Bulletin, August/September 2006

Selling Information Architecture: Getting Executives to Say "Yes"

by Samantha Starmer

Samantha Starmer has a masterís degree in library and information science from the University of Washington and is an information architect at Microsoft. She can be reached at Samantha Starmer<at>Microsoft.com

Selling = Yuck?
Does the word salesman seem as repugnant to you as it often does to me? The funny thing is that I recently realized that I was actually selling all of the time Ė selling my ideas, selling my perspective, selling my friends on the plan to get pizza instead of enchiladas. Selling doesnít just involve money. Even for used car salesmen, selling involves a lot of psychology, sociology and personal dynamics before they get to the money transaction. Many of us would say that one of the things we like most about a job is working with smart people and enjoying other peopleís diverse perspectives. Selling is just understanding other peopleís perspectives and helping them understand how your perspective can be beneficial.

If you work in the IA discipline, at some point you will need to think about selling. If you are a freelance information architect, you need to sell the value of IA and your specific work on a regular basis in order to get work. If you work for an agency, you may participate in business development meetings where you try to convince clients to hire you for IA-focused projects. If you are internal to a company, you may need to sell the value of IA within your own group in order to extend your staff or to be involved on the projects that should receive IA guidance. Many of us are already selling IA every day without realizing it. The following tips on selling information architecture can be adapted to any kind of persuasion you may need to do in your job.

Top Five Recommendations to Sell IA
1. Show the problem (and how you can help fix it). This point seems obvious, but lots of people forget to do it. Instead they go on and on about why information architecture is a good thing. It is valuable to make that point, but executives will often want to lose the background information and get clear, compelling reasons why they need to solve a problem, what the proposed solution is and how you will get there. Investigate the history of the situation and try to find out what has been attempted or discussed in the past. Understand who the stakeholders are (especially the less obvious ones) and how can they impact decisions. It is helpful to define success so that it is clearly measurable and contains realistic accomplishments within the organizationís environment. You may want to focus on any low-hanging fruit in order to start showing results in a short time frame. This should grow your credibility and allow for more expansive work for later as your stakeholder and executive support increases.

2. Benefit the bottom line. You wonít be able to define hard core ROI (return on investment) for every project, but it is important to employ the rigor to think about the benefits of IA or any user focused work from a financial perspective. I recently proposed a centralized publication and content management workflow model. I saw the main benefit as an improved user experience due to the enhanced consistency and greater level of expertise that site management centralization would provide in this particular situation. But in order to sell the project and to get the additional budget needed, I highlighted the estimated gain in ROI that we would enjoy by changing the workflow model. Selling the project to some levels of management as an efficiency gain rather than as an explicit information architecture project was very successful.

3. Play the politics. Managing politics in an organization is often critical to getting any work accomplished successfully. You will want to figure out how the politics game is played in your organization and how you can enjoy playing it. In many ways, politics is simply thinking about the best ways to get along with different types of people. A few tips:

  • Pay attention to organizational culture and how decisions are made.

  • Pick the most important battles.

  • Talk to the right people at the right time in the right order. 

  • Accept help. 

  • Listen, listen, listen Ė what you say will be a lot more valuable if you have made a sincere effort to understand other points of view.

4. Donít promise a silver bullet. It is best to promise only what is realistic and under your control. No matter how big the scope of your proposal, it cannot solve every single issue. It can be a bit scary to say that your work cannot fix everything. But it is much better to deal with that head on in early discussions than to have to ask for more money or resources later. Because you arenít operating in a vacuum, give some thought to possible dependencies and state them clearly. Be clear about where your responsibilities start and stop. Because executives like solutions, bonus points will be awarded if you can address risk management around those dependencies by providing recommendations on how to mitigate the occurrence of a worst case scenario.

5. Pay attention to style. This may be the most challenging recommendation, but it may be the most important factor in getting executive sign off. We are all individuals and respond to things in different ways. Tailor your style, language and presentation towards the audience you are trying to persuade. Even match their exact words when possible. Some people want numbers and data and facts, others prefer verbatim quotes from users, while others respond best to inspirational big-picture vision. Think about who you most need to sell in each pitch and adapt accordingly. This may mean extra preparation, but considering your audience and their needs will be well worth it.

Being successful at selling is not just beneficial for a particular IA project, it is necessary in order to grow your career and increase opportunities. It can increase the visibility of your profession by getting more upper level executives to understand why considering how users find and use information is important.