In IA Practice, Information Architecture, Modeling
Summary: TUG is a collection of information architecture consultants who love to help clients solve problems by teaching the principles of information architecture.

“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day.
Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Being an information architecture consultant, I have been the recipient of many “consultant” jokes from clients in the early stages of a project: “Isn’t that just like a consultant, using my watch to tell me the time, and then keeping my watch.” These jokes seem to only come before the client experiences the transparency, honesty, and integrity that each member of The Understanding Group (and TUG as an organization itself) embodies. Engagements with TUG are atypical for the consulting industry; we care deeply about both the outcomes of a project and the well-being of those we work with on it—long after we’ve moved on.

We place a lot of value on being able to work with a client and bring them into our process as a partner, so that together we can learn about the user and business needs that underpin the new information architecture we create. We don’t just want to toss a pile of wireframes, models, or fish over the wall when a project is done; we want to make sure that our partners are able to understand, refine, and continue to fish using the same tools that we use.

Fish…and How to Get Them

Recently, I had the pleasure of working with a brilliant team of Internet, marketing, and publishing professionals on a project. They were embarking on a huge re-architecture and re-platform endeavor that was beyond their immediate depths of experience, but they were motivated to grow and learn about information architecture. They wanted to understand the process just as much as (if not more than) they wanted to get immediate solutions to their problems. They wanted to learn how to fish. So by having the self-awareness to seek outside assistance and hire experts to come alongside from the start, this team not only saved themselves time and frustration, but also was able to benefit from TUG’s expertise in providing high-level solutions (fish!), tools to help approach current and future problems (fishing pole!), and instruction on how to think about and approach the detail-oriented problems they will be facing in the coming months (fishing lessons!).

Together we built a fishing pole during the initial phase of this project; we helped the client define what they were making through intention models and info models.

Intention modeling worksheet for academic publisher's website

Intention models help align stakeholders and determine the goals of a project.

We used user models and user lifecycles to understand who they were making it for. With this foundational knowledge in hand, we then created an overarching information architecture the team could refer to, use, and build upon for the remainder of the project. They learned how to fish.

Information Architect Joe Elmendorf points to User Lifecycle Model

Joe guides the team through the co-creation of a user lifecycle model.

These were the most outwardly-curious and eager-to-learn clients I’ve had the pleasure to work with. Our project was scoped to deal only with the high-level information architecture. Now that our phase has concluded, the clients are leveraging the artifacts and knowledge we shared with them to practice information architecture themselves as they begin the detail work. It is extremely rewarding to witness and hear how this team is planning to move forward using what they learned.

A Few Ways Clients Can Prepare to Fish:

  1. Ask “Why?”
    At TUG, we always make our recommendations based on reasons, but sometimes it is cost-prohibitive to document all of them (although of course we do try to note the most important reasons). We welcome questions about how we came to a decision and are happy to go through our thought process.
  2. Ask for Our OmniGraffle Files
    Often when we deliver an artifact, like a sitemap or model, we tell clients, “This is a living document; it represents our understanding today, based on everything we’ve encountered so far.” But invariably, as the project progresses beyond TUG’s involvement, more will be uncovered that will require alterations or additions to the document to keep it accurate. While we “deliver” PDFs of these artifacts in an agreed-upon state (for the sake of our contract), we’re also happy to hand over the working files (“graffles”), so that you can use the same tools we do to continue the work. The majority of these visual assets are created in a (Mac-only) application called OmniGraffle; it is affordable and has a manageable learning curve. We can also export into a Visio format (PC-only), which works fairly well for sitemaps and models but less well for wireframes.
  3. Ask about Our Training Workshops
    As you can see, we don’t just practice information architecture—we teach it too. In addition to the normal education gained simply through working with us, we have also put together a handful of workshops. These workshops, ranging from Information Architecture Basics to Concept Modeling and User Testing Methods, can happen independent of a project, during a project, or after a project, and we tailor each one to use actual inputs from your project or situation.

TUG isn’t a typical information architecture consulting firm. We don’t wear fancy suits and we don’t think we’re better than everyone else, including you. We are a collection of people who like—and excel at—solving problems. We like teaching and we like sharing. We work hard to make sure our clients are getting the value they expect because we are partners—and at the end of the day, if our partners are successful, we are successful.

Embarking on a Website Redesign?

We love to talk about how information architecture principles can help you sift through the most complex issues around digital places. Give us a call if you’d like to learn more. There’s no obligation—we’d be happy to consult with you.

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