Lou Rosenfeld is a pioneer in the field of Information Architecture. He’s contributed to the field as an author, evangelist, speaker, trainer and now publisher. As founder of Rosenfeld Media, he publishes books and webinars on user experience topics.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Lou and, I have to admit, I was surprised by what I learned about my own role in the world of User Experience Design. We all contribute to the “Big Tent” of User Experience, and the future is very bright. See the full interview below.
Question 1: When do you believe you started your career in User Experience (UX)? What was your first major contribution?
I’m not even quite sure I know when I started my career as an information architect, much less as a UX practitioner. I do recall color-coding all of my audiocassettes in the late 70s. Does that count?
Information architecture aside, I learned about UX by being invited to participate in a couple of the AIGA Experience Design community meetings in the late 90s. I was something of an outsider–there weren’t many information architects of my variety there–which is why I was invited. It was at those meetings that people like Terry Swack, Clement Mok, and Nathan Shedroff converted me to the belief that the world needed some way to “glue” together different design disciplines in order to solve the most challenging design problems. So I guess that’s when I got my start in UX.
At that time I was president of Argus Associates, an Ann Arbor-based information architecture consultancy. Initially, all of our consultants came from library science backgrounds. But we’d started diversifying our consulting staff, hiring Keith Instone, an HCI expert, Karl Fast, who was strong in XML and other markup languages, Fred Leise, an indexer, and Dennis Schleicher, an ethnographer. So we were already putting an interdisciplinary team–and, arguably, a UX team–in place.
Question 2: How has the UX profession changed since you began?
Well, I don’t really see UX as a profession. I’m not sure that a single person can know enough to be a UX professional. Instead, I’d say we’re all practitioners of UX-related disciplines, sharing enough in common that we’re able to meet under a nice Big Tent. If anything’s changed since the late ’90s, it’s that there are a lot more people who share this perspective, which is heartening.
Question 3: You wear a number of hats, but your two most often worn are Information Architecture Consultant and UX Publisher. What are the major differences between the two roles?
There really aren’t all that many differences. As a consultant, I help Fortune 500s and other large organizations work their way through thorny problems around organizing and providing access to information. As a publisher, I do much the same thing, albeit for my own content. In both cases I work with other kinds of designers and analysts who have skills that are complementary to my own. So, while one affords my insider’s perspective, and the other that of an outie, the work is very similar. And understanding both perspectives makes me more effective in either role. It’s truly the best of both worlds.
Question 4: Why did you decide to start a publishing company?
Well, after working on digital systems for so long, I wanted to have a tangible product that my kids and parents could hold in their hands and understand. Ironically, 2010 seems to be the year of the tipping point in publishing; thanks to the iPad, we’re seeing the proportion of our digital-only book sales balloon.
That said, I was also looking for my next business to be as dependent upon whom I knew as it was on what I knew. While we’ve tried hard to apply UX practices to everything we do–from designing and testing our books to handling our customer service–selling to a small community like ours is largely reliant on having a strong interpersonal network. In fact, it’s what gets me interviews like this one.
Question 5: Why did you start the UX Zeitgeist and how does it inform your work? How can UX Pros participate?
UX Zeitgeist, as you’ll see it right now, is a failed experiment in assembling a library of UX-related books, topics, and people, and aggregating useful content for each. It failed because we had to rely too greatly on screen-scraping–more of a fact of life four years ago–which means our data feeds will eventually break down. We also required user accounts, which made it too hard to participate in. The good news: this summer we’ll launch a new version, one that relies on APIs and makes it possible for even anonymous users to participate. And we’ll be adding a new content type: UX-related articles. We’re very optimistic that we’ve addressed the initial concept’s weaknesses, and that the outcome will be truly useful for the UX community.
Question 6: What are you currently reading?
I’m reading Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. In terms of UX writers, there are so many good ones out there, but I’m always especially interested in what Luke Wroblewski has to say. Not just because he wrote a fantastic book–Web Form Design: Filling In the Blanks–that Rosenfeld Media published, but because he always seems to have a bead on the most important issues facing the field at any given moment. Right now he’s doing a fantastic job at getting us to think hard about designing for the mobile experience
Question 7: What do you believe UXers might be overlooking that will benefit them most?
We’re not comfortable with making data-driven decisions (not surprising, considering the disciplinary roots that are common to most of us). Meanwhile, our organizations employ web analytics people and others who are very good at analyzing performance, but not at designing solutions. We need to get together.
Question 8: You’re speaking and teaching a lot on site search analytics. Why do you feel that this is such an important source of information?
Site search analytics–studying what users are searching on your own site–is something of the bastard child of web analytics and user research. Neither seems to understand its value. Yet there is no better source of information when it comes to understanding what users want from our sites and our organizations. Yes, it’s data–but it’s semantically rich–users are telling us what they want in their own words. It’s behavioral data that paradoxically has a lot to say about users’ intent. And heck, just about every organization already has it in huge volumes; why wouldn’t we want to learn from and take advantage of it?
Note: Lou has a book in progress on the subject of Search Analytics.
Question 9: How do you see the role of UX Professional changing in the next 5 years? 10 years?
More people–many newly minted by UX-related academic programs–and more of them will be nuts-and-bolts practitioners. In other words, there will be a large-scale commoditization of UX-related skills and people, which makes sense, as demand for both is growing rapidly.
I sure hope I’m right! It’s just these people that Rosenfeld Media’s books are targeting.
Louis Rosenfeld is an independent information architecture consultant and founder of Rosenfeld Media (Twitter: @rosenfeldmedia), a user experience publishing house. He has been instrumental in helping establish the field of information architecture, and in articulating the role and value of librarianship within the field. Lou has helped such organizations as PayPal, AT&T, Caterpillar, Ford, Microsoft and the CDC make their information easier to find. He is co-author of Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, considered the bible of the field, and has been a regular contributor to Web Review, Internet World, and CIO magazines. Lou is co-founder of the Information Architecture Institute and helped found the Information Architecture Summit. He blogs regularly at www.louisrosenfeld.com, and tweets at @louisrosenfeld.