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Bulletin, April/May 2010

IA Column
Gaining Perspective

by Thom Haller

Several years ago I received a phone call from a prospective student for my adult professional writing class. She identified herself as Frenchie and told me she’d be unable to attend the first session. “No problem,” I responded. I helped her prepare for the second session. 

She didn’t show up. 

The next semester, days before class began, the phone rang. Frenchie again. She would not make class. “I’ll be there for Session 2,” she told me. 

She wasn’t. 

I began to look forward to calls from Frenchie. Sure enough, I heard from her at the start of the next semester. Following our third conversation, I thought, “What if Frenchie actually showed up for class? Would she be prepared?” I sensed a class exercise brewing: an opportunity to help Frenchie.

As an educator, I faced a need to help an incoming student. This “something waiting to be done” is sometimes referred to as an exigence or exigency. As information architects, we respond to exigencies all the time; it’s the nature of our work. Overwhelmed by labels? Thwarted by structure? We’re ready to respond. Structuring information to help others – it’s what we do. 

Helping Frenchie
I began to tell my students about Frenchie, connecting the story to my instructional focus on the goals of professional writing. “She may be out there right now. She may want to attend Session 2. She may want to catch up. We’ve got to help her out.” 

We begin to envision Frenchie (“for starters, she’s an adult student like the rest of us”). We chat about what Frenchie wants to do (find out what she missed and prepare for the second session). We review Frenchie’s context (she wouldn’t have much time to absorb our information, so she’d probably appreciate a synthesis).

“Your assignment,” I tell my students, “is to go forth and craft information to help Frenchie.”

Frenchie’s Perspective
In the second class session, we compare results. Sometimes we have a new student who may think much like Frenchie; sometimes we all become Frenchie. Typically, we look at student submissions (printed and placed on a table). We identify the information we prefer to read, and we discuss the information we find most helpful. We reflect on the visual and structural choices that keep us from getting our jobs done. We begin to understand the “communication product” from another perspective, an essential shift toward creating a good user experience.

Social psychologists refer to perspective as equivalent (or similar) to another person’s point of view. Cognitive psychologists explore how perspective drives our sense-making, categorizing, measuring and experiencing. As information architects, we typically work with clients, colleagues and other humans to codify different perspectives and then develop information structures based on them. 

Incorporating Perspectives by Focusing
We are called on to develop strategies to help humans find their way through information structure. Whether or not we work on the user interface, we all work with others in mind. We know we need to fully understand our users’ perspective and translate it to and for others. This requires focus – concentrated attention on what others experience. 

How do we focus? Try this kinesthetic aid. Hold your hands in front of you. Place the tips of your thumbs together; do the same with the tips of your index fingers. You’ll notice you’ve built a triangular shape. Envision a focusing question for each corner: 

1. Who will use the product you create? 
2. What do they want to do? 
3. What’s the business/human context in which this product will be used? (Attend to “what’s in it for me” perspectives.)

That triangular shape you built is a frame that restricts your focus (look through the frame, and you’ll see what I mean). You have isolated “stuff that’s important” from “all the other stuff in the world.” Use this perspective as your foundation; then research, measure and refine. 

Waiting for Frenchie
Frenchie has yet to appear in class, but the “Help Frenchie Exercise” helps bring home the idea that when we develop communication products (of any size or scale), we must focus on the perspective of others. With our triangular focus, we can offer a meaningful rhetorical response – enabling others to find what they are looking for, use it and appreciate the experience. 

Your Next Steps
The Frenchie exercise is an example of a story that helps people focus on a particular idea. For another application to our field, see User-Centered Design: The Fable of the User Centered Designer [1]. If you find you need to explain perspective to business thinkers, you can remind them of industrialist Henry Ford’s statement, “Success lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.”

[1] Travis, D. [n.d.]. User-Centered Design: The Fable of the User Centered Designer. Retrieved February 20, 2010, from

Thom Haller, the Bulletin’s associate editor for information architecture, is a speaker, writer, user advocate and teacher of principles of performance-based information architecture and usability. Since 1998, Thom has taught classes on architecting usable web/Intranet sites. As a teacher, Thom enables students to structure information so people can find it, use it and appreciate the experience. He can be reached at thom<at>