The Biggest Umbrella

The Biggest Umbrella

We like categories.

We like to group like items, weed out differences, label buckets. We like order, and we like that we can create and enforce it with boundaries and borders and rules. It makes for quicker thinking, shortcuts, a (sometimes false) sense of certainty. The appeal is very human.

And humans who populate our industry – information architecture, design, content strategy, whatever our big overarching name for all of it is – seem particularly drawn to categorization. It’s part of why we’re here. We adore eliciting meaning from the chaos of information.

So it’s no surprise when we turn this orderly logic on ourselves. Of course we’re obsessed with our fields, our labels, our credentials, our tribes. What is user experience? Who is a designer? What counts as content? Where do the tactics for one discipline end and another begin? Which is the biggest umbrella? What’s worth the most?

 

Does it matter?

I think about these questions a lot. They feel constantly present, sometimes active and loud, other times backgrounded, humming beneath the surface of other conversations. I’m fascinated by the boundaries of our disciplines, and I’m embarrassed by my fascination, because I want to believe that it doesn’t matter. Labels are stupid, etcetera. And yet, we keep poking at them with a stick. Why do we care?

It matters because, at some level, we have to draw lines. It’s a just-hatched industry: across these fields, we are struggling with meaning, with expectations, with authority. We are trying to apply standards. We are trying to get our footing.

That’s where my interest lies – the scramble to establish ourselves, combined with a tendency towards breaking rules and crossing boundaries (personally, I’ve never been good about sticking to one discipline).

But the key to blurring lines is to know where the lines are to begin with. If I’m going to swerve into another field, borrow another’s practice, or use new terminology, I want to fully understand the context – the history, limitations, names, uses, territories and territorialities. If I’m going to break a rule, I want to break it in exactly the right place.

So I think a lot about boundaries, and my work. I like to know which bits I’m borrowing from which fields in order to get my work done. I need clear definitions so I can muddy them intelligently.

 

I start muddying things here.

I am a content strategist and an information architect. I’ve never worked a job where these roles were separated; my work has always been labeled one or the other, but clearly borrowed from both, as the need dictated. I know that I don’t possess the depth in either field that more dedicated and talented practitioners have, but my breadth has been well-suited to the projects I’ve taken on.

As a result, I have a hard time seeing content strategy and information architecture as completely separate practices. I may approach projects with slightly different emphases, or use tactics more from one side of the spectrum or the other – but it is a spectrum. I can’t (I don’t want to) draw a solid line there.

Others can and do. Each field has its nuances, its rabbit holes – magnificent depth that those outside often don’t see. Just because I choose to work in the overlap doesn’t mean it’s overlap all the way down.

Still – where do others see the lines? What is the relationship between the two fields, beyond my own reach?

 

The lines around UX.

During IA Summit 2013, I watched two different presentations with UX diagrams – graphics trying to show how the different web disciplines work together (or at least, which ones exist). Neither included content strategy.

Yeah, that bothered me.

Perhaps it was a simple oversight, but these were presentations from industry luminaries. It surprised me. These diagrams showed relationships between IA, marketing, development, interaction design, even copywriting, but made no space for thinking about content.

Which made me wonder: where does content strategy fall? Is it a UX discipline or isn’t it? How do other UX practitioners view it? Is it still being treated as an afterthought? (How is that even working out?)

In the months since, I’ve found no consistent answer. Some obviously see content strategy as a clear piece of the puzzle, while others seem to aggressively ignore it (which is a shame).

I see content strategy as integral to website development, and very much a UX discipline (I’ve written before about UX as a way of thinking rather than a field). If something impacts the experience a user has with a product – if it’s a part of the process of creating that experience – then it’s a UX discipline.

Maybe this means pulling up some more chairs to the table. I am okay with this. The internet’s a pretty big table.

 

The lines around copywriting.

Content strategists get frustrated with job listings for “copywriter/content strategist.” It’s absurd to combine those two fields into a single role – the process of planning for content leaves little time to also create that content, and vice versa. Yet, we’ve all seen this title recently.

It smacks of buzzword bingo, a chance to sparkle up a traditional job title with the new hotness. And it stings to content strategists, who have spent a lot of energy trying to make the case for our value, trying to differentiate ourselves from content creators, trying to draw clear delineations around our practice.

But there are roles and circumstances where our careful delineations just don’t matter. In my current role, I don’t do a lick of content creation. But when I was a copywriter, I often employed content strategy tactics to do my job. And plenty of content strategists provide copywriting services. The needs of the client or contract, as well as the skills of the employed, determine the relationship between content strategy and copywriting.

Again, there is overlap – but overlap with a wary crowbar separation. Too often, in the eyes of corporations and hiring managers, content strategy is seen as just a flashier name for copywriting – leading to a messy mismatch in goals, skills, and expectations. Such conflation fails to give both fields their due.

We don’t want to hoard the title – we just want there to be substance behind the words. We are concerned with meaning. (Of course we are. We’re content strategists.)

 

Are we listening to each other?

As if the various overlaps weren’t already confusing, a recent article in Six Revisions suggested a new role: “website architect,” a position responsible for fitting together all the pieces (design, programming, structure, content, usability, etc.) that go into building large websites.

Some IAs were dismayed; the suggested role seems to describe, you know, their actual job. I can see that, and I can see how a content strategist would think that their job as well. In other circumstances, an art director or developer could claim the role.

If no one is performing those tasks – watching the big picture view, paying attention to its component pieces – then that is problematic. But I’m guessing that, most of the time, someone is filling those shoes, or maybe several someones. And maybe it’s different from client to client, job to job, agency to in-house. Maybe there’s just more fluidity than the author was arguing for.

But I think the real gap being identified (the author falling right into it) is that of not enough cross-disciplinary collaboration. We don’t need a new title; we need more talking, more sharing, more listening. We need to truly understand what we each do, and not just from a tactical perspective (where most of these conversations stop) – we need to understand how we each think. We need to realize just how much we’re each capable of contributing.

 

Checkboxes, not radio buttons.

The truth is, all these disciplines have overlap. They bleed into and out of each other, sometimes leaving much of themselves, sometimes never touching. Sometimes the terms matter; sometimes they don’t.

Whatever our titles, our goals are the same: We all want to solve problems. We all want to communicate clearly. We all want to balance business and user needs, while making the internet prettier.

We hit the same problems from different angles; we use different tactics, different lenses. Our work may involve branding, or taxonomy, or structured content, and we might call it information architecture, or content strategy, or user experience design, or internet-fridge sorcery. Our solutions land us in slightly different places. But here’s the thing: they’re all valid. There is more than one solution.

 

Enough to go around.

When we get really anxious about labeling certain practices or tactics or methods or identities, it’s about scarcity. We act as if there were a limited amount of talent to go around, a limited number of jobs. This, despite our industry leaders proclaiming that UX practitioners are in endless demand. This, despite the fact that most of us are making a decent living doing things we love.

We stick to our definitions because we are scared – scarcity borne of years of invalidity, of being fired or questioned or dismissed, of being confused and insecure. We want so badly to be accepted, valued, real.

We – every last one of us working on the web – are fighting for validity, and we choose our labels and boundaries and arguments accordingly. I’d like to think we’re making progress. That we’re becoming more secure and therefore more open. That we’re not so often questioning another’s right to be in this space. That we’re not so often questioning our own.

We already are valued. It’s time to shake off the old fears. It’s time to embrace multiple voices, ambiguity, unexpected perspectives. It’s time to get some work done.

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2 Responses to The Biggest Umbrella

  1. I started reading a just-published book about UX and was surprised to see that the intro chapter defined CS as a sub-speciality of UX. I find that entertaining because so many CSers define UX as being a sub-specialty of their own work!

    I wonder if there’s a different way to frame how the disciplines inter-relate — to my mind it’s less which specialty you consider to be “yours” and more about “what paths have led me here?”.

    If we extend warm fuzzy self-actualization language to our job skills: every choice we made was the best one we could at the time, given our knowledge and the tools we had. Expanding your toolset is a duty and a privilege, but it doesn’t make your past choices (or job titles) retroactively worthless.

    • OOOH. I like that way of looking at it! I think, too, that we all enjoy (like categorization) tracing our weird, winding paths (e.g. I found information architecture THROUGH content strategy, instead of the other way around). But many people use those paths as a litmus test of sorts, trying to sort out who was doing the “purest” form of UX at the earliest moments. Which is a goose chase. I’d prefer to use our journeys as evidence of UX (or whatever term we choose) in unexpected places!

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