Industry Contributors’ Roles in Professional Practice

By Nathaniel Davis

Published: July 22, 2013

“Information architecture, interaction design, and UX design are three major practices that have significantly evolved our approach to creating well-designed digital products and services.”

I consider myself to be an advocate for the development of a coherent information architecture (IA) practice. However, my words would fall on deaf ears without the groundwork that many other industry contributors have laid. In fact, many of you who are reading this column are probably contributors to IA practice at some level. I am also an active practitioner and researcher in UX design—and thus, am a contributor to the field of UX design as well, just as many of you are. Others reading this article may be contributors to the field of interaction design. As active contributors to our professional practices, we help to sustain the fields of information architecture, interaction design, and user experience.

Information architecture, interaction design, and UX design are three major practices that have significantly evolved our approach to creating well-designed digital products and services. This hasn’t happened by chance. Industry wide, our collective efforts have promoted the maturity of our respective fields, making this evolution possible.

In this month’s column, I’ll describe six types of industry contributors and the basic activities that help them to shape and sustain the momentum of our evolving fields of practice. Since we’re all contributors in one form or another, you may find it interesting to assess how you’re currently contributing and where you could add further value to your field of practice in the future.

Six Categories of Industry Contributors

“Here’s my take on six categories of contributors that I’ve observed in my fields of information architecture and UX design.”

If you observe the many articles, blogs, presentations, and tweets on the Internet, you’ll find a lot of content about information architecture, interaction design, and UX design. Have you ever wondered whether there’s a pattern to all of this activity or what impact it has on our field? Well, there is a pattern, and the impact is great. Here’s my take on six categories of contributors that I’ve observed in my fields of information architecture and UX design:

  • thought leader
  • framer
  • practitioner
  • teacher
  • advocate
  • audience

Thought Leader

Thought Leader

Thought leaders are visionaries who contemplate the future and constantly provoke new and creative thinking. They contemplate their field’s future potential, develop theory and philosophy, and expose its underlying science.”

Thought leaders are visionaries who contemplate the future and constantly provoke new and creative thinking. They contemplate their field’s future potential, develop theory and philosophy, and expose its underlying science. Simply put, thought leaders lead advanced thinking within a particular area of interest in their field.

Most thought leaders have one thing in common: they are unafraid to speak out and take risks. Thought leaders come in several flavors. First is the visionary. Comfortable with their intuition, visionaries are confident that they possess a rare ability to glimpse the future. Their forethought is often a futuristic leap—which can, at times, be so far detached from the current state of the art that it can be difficult for many to see the connective thread. You may find yourself trusting proven thought leaders more than understanding what they predict.

A second type of thought leader is what I like to call a synthesizer. Synthesizers see the future, but their vision is not as far out as the visionary’s. Synthesizers pick up on past and current trends that others may not recognize and easily blend their observations into predictions and convincing arguments. This type of thought leadership is valuable because synthesizers’ assertions are supported by more tangible, real-world evidence that others can critique and probe.

Then, there’s the provocateur. This thought leader stirs up constructive dialogue, challenging the field to question and test convention. They are a catalyst for contemplations that can sometimes lead to refinement of their field and even to innovation. However, provocateurs walk a thin line: they must offer sufficiently constructive and actionable dialogue; otherwise, their efforts become noise.

The most formal and, typically, the least traveled path of thought leadership is that of the academic. Academics perform research and investigate philosophic and scientific subject matter, either independently or under the auspices of a public or private organization. While this form of thought leadership may be the least explored in many circles, it is by no means the least important. In fact, at the first sign that a field is struggling to establish and defend its position, critics look to the more formal areas of thought when challenging a field’s substance and credibility. For example, the field of information architecture is rich in practice, but the gap that exists in its more formal areas of thought leadership make it susceptible to frequent critiques and marginalization.

One achieves the pinnacle of thought leadership by embodying a mix of all types of thought leadership. So, if you have at least one or two thought-leadership activities going for yourself, you’re that much closer to becoming a rare quadruple threat. Continue to broaden your range, because information architecture, interaction design, and UX design could use more well-rounded thought leaders. However, if your skill is in, say, constructive provocation—well, be the best provocateur you can be.

Framer

Framer

“It’s the framer who identifies options for a new field’s immediate next steps, explores marketing opportunities, and defines the value propositions that will resonate with practitioners and future customers.”

The vision set forth by thought leaders provides a north star for a field—a direction to pursue. But it’s the framer who identifies options for a new field’s immediate next steps, explores marketing opportunities, and defines the value propositions that will resonate with practitioners and future customers. In a way, framers provide the connective tissue that is inherently absent in a vision. Without effective framing, thought leadership results only in dormant propositions, promises, and predictions. Thus, framing plants the seeds for a plan of action to fulfill a viable vision for a field.

Framers are the interpreters of vision; the pragmatists who guide a field—for example, through the publication of books, articles, blog posts, and papers.

They actively communicate a field’s perspectives and produce models and maps that help to get practitioners on the same page and enable their field to come to maturity. The framers of our complex fields lend clarity to our understanding and practice of information architecture, interaction design, and UX design.

Synthesizing and provocative thought leaders make great framers. While they are skilled at seeing possible future states, they’re also well prepared to contribute to discussions that provide a bridge to that future state, which others can cross. But, you don’t have to be a thought leader to be a framer, and your field won’t always need heady thinking to map its future. In many situations, we’ll simply need the framing of processes, methods, and models that practitioners can use when they need quick and easy references.

Practitioner

Practitioner

Practitioners help to validate the claims of thought leaders and framers. … Framing is only as good as the practitioners within the field who actually produce work products for clients.”

Practitioners help to validate the claims of thought leaders and framers. Just as thought leadership depends, in turn, on coherent framing, framing is only as good as the practitioners within the field who actually produce work products for clients. You can have all the theory and framing in the world, but if there is no practical application of thought leadership and framing, they become irrelevant.

An active field of practice generates many things, including a body of knowledge and, most importantly, the elements of a discipline. As some practitioners mature, they grow into future framers and thought leaders of our fields.

To be clear, being a practitioner means more than just getting the job done. Practice encourages rigor around our professional activities that eventually leads to the evolution of the discipline. I’be offered my own thoughts on practical thinking in a previous column and have provided extensive coverage on the topic of practice on the DSIA Portal of Information Architecture. Even though I’be written my articles from an IA perspective, they are also applicable to the much broader practice of UX design.

Teacher

Teacher

“Of all contributors to a field, teachers are our most important asset. To sustain our evolving practice and discipline, we need to pass on the lessons that we’be learned….”

If we practice with the intent of discovering, learning, and growing, but fail to share our knowledge, we become like a remote island that is unknown to the rest of civilization. Of all contributors to a field, teachers are our most important asset. To sustain our evolving practice and discipline, we need to pass on the lessons that we’be learned to others, at some point.

Of course, practitioners are your best teachers if you want to learn from someone with a pragmatic, real-world view. Practitioner teachers can take several common and effective avenues to contributing to their field—as conference presenters, bloggers, guest lecturers, and mentors. Career instructors, on the other hand, offer invaluable exposure to a greater variety of approaches to a field through their methods, labs, hands-on training, and accreditation.

I think we all understand the value of knowledge transfer through selfless teachers. If you feel compelled to teach what you know, go for it. Enough said.

Advocate

Advocate

Advocates are our field’s promoters and help to inform others about the value of the many aspects of information architecture, interaction design, and UX design.”

What’s a professional field without someone who can sell it? This is where advocates come into the picture. Advocates are our field’s promoters and help to inform others about the value of the many aspects of information architecture, interaction design, and UX design.

Just as sales and advertising are crucial to promoting businesses, advocates within our field are vital to ensuring that the right people become aware of the value of information architecture, interaction design, and UX design—and the more people who know about and understand what we do, the better. Advocacy involves teaching, and teaching requires an understanding of the practice.

An advocate doesn’t have to be a practitioner, but does need to be sufficiently well-educated to make a solid case on behalf of our professions. For example, an advocate might be a business stakeholder or someone who attended a conference and became convinced that information architecture, interaction design, or UX design should be taken more seriously in their organization.

There are two main forms of advocacy: First is advocacy of a practice as a means of recruiting new, talented professionals to the field or to our organizations. The other is advocacy of the practice by professionals to acquire new customers and supporters. As the members of our respective practices better understand, frame, and execute the work that we do, we’ll be better able to acquire customers and recruit talented people to help us meet the professional demand that lies ahead in the future.

Audience

Audience

“We must continually strive to … [ensure] that we are accessible to our audience— those who can benefit from our professional services.”

Lastly, the professional fields of information architecture, interaction design, and UX design wouldn’t exist if it were not for the underlying needs of businesses and consumers who are increasingly becoming dependent on digital technology—that is, without our audience. And we must not forget that our audience also includes our peers. We must continually strive to remain focused on advancing our fields, cultivating talented professionals by maintaining a thriving professional community, and ensuring that we are accessible to our audience— those who can benefit from our professional services.

So, Where Do You Stand?

“These six categories of contributors need not be mutually exclusive roles. They represent a spectrum of qualities that we may possess in varying degrees.”

For those of you who work in the fields of information architecture, interaction design, and UX design, these six categories of contributors need not be mutually exclusive roles. They represent a spectrum of qualities that we may possess in varying degrees. Try to determine where your strengths and opportunities lie, and create a niche for yourself within your field. As we all do the same, our professional fields of practice will appreciate in value.

As they pertain to our respective fields of practice, these six categories reflect a level of interdependency that is essential to the very sustainability of our fields—as well as our careers. In today’s rapidly changing business environment, building and sustaining a stable foundation for the professional fields of information architecture, interaction design, and UX design requires the active participation of all of these types of contributors. This leads me to my final observation: professional associations are in decline.

Living Up to a Tall Order

“My expectation of professional associations is that they help foster the growth of their respective fields and protect the interests of prospective customers by providing a neutral resource for knowledge on acceptable standards.”

Andrew Dillon, ASIS&T President and Dean and Professor at the University of Texas School of Information, recently wrote about the challenges that face struggling professional associations. Dillon cited Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers, authors of Race for Relevance, who argue that “the landscape for associations has altered drastically as a result of new technologies and … few [associations] have managed to respond appropriately.”

I think we can attribute the decline of our professional associations to

  • the rise of social-networking platforms, which have diluted the relevance of formal associations
  • Web-based software that sets false expectations among nonprofessionals
  • the generally easy access to information and resources that we once entrusted to professional associations

Nevertheless, my expectation of professional associations is that they help foster the growth of their respective fields and protect the interests of prospective customers by providing a neutral resource for knowledge on acceptable standards. Thus, they could help insulate legitimate professionals from rogue opportunists masquerading as seasoned practitioners. Unfortunately, it appears that the programs that could protect both professionals and consumers are eroding—along with the level of quality that we can reliably expect from information architects, interaction designers, and UX designers. All of our professions are more vulnerable than ever before. However, this does not have to be the case.

I am a paying member of the IA Institute, the Association of Information Science and Technology (ASIS&T), and the User Experience Professionals’ Association (UXPA). As with many associations, they face challenges in remaining relevant. Though all of these associations have recognized the need to reassess their business models, their efforts will be in vain without a broad field of active, well-rounded contributors—and as much as associations need contributors, contributors need associations even more.

Yes, as an individual, it’s possible for you to extend your professional success through your favorite social platform and by networking at industry conferences. But, the highly distributed bonds that we create through social software and annual industry events are too weak to support the needs of the thousands of practitioners who aspire to build discipline and relevance and speak with a consistent voice in the marketplace. We still need professional associations.

The Role of Professional Associations

“Professional associations … can be both incubators and supporters of the various types of contributors that I’ve described….”

In theory, professional associations such as the IA Institute, ASIS&T, UXPA, and IxDA can be both incubators and supporters of the various types of contributors that I’ve described in this column. I encourage you to support their efforts and your industry by becoming members. Then, demand that your association maintain programs that support the efforts of contributors to your professional field, providing a way for you to improve both your field and your chance for a long and prosperous career.

Support these reputable professional associations:

4 Comments

Great call out for some of the professional associations where UX-related practice is supported. I would add ACM SIGCHI to the core. Others would add HFES and/or AIGA.

Good list of roles. I think one important role is missing: The Organizer. They volunteer their time to organize conferences, set up Web sites (like UXmatters!), facilitate discussions, create libraries of content, and build up other infrastructure to support the thought leader, the framer, and so on. Some organizers do it within the structure of one of those professional associations; some do it free style.

This is where I like to spend my time, as do many others, helping provide the foundation for our emerging professions. All we usually ask is a little thanks every once in a while. So the next time you find yourself at a great conference, thank the organizers. When you find yourself reading yet another great article on UXmatters, thank the editors. And so on.

Keith, I completely agree.

Organizers who work either behind the scenes or at center stage to facilitate engagement within the field are invaluable! I’m amazed at their passion and willingness to commit to what, at times, can be a thankless job. So, here’s to you and the many others who do such necessary work.

If a criterion for field contributors is that they must offer some form of profession-building artifact, which I failed to mention, the organizer can be included in this. However, they often do so in a less concrete way. When acting independently or on behalf of an organization or professional association, organizers do not directly contribute a tangible artifact, they enable it. Sometimes it’s not about having the answers, but knowing how to set the stage for answers to emerge. The contribution of organizers as catalysts is invaluable.

With that said, I would also conclude that audience, as a category of contributors, is so passive that it does not meet the criteria. So I would replace it with Keith’s suggestion, organizers.

With more time to contemplate on the topic of this column, I might have realized that the conversation I was having about the tall order that associations face was actually describing a more valid group of contributors, organizers. But, that’s the value of peer review and public critique.

Keith, thank you for reading this column and contributing to its improvement.

I’d say that audience is still a damn important group. If we call them members—as in members of a professional organization in general or members of the industry in general—I think their value stands out more. They make up the largest number of people, even if each is not that active. You cannot have a practice without practitioners!

I think there is another possible group that you may have lumped into audience—members of related professions/industries that are important collaborators with, customers of, or suppliers to the UX industry. Possible examples: project managers, CIOs, software developers, marketing managers, small business owners. They would not call themselves members of the UX industry/profession, but they certainly care about it enough to have input into how the profession develops. Something else to think about.

Definitely.

Members of the field are essential, and I feel their inclusion in all this goes without saying. Let’s say members can be considered anyone with a vested professional interest in the field. For example, practitioners, researchers, analysts, and even software companies can directly contribute as some type of thought leader, framer, practitioner, teacher, advocate, or organizer.

I see non-members—those without a vested professional interest—as contributors under one of two roles: as an advocate or thought leader. Let me explain.

Clients and our colleagues belonging to other disciplines—like project and marketing managers, business analysts, developers, and CIOs—make great advocates when they come to realize the value of our respective fields first hand. As for thought leadership, it could come in the form of provocation—for example, a harsh critique of the field or a constructive plea for the field to improve in a particular area of interest.

Overall, I think our six main contributor roles are holding up, for now. Let’s continue to scrutinize.

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