Yesterday’s lesson: if it frustrates me, it likely frustrates students as well.
To be clear, I was not frustrated yesterday. In fact, I absolutely loved our exercises – it was the beginning of our Information Architecture work, as we (Atlas Workshops) continue to lead the students through the design process to create a website about smart cities. We’ve helped them to do some basic user research, understand their audience, collect data on smart cities, and yesterday the time had come to identify how the information they had collected all connected, and (ultimately) how we would display it on their final website.
We began with a card sort. Each student had a topic in mind, and announced it to the team. My plan had been for them to write their topics on index cards, and then collectively sort them into various categories until they had a clear idea of how their myriad ideas connected. That said, we had forgotten the index cards. We had also forgotten the sticky notes. It was a user experience designer’s nightmare… until we realized, the cards could be people.
The cards are people
The students knew their topics, and they could talk! With that in mind, we had them all stand up, and gave them 15 minutes to discuss how they connected to one another. We listened in, answered questions occasionally and more often suggested they test out their hypotheses. “This is so much fun when the cards can talk to one another,” my co-leader Adam said.
After 15 minutes, we stopped the group and asked what their categories were, and even though we had heard lots of productive conversation, they didn’t feel they had any answers. Everything they said sounded great to me – they had learned that some of their ideas were too narrow, where others were so broad they encompassed the whole team. At one point they got into an intense discussion on livability, and reached a dead end when they realized that all of their categories might in some way connect to that idea. Overall, the students told us, the exercise had gotten them nowhere.
Just where we wanted to be
I’ve lead dozens of card sorts on many many IA projects. Information architecture is tricky work, and I often find it frustrating. That said, I know enough to see when failure is in itself progress. With that in mind, I congratulated the team on making great progress, and we left for dinner. I felt good.
A few hours later we ended the day as we end each day of an Atlas Workshops trip: we identify a highlight of the day, something we wish had gone better, and something that made us stop and think. The negative piece is often tough for the kids to identify, which makes me feel pretty good. When they do have a negative, it’s often something about a choice of meal or a blister. But today, for more than one student, the low point was our project work. We had failed, said one. We had wasted time, said another. We had a frustrating conversation when we ought to have been productive, said a third.
I had not seen that coming.
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised. When I work on IA, that’s exactly how I feel, right up until the moment that something clicks. We had needed the break, and I was glad we had stopped for the day when we did, and I felt confident that we would complete our IA work the next day – but of course the students didn’t have that outside perspective. They had only their own frustrations and concerns. I should have realized that (at least some of) the students, much like me, would find the IA work challenging.
The light at the end of the tunnel
Although nothing in design is definite, I decided to make a promise. I looked each student in the eye, and I promised them that they would see a turning point in their work the next day. I told them that IA is tough for some people, myself included, and I told them that I was proud of the work they had done. But most of all, I promised them that after one more meeting, if we didn’t have a completed IA, I would finish the work myself.
I’m pleased to say that I kept that promise – or rather, they kept my promise. We reconvened this afternoon with cinnamon buns and juice, and after just an hour of discussion (with real cards), they had moved from abstract concepts into clearly connected topics, complete with relevant tags and big picture categories, which will likely become our final site navigation.
This evening, many mentioned our project work as their highlight of the day. They had learned to trust us, and to trust the process, and most of all they had learned that frustrating conversations are necessary to find the things that won’t work, on the way to identifying what will work.
But I learned something equally valuable. Activities that are frustrating when I do them are just as frustrating to the team I’m leading. We all needed an ice cream reward at the end of the day.
Post Script: Misery
As one final note, I asked them today if they felt they could define IA, having now been through the process.
“What is Information Architecture?” I asked, and without missing a beat someone responded “misery.”
I think they’re ready to call themselves UX designers.