. In this section, I’ll summarize the subject domains of this methodology.

Figure 1—DSIA practice methodology

DSIA practice methodology

1. Probe for new knowledge and opportunities.

“Seek and you will find.”—Matthew 7:7

Practitioners demonstrate a passion for probing thought, in the hope of finding some new aspect of an area of interest within a practice that extends their knowledge. This is probably the one behavior of practice that most reflects a mindset that encourages practitioners never to rest on their laurels.

As you take on your next assignment, your intention should be to explore something new—like a navigational behavior that you had never anticipated, a unique informational relationship, or a new requirement for managing a complex domain.

2. Discover new insights through the measurement and research of known activity.

Measure, Measure, Measure

“Practitioners explore ways of analyzing the work they’ve done to learn as much as possible about their solutions as they persist over time.”

Practitioners seek insights into their own work as much as they take an interest in the revelations they can find in the work of others. Practitioners explore ways of analyzing the work they’ve done to learn as much as possible about their solutions as they persist over time.

As you begin your next project, decide what code requirements you need to define to enable analytics that report back to you. If you’re interested in the performance of an information architecture, define requirements for IA analytics. If you’re capturing data across your user interface’s entire user experience, define requirements for UX analytics. Then benchmark and track trends for the effectiveness of that information architecture or user experience, and look for actionable patterns that emerge within your target domain.

3. Document your discoveries.

Observe and report—no matter what.

Even in the most volatile work environment, practitioners can find a moment to capture their experience—whether formally or informally. Documentation can manifest in many ways—like jotting a thought down on paper, tapping an idea into a digital notepad, or discussing a possible improvement to a process while having lunch with a colleague.

Your intent should be to make the documentation of your discoveries actionable—whether you capture them during or after a project. Your documentation should evolve into the official record that articulates your conventions. Ensure that you develop efficient processes and methods for their retrieval, because if you do this long enough, you’ll produce a significant knowledge base that you may one day share with others.

4. Refine existing knowledge and gain consensus.

To be flawless, address your flaws. Modifying something for the purpose of making it better is a good thing.

Whether you gain your insights through the proactive probing or vetting of existing methods or artifacts, you should constructively assess the necessary changes to an existing discipline and view their realization as improvements.

If you are an independent consultant, compare your discipline with publicly available best practices. If you work as part of a group practice, promote consensus and collaborative refinement, in addition to following industry best practices.

5. Share knowledge.

“Sharing knowledge is better than having it.”—Peter Bogaards, @BogieZero

“Rely on sharing as a way of creating productive dialogues and connections with your peers.”

Practitioners share their discipline with those in their close professional circle, as well as with broader audiences. They can do this through weekly group meetings, mentorship, presentations, workshops, or articles—similar to what I’m doing right now. Whether practitioners offer their insights freely, as part of their job requirements, or for a fee varies. All of these approaches are beneficial.

Rely on sharing as a way of creating productive dialogues and connections with your peers. This builds a healthy level of interdependence and awareness within your organization and the professional community at large.

6. Validate best practices by putting them to the test.

Prove it.

Practitioners understand that the validation of their insights requires testing. This final stage of a practice methodology completes the cycle and gives it the recommended rigor of a sound scientific method.

If you’re serious about becoming a practitioner, use your professional network to confirm the utility of your assumptions and conventions. While having others test or judge your work can be frightening, it is the best way to gain traction in moving toward individual and collective discipline. Having others vet your professional learnings takes the credibility of your assumptions to a higher level, going far beyond your individual means, and suggests that you, as a practitioner, are prepared to prove the resilience of your discipline by putting it to the test.

Insight 3: Practitioners Don’t Make Excuses

“Practitioners can never say they don’t have time to reflect and improve, because … perpetually attending to our improvement is a built-in function of a practitioner’s work effort.”

I’d like to point out something that most of us have experienced personally to some degree: our having little time to reflect and improve upon our skills. If you’re serious about becoming or improving as a practitioner, you cannot use this as an excuse. Practitioners can never say they don’t have time to reflect and improve, because, according to the definition of practice that this column espouses, perpetually attending to our improvement is a built-in function of a practitioner’s work effort. Thus, being engaged on a project results in reflection and improvement. So, if you struggle with the notion that you don’t have enough time to practice some aspect of your work effectively, this is probably an area in which you need to acquire discipline.

You might ask yourself: How do I work in an agile or time-constrained environment and still remain accountable as a practitioner? I asked myself this question a few years ago. I guarantee that, if you bring this question with you into each project, you’ll be surprised at the wisdom you’ll gain. The practice methodology I’ve discussed in this column can give you a significant head start in gaining new revelations.

Are You a Practitioner?

“To practice is to create a culture of individual and collective behavior that positions professionals to excel at the highest level of quantifiable expertise: discipline.”

Practice means more than becoming better for the sake of getting better. To practice is to create a culture of individual and collective behavior that positions professionals to excel at the highest level of quantifiable expertise: discipline.

If you’re not practicing something, you’re not providing sustainable value to your clients or your organization. If you’re not adding business value, your days in your profession are already numbered. As a result, everyone should seek to be a practitioner. While UX design, interaction design, user research, and content strategy are all fine professions to practice, the world needs more practitioners of information architecture.

Organizations that are made up of practitioners not only adopt existing disciplines, they thrive on innovating new disciplines. Starting today, endeavor to build your competencies in information architecture’s primary areas of interest, and be ready to prove your worth as a practitioner. The future of the discipline of information architecture depends on it.

Additional Reading Related to This Topic

References

Davis, Nathaniel. “About Practice Modeling.” DSIA Portal of Information Architecture, March 31, 2011. Retrieved December 9, 2011.

Davis, Nathaniel, “DSIA Practice Framework.” DSIA Portal of Information Architecture, June 2010. Retrieved December 20, 2011.

Davis, Nathaniel. “Information Architecture, Black Holes, and Discipline: On Developing a Framework for a Practice of Information Architecture.” Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science & Technology, 2010. Retrieved December 9, 2011.

Davis, Nathaniel. “The Practice of Information Architecture: It Takes a Village of Practitioners to Raise a Discipline.” DSIA Portal of Information Architecture, March 2010. Retrieved December 24, 2011.

Davis, Nathaniel. “UX Design Practice Verticals.” DSIA Portal of Information Architecture, December 4, 2011. Retrieved December 24, 2011.

2 Comments

I encourage you to investigate research on “Communities of Practice” from Wenger and Lave—for example. There’s a great deal there—and in research along those lines since—that has helped us understand how people coalesce into practitioner communities and how, over time, a discipline can emerge. I touch on some of that here. (Old presentation, though, but it has the basic idea illustrated.)

Thanks, Andrew. I’m aware of Wenger’s work and did not include it because it doesn’t speak directly enough to the concerns of information architecture.

Having said that, I must confess a gross, unintended omission of the thinking that you’ve contributed around this topic, which does strongly relate to information architecture.

I am actually aware of your presentation and was also present at the 2008 IA Summit when you spoke about practice and discipline in your Linkosophy keynote.

I’m glad you brought this to our attention. It’s important to be aware of each case that urges us to recognize the difference between practice and discipline. Hopefully, with repetition, we’ll eventually take them both more seriously.

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