In IA Practice
Summary: Many savvy, successful product managers (or people driving product management) are still stunted by these myths about information architecture.

In this two-part series, Daniel O’Neil and Jessica DuVerneay share their perspectives on why information architecture is a good investment for your digital project. Part 2 is below.

On some of our favorite projects at TUG, we’ve been fortunate to partner with some incredibly smart product managers. This person might be a product manager by name, but might also be someone labeled otherwise—for example, Marketing Director, CxO, or UX Lead. Independent of title, this person is in charge of the strategy, concepting, launch, and success of a new site or digital product.

To better serve our most prevalent customer, understand their constraints, and speak their language more clearly, I recently completed a 10-week immersive in Product Management with General Assembly in Chicago. And I’m glad I did—the class was eye-opening.

To my dismay, the instructor didn’t bring up information architecture until pressed (by me), and even then, perpetuated some common myths of IA. I frequently found myself on the edge of my seat in class, arm raised to chime in about these misconceptions. I was the rogue evangelist preaching the good word of the realities of IA, posting links and slipping TUG case studies to my peers like a madman.

My instructor and my classmates probably aren’t alone; there are most likely many savvy, successful product managers (or people driving product management) still need to learn the reality about information architecture:

Reality #1: Information Architecture Happens Early, and It’s Different from Design

When discussing product strategy, stakeholder and business needs, and deciding what to do in class, IA was not brought up. When I asked my instructor and peers who does the crucial placemaking work IAs set out to accomplish, the sentiment shared by the product managers and product-managers-to-be was UX / UI designers will “do the IA” at the end of the project; in other words, implement it as a design feature during development.

Information architecture is a crucial foundational perspective that for most complex information spaces, needs to be considered upfront with product strategy and initial stakeholder alignment. In this way it’s similar to other architectural activities like systems or database architecture. Design is the effective realization of any architectural structure. Can you imagine telling your developers to just “do the database” in the middle of a sprint? It would create the same kind of chaos and confusion that occurs without good IA. Looking at your place through the lens of IA helps you answer questions like these:

  • What type of place are we building?
  • Who are we building it for?
  • How does this new place work with existing digital places we also manage?
  • How can we best combine our fragmented places into one cohesive, KPI and metric driven environment?

As the key person in charge of the product’s success, product managers are the people to address this at the concept phase—or delegate it to a consultant if that isn’t a skill set they’ve mastered. Architect before you build (or design) for best results—or hire someone to do it well for you.

Reality #2: IA Saves Time

In class, I learned that product managers are a speedy group; they often live and die by aggressive time-to-market, roadmaps, agile life-cycles, compressed sprints, and accelerated go-to market schedules. This leads to a breakneck speed in a typical product manager’s daily life. This palpable sense of urgency might preclude slowing down and considering the undertaking of a focused information architecture project. Product managers working on delivering an a three-month roadmap or the next two-week sprint often don’t see how slowing the movement of the project for IA work will contribute to the progress.

Agile, Scrum, Lean, Waterfall, Agile-fall—whatever methodology your team is using to stay on track—all play well with IA. Once the problem space is identified, a mapped IA process can work well in a project sidebar to deliver results that can be acted on in as little as six to eight weeks in ways that do not impact ongoing progress on a product. While the work we do at TUG does take an upfront investment of time, typically the work we do in turn saves time during the development and design phases. Places and systems that are designed and built with a focused, agreed upon, user-approvedIA are the correct things; changes aren’t being added to the dev and design backlog heap after each sprint and churn is low. This saves time and allows for the quick, confident release every product manager aims for.

Reality #3: IA Reduces Overall Product Cost

As with time, finances are a real constraint for product managers. Pricing out the cost to research, build, and test a new product often does not include budget for IA, simply because—as described above—many product managers don’t even understand how crucial information architecture is in the product management lifecycle. While there is budget planned out by most product managers for UX or UI design, few consider IA at the beginning of the process. Perceived sticker-shock might deter product managers for even looking into IA to begin with.

The price of IA ranges based on complexity of the organization and the place to be built, but generally is less than 5-8% of the total cost of a full development project. It is also, generally speaking, a predictable and fixed estimate, much like other architectural activities. In exchange for this small cost, you as a product manager get strategic and structural clarity that will dramatically decrease churn in design and development. Imagine being on a project where, at the beginning of every sprint, you could go over a clear blueprint of the entire project that reminded everyone involved of how the deliverable from the sprint would fit into the effort as a whole!

This is a clear way to keep a project on budget. The improvement in UX that you can expect from starting with an intentional architecture is a clear competitive (and therefore financial) advantage for your product.

See Daniel’s Part 1: Why Do You Need an Information Architect?

Good to Great

Think of the last great tool, system, or product you used. Chances are someone intentionally architected it to be great. Few people in an organization are as well suited to take advantage of the tools IAs provide as product managers. Although the discipline is relatively new, we have seen IA profoundly improve the outcomes of numerous web and software projects, largely when our efforts were guided and supported by product managers, the result being useful, delightful, scalable, and sustainable products.

Want to Learn More?

Have more questions about how we can help you as a product manager? Drop us a line! We would be happy to talk more with you about how information architecture can help save time and money in your design process.

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