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Ten questions for Donna Maurer

2-August-06

Donna Maurer

Donna is a freelance information architect and interaction designer. She has been designing structures and interfaces for websites, intranets, web applications and business tools professionally for more than 5 years, and has been hanging around the internet for much longer than that. Donna is an experienced speaker and has presented at many events, most recently at the Information Architecture Summit in Montreal as well as Webstock New Zealand. Donna has also developed and presented very popular workshops on information architecture; interaction design and usability topics. She writes a weblog, imaginatively called DonnaM.

[1] Russ: First of all, how did you first get into information architecture?

Donna: Like many information architects, I evolved into it. I started working on a web team for an enormous government website and discovered 'usability' which I thought was pretty fabulous. Then I discovered the concept of information architecture which I thought was much more fabulous and still do. I worked for a while on that big government site, redesigning the top few levels and implementing its first search engine. Then I moved to a different department where I redesigned their intranet and designed a content management system.

I discovered that I was naturally good at this type of work and liked it. I'm reasonably empathetic (though I know some people who wouldn't agree), am good at organising things (you should see my pantry) and creative (I'm a weaver when I have time). IA allows me to combine those three things.

But my degree is in economics, which has no relationship whatsoever.

[2] Russ: You apparently hate the term "usability". Do you think it has usability issues?

Donna: Oh, it sure does. As a word, usability means a quality attribute - some sort of measure that a system is usable. But everyone uses it to mean different things - to represent an entire field of practitioners, a set of techniques, the activity of usability testing, a weapon to hit developers with when you don't like their interface.

User-centred design is a bit better. At least it has a verb. More importantly, it has the magic word - design. Design is the key - we should all be designing good stuff. Any 'usability' activities should be informing our designs, not being huge processes full of deliverables that don't contribute to our design activities. Focus on the goal - well-designed systems - not the activities.

That said, I have written a couple of articles with usability in the title and once had a business card with 'usability specialist'. I think at one point I must have fallen into the same trap as everyone else.

[3] Russ: You classify yourself as both an information architect and interaction designer. What are the differences between these two skill sets?

Donna: In general, I see an information architecture project as one in which we are working with fairly large sets of content - making sure it is well organised, the right content pieces are related to each other, and people can discover what they need. In these, we design the structure and navigation of information. I see an interaction design project as one in which we are working with tasks and activities. One in which people are trying to get something done, beyond discovering information. In these, we design the way people interact with a system, primarily via it's interface (which is why this was once called interface design).

As an example, this year I've worked on the redesign of two government websites - pure IA projects. Late last year I designed the interaction model and interfaces for a huge data processing and reporting system for another department - a pure interaction design project.

Loads of projects will have both elements, and over time I'm sure more IA projects will have stronger interactive aspects.

But you asked about skill sets. IA projects need skills in organising content - figuring out how to put it together in ways to help people find what they need. Interaction design projects need people with the ability to understand task flows, how a detailed task works end-to-end and how to design good interaction models. Both require good interface design skills.

[4] Russ: You have been focussing recently on the concept of teaching design, saying The real key is in teaching people how to think. Isn't teaching people to think a little dangerous?

Donna: No, it's empowering and fulfilling and you get the best from people by allowing them to think.

But teaching people to think is hard. I can teach people techniques such as user research, usability testing, card sorting. I can even teach many people how to do the basics of design. It really is a different story to teach people how to think - how to take someone else's research and apply it thoughtfully, how to observe and draw the right conclusions, how to let everything swish around in your brain until the light-bulb goes off.

Sometimes I wish I could give straightforward answers like the usability gurus instead of getting people to think. They'd be much happier with that and think I'm smarter.

[5] Russ: You have said I may spend a long time seeming to do very little. Don't panic - I'm thinking. Has this behaviour caused people concern in the past?

Donna: Yes. It would be funny if it didn't get me into trouble so often. Project managers tend to freak out a bit when I spend two days staring at nothing and one day scribbling on coloured paper, with deliverables due on the fourth day. But the first three help me get my head around an idea, think it through, try alternatives, abandon ideas. I only touch a computer when the idea is distilled and I know it suits the problem. Then it takes me hardly any time to draw it up. I don't miss my deadlines.

[6] Russ: You have worked on a wide variety of projects over the years. How important do you think teams are in the success of a project?

Donna: Teams are vital. The idea of the lone designer coming in to provide the magic solution is, in many cases, ridiculous (the idea of getting a consultant to do the same in isolation from a team is more ridiculous).

I love working with people. Not for people, but with them. I want to share ideas, solve problems together and create good stuff together. There is little more amazing than working with other people, supporting one another and achieving together. I don't understand the idea of writing down role descriptions, defining boundaries and not stepping outside them. That doesn't create good work, it just creates paperwork.

I also think teams should be made up of people with different skills & perspectives. Good work doesn't come out of teams who are clones of one another.

[7] Russ: You have spent some time looking into Web 2.0 applications and user experience. Have you come across examples were AJAX-style interactions could be beneficial for users?

Donna: There are loads. The 1.0 generation of web applications were very limited in their interaction. Fill in a field, hit a button, wait for something to happen.

My favourite improvements are some of the simpler ones - simple error prevention, feedback and saving are so much more efficient when done within the page. I also love interfaces like Netflix and Gap use - both provide more details (on hover) without having to navigate to another page. Inline editing is also great - I hate having to use old systems where I click an 'edit' link, wait for the details to load, edit, save changes and return to where I started. That's just clumsy.

[8] Russ: There has been a lot of talk about bad design and good design recently. What are your thoughts on this discussion?

Donna: I think this is pretty simple, but maybe I'm missing the point.

If you provide something valuable, people will use it. If they really need to get something done or are doing something enjoyable, they'll go to great lengths to do so.

If you provide something people don't find valuable, or it is the wrong thing for the time, no amount of great visual design will help.

I have logins for loads of beautiful websites I never use; and spend mountains of time in Excel, Visio and del.icio.us - hardly the most attractive places to be, but invaluable.

[9] Russ: I've heard rumours that you have a book coming out soon on card sorting. If this is true what can we expect in the book?

Donna: It will be a skinny book, easy to read, chock full of practical advice. I have done plenty of card sorting and have thought about what I do, so have plenty of tips. I have also collected great stories and case studies to show how the ideas make sense in real projects.

I'm enjoying writing it, which is very important - it makes it easy to write, and hopefully easy to read.

[10] Russ: Apart from the book, what else is in the pipeline for you?

Donna: Fending off attacks by usability people, project managers, consultants and anyone else I've insulted here.

Oh, seriously. I'm teaching an information architecture workshop in New Zealand at the end of August, and am talking at some great conferences later this year including Sydney Web Standards Group, Web Directions, OzIA information architecture retreat & conference and OZCHI, where I'm doing the industry keynote speech. I'm organising next year's IA Summit (Las Vegas, end of March) so will soon be very busy with that. I'm also hoping to run some IA workshops in Australia in the first half of next year.

And on top of all that I'm about to start a new contract leading a big user-centred design team. I'm really looking forward to that.

One day I'll find some time to do some weaving or gardening...

Russ: Thank you for the interview!
Donna: You're welcome. I love to talk about these topics.

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