What Information Architects can learn from Design

In the last decade or so, IT professionals have borrowed from the discipline of architecture with the goal of creating more responsive IS services. However, there may be something else to learn from the field of design.

Leading practices in product design are undergoing a shift from designer-led approaches to more client/user-centric ones.1 To get there, design researchers often use ethnographic techniques. Ethno…what? Ethnography is a branch of anthropology that studies the social behavior of people within a culture.2

So what does ethnography have to do with information technology professionals? Well, it turns out several notable IT firms from Microsoft to Intel and IBM, employ these techniques with the notion that a better understanding of user needs means a more innovative and successful product.3

The idea is that better information technology design comes from a deeper understanding of client/user needs. Intel, for example, is studying how transnationals use technology to stay in touch with their community back home and then applying this knowledge to guide technology strategy.4

And how can we apply this to Information Service Design? We know that the ubiquitous nature of the World Wide Web and Business Intelligence software has made users far more conscious of their own specific information needs. One way to synthesize these varying needs is the use of personas that express the information needs within a business culture.

Kent Bimson, PhD (Intervista faculty and leading enterprise semantics consultant), has identified the following personas within an enterprise’s information culture. Using the metaphor of a First Nations village, Dr. Bimson has mapped typical cultural roles to information usage patterns in the enterprise, and to the information architectures and services that would support them.

The Chief: Business intelligence for strategic advantage
The Chief leads the business, plans business strategy, and makes critical decisions. Supporting information architectures for this type of client/user would typically include business intelligence, data warehousing and decision-support applications.

The Elders: Information to run daily operations

The elders advise the enterprise leaders, implement policies and advise management. Here, information architectures tend to be structured to support mission-critical business transactions and ERPs and often provide real-time data and reports.

The Hunter/Gatherer: Information about new business opportunities
The Hunter persona searches for new business opportunities, manages customers and brings in new business. Here, typical information architectures would support Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Master Data Management (MDM), Customer Data Integration (CDI) and the like.

The Villager: Information to accomplish day-to-day tasks
The villager persona typically manages the data required to accomplish information needs. These include managing data stores, data quality, metadata, report preparation and other data support functions.

The Explorer: Enterprise-wide discovery for innovation
The explorer in an enterprise is typically future facing and is concerned with the discovery of new opportunities. While some enabling architectures here can be support activities like trend analysis, much of the explorer’s use of information is ‘discovery’ in nature and may not benefit from pre-determined reports. It also typically includes complex analyses of both structured and unstructured information.

The Storyteller: From information publishing to digital folklore
Today’s information consumer is also an information producer. The storyteller persona represents users who capture and share enterprise knowledge. Key information architectures/applications here are knowledge management systems, community Wikis and social networks and personal media.

Taking a look at your enterprise’s varying information needs with a client-centric perspective is a good way to begin your Information Architecture initiatives. From there, you can determine important information values and key performance indicators for your information services. That’s a great first step in providing an information service that is meaningful to clients/users and citizens alike.

The next article will review how semantic modeling and natural language approaches can further enable meaningful information architectures. We will look at how understanding the varying information needs in your enterprise is dependent on modeling each sub-culture’s language – and how these key concepts and their relationships, are key to effective information design.

In the meantime, if you are trying to understand, and respond to, the deep information culture needs of your enterprise, learn more at our upcoming Information Services Innovation course.

If you or your organization are falling short in your quest to harness the positive power of change, Intervista’s new executive program — innovationcultures — will help you embrace this essential part of your mission more effectively.

1. Co-creation Strategies for Breakthrough Innovation – Innovation cultures web lecture led by Liz Sanders, PhD. – Intervista Institute http://www.intervista-institute.com,www.innovationcultures.com
2. Ethnography is a branch of anthropology that uses social science research approaches that is the study of social behavior of people within a culture. These can include direct participant observation (often in the field), interviews, etc. – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethnography
3. Intel’s Cultural Anthropologists – Fortune/CNN Money http://money. cnn.com/2010/09/20/technology/intel_anthropologist.fortune/?section=money_=latest
4. Ethnography is the new Core Competence – Bloomberg Businessweek http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/06_25/b3989414.htm

Photos: Kent Bimson, used with permission.

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