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With your background in writing, psychology, humanities and information architecture (IA), how did you find your way into the field of user experience (UX) design? I wanted to be an artist, but art wasn’t social enough. I wanted to be a film director, but, well, I was kind of terrible at it. I wanted to be a fiction writer, but I wasn’t really solving any problems. I was always interested in human behavior, especially around tech, but I couldn’t figure out how to get people to pay me for whatever that meant.

After tooling around as a lost post-college millennial for a year or two, I humbly settled on becoming a public librarian. It took one semester of grad school for me to realize that the information science half of library and information science had exponentially more potential.

While researching Florida State University’s IA certificate and IA as a field, I found job descriptions that overlapped with UX at digital companies I never thought I could work for. Information architects do almost everything that UX designers do, but with more of a focus on structure and less on visual design. I spent the rest of grad school eyeing the skills that agencies like Razorfish and R/GA were asking for. I literally printed out descriptions for UX architect and digital strategist roles, posted them on a wall, and used them as a compass.

How does your love of words fuel your UX strategy? If you love annoying your friends by arguing about syntax and semantics, this job is for you. Through user testing, you can find the word that clearly represents an entire facet of knowledge within the vast taxonomy of human existence. And you can prove it. We just test whether each navigation and button label is clear enough to click.

Kurt Vonnegut said, “Never use a big word when a simpler word will do.” To describe time travel with middle-school diction that anyone can relate to is much more difficult than writing sprawling paragraphs of metaphors and imagery, hoping something is expressed. I respect simplicity, clarity and brevity more than fluff. Ironically, to have such an advanced understanding of a concept that you can nail it in a couple words—that actually takes the most effort. The simple solutions take the most work. The frustrating part is that the complex strategy behind that one perfect word is never apparent. It’s a thankless job.
Through user testing, you can find the word that clearly represents an entire facet of knowledge within the vast taxonomy of human existence. And you can prove it.”

Information architecture is generally known for the structure and organization it provides digital experiences. But is information architecture an art as well as a science? No. Ruining feelings with facts and logic is kind of my thing.

If someone who worked for me went all artsy on a heavy IA project and claimed that she or he just felt like this was the right structure, we’d have a problem. I’d tell her or him to go back and find actual user data to justify every decision that affects return on investment (ROI). We work for clients who have business goals. There is a lot of creativity in the process, but the end result needs to be measurable. With enough data, you can turn every art form into science.

What are some resources that show the effects of strong information architecture? The team at giphy.com found a way to categorize every possible human emotion with a few simple taxonomies and metadata. You can either navigate down through buckets that clearly represent an entire culture’s mental model of language, or search. And its search reliably facilitates the most ridiculous queries. A system that quickly spits out countless relevant video files for any notion you can imagine is pretty freaking impressive. It changed the way people communicate. It is also the perfect example of when a structure seems so simple that the IA probably gets no credit.

You describe yourself as “a former mobile-first evangelist who had a change of heart.” What caused this change of heart? Being a slave to ROI gets defeating after a while. Code could be a medium of artistic expression, but we’re mostly using it for practical purposes. If your soul isn’t totally owned by clients, do something cooler than one giant minimalist, templated layout.

How does the Internet of Things challenge the principles of UX strategy? Interaction design has never really been limited to screens—see The Design of Everyday Things. That’s just been our main focus for the past few years because touch and graphical user interfaces were relatively new. People still interact with real objects and communicate face-to-face. With the Internet of Things, everything can be an interface—or there can be no interface. There’s so much more to design for when you move beyond swipes, taps and clicks. Voice and gestures are really exciting, but I’m more interested in sensors and automation. I believe the best UX is when technology stays mostly out of the way.

How does empathy factor into your research process? When I’m interviewing users for a product that’s mundane and industry specific, I have to muster all my strength to stay interested and relate. People are unlikely to tell detailed stories that hint at real use cases if they feel like you’re not genuinely excited about whatever they’re saying. On my introverted days, it’s exhausting.

What role should technology play in solidifying trust between brands and their consumers? Just like people can tell when you’re full of shit face-to-face, they can tell when you’re full of shit online. Don’t create content you wouldn’t be excited to share with an audience you would hang out with in person.

What’s one thing you wish you knew when you were first starting out in UX design? That you never have to stop defending it. You’d think that after a few years, everyone on your team, your whole company and every client would have realized how important UX is. They don’t. Every day, you have to teach them all over again.
Tricia D’Antin is director of research & product strategy at Orlando, Florida–based digital agency Purple, Rock, Scissors (PRPL). As the voice of users, she sets the structure for compelling digital experiences that people will love through user experience (UX) design, research, content strategy, usability testing and information architecture. At PRPL, D’Antin has served as UX architect on large enterprise-level website redesigns in healthcare, higher education and e-commerce. She has an MS in information science with a certificate in information architecture.

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