Adam Polansky talks about his winding career toward managing a team of information architects, the true meaning of innovation, the changing landscape of the DFW technology community, and much more. Hosted by Ben Judy.
- Twitter: Adam Polansky
- Boxes and Arrows: Adam Polansky
- Slideshare - Adam Polansky Presentations
- Usability Success Stories: How Organizations Improve by Making Easier-to-use Software And Web Sites
- Red Earth IA - Adam Polansky, Information Architect
- Big (D)esign Conference 2010 - Speaker Spotlight: Adam Polansky (Stack It, Split It, Spread It)
- Big (D)esign Events- About Adam Polansky
- Adam will be delivering the keynote address to LavaCon in Austin, TX, on November 15, 2011
Welcome to the DFW UX Podcast, the podcast for User Experience Professionals in the Dallas Fort Worth Metroplex, all of North Texas, and beyond. This is episode number four. I’m your host, Ben Judy. In this episode I’ll have a conversation with our guest, Adam Polansky. And let’s get right to it. Adam, hello.
How you doing?
I’m doing great, how are you?
Good. Thanks for joining me, I know you’re a busy guy. You know, I could have been a good host I guess and actually introduced you. But I figured I’d let you tell us about yourself. Who is Adam Polansky?
That’s right, go straight to my favorite topic! Yeah, well, I’m currently the UX Director for Usability and Information Architecture at Travelocity. I have been here at Travelocity for almost eight years now. Prior to that worked, uh, did some consulting work for a couple of years. Also spent a good deal of time with a consultancy. I spent about four years there, during the big Internet consultancy rise and subsequent fall. I rode that one all the way up and all the way down.
Prior to that, gosh, I joked around one time – I’ll start name dropping now – with Lou Rosefeld at the very first IA Summit. We were talking about certification and I was a little bit flippant about the best way to become an Information Architect was to never keep a job more than two years. Wait ‘till you’re about thirty. Uh, which I guess is one way to describe my career. I started in advertising as an illustrator. Worked on, uh, this was all print ads, this was prior to computers. We had a Commodore 64 we were nibbling around with a little bit.
Yeah, this was old type setting and paste-up. My father was in marketing and sales and also print management. So I grew up around that. It’s been interesting to see over the years how a lot of the same tenants and philosophies that fed the work then still feed the work now in a similar form. In fact some of the terminology has even hung on beyond when it was originally used. The notion of a thumbnail or a wireframe or something like that. These were terms we used that have taken on different meanings as the media has changed, but the goals and the thinking around them and the necessity for them hasn’t changed too much.
Add it all up, I’ve got about thirty years of media development of one kind or another with stops along the way in the military and finishing a degree at one point, collecting a couple or those. So, a few little fits and starts. Everything from putting in toilets, working in restaurants, to, you know, managing large teams on enterprises level projects. The thing I like best about information architecture is that it really seems to be the first job I ever had that was a distillation of every single one of those things in some way, shape, or form. It all comes to bear, either literally or in some metaphorical sense.
Yeah, I have to interject. You mentioned the Commodore 64. You know that’s back, right? There’s a new, there’s a new old Commodore 64.
Well, in my case it never really arrived. So uh…
Well, you know, the more things change the more things stay the same. That’s kind of the theme there of what you were just saying. With a career in information architecture now, some of those old skills come back around. What are you working on right now at Travelocity? You don’t have to get into specifics if you don’t want to, but what’s exciting? What’s happening right now in your career that’s getting you up in the morning and jazzed up and ready to go to work?
Well, as I said, I manage a team of IA’s and we’re process I think of building a more explicit usability practice. Trying to get back to some things that we used to do pretty well once upon a time.
In terms of the actual work that I do, still undergoing a little bit of a shift in mindset. One of the things that happens when you become a director and even a manager at some point is you have to reclassify yourself. Prior to that point I was always a manager/technician. So I still had my hands pretty elbow deep into some big projects. I was still turning out artifacts. At some point you can’t do that as much. You spent a whole lot more time working with the guys who are building this stuff out.
And so your day, it’s kind of like you have your office hours. You come in and you tee yourself up for whatever comes your way. Sometimes it can be pretty hectic with short answers to urgent questions. Settling bets. Trying to temper the passion that sometimes – passion is kind of an overused word, but – it’s a nice way of saying when people get their nose out of joint. Coming in and trying to settle things down and find whatever solution you need to move forward.
Just as information architecture sits in the middle of stakeholders and what they envisioned, and developers and what they can provide, and designers and what they can give us to look at, and their vision – as a manager that part is a fairly easy transition in that I’m still right in the middle of all of it. It's trying to see the big picture and keeping things moving forward. Trying to find the fairest resolution and sometimes that means holding your nose and dancing. Other times it gives you an opportunity to really do something that nobody thought of before. That's what gets really exciting.
You also do some public speaking. I noticed you were at the IA Summit earlier this year in March. We’re recording this the week of the Big Design Conference here in Dallas. By the time people hear this, the conference will have past. Are you giving the same presentation at Big Design that you gave at the IA Summit?
Well, the same with some tweaks. Just like anything else when you have a chance go back and look at something that you've done and you’ve got another venue. If you still think the message is important you pick up some things along the way. Not just because you think you can do better, but if you have evoked some thought from other professionals and other colleagues – and we’re all fortunate to be in a in a very vocal and articulate community – people will come to you and say, “hey did you read this?” Or, “did you think of this?” Or, “here’s something that we've encountered.” Something that maybe changes the dynamic or adds a facet that you didn't have been there before.
So, you know, it’s quite a few months between Information Architecture Summit and Big Design, and a lot of time for conversation and a chance to go through some of the things that have come up since then. So there will be some changes. For those of you who saw it in Denver, or had an opportunity – I say opportunity – I twisted your arm and made you come watch it! You’ll know how it ends. So if you’ve had a chance and there's another – I think Stephen Anderson is speaking opposite me at that point, so if you caught my act, go see his. But if you haven’t, I think you’ll find it pretty interesting.
Yeah, and the subject you are speaking, on it looks like, is ideas and innovation. What prompted you to want to speak about that?
Well, it came about because in the course of conversation, not just within the UX community but when you're dealing with stakeholders and business and development, innovation is a topic that is usually never very far away. I began get a little irritated in that it always seemed to me that people describe innovation as this sort of a finite thing. “Hey, we need to get us some of that!” You know, “for the next hour and a half we’re going to innovate, please leave your innovations at the door as you leave.”
Along the way, of course, as I said, I’ve been managing a staff for some time. And in the course of interviews my question has been to ask people to define innovation. Now, I ask this question having a definition of my own already. It has been very interesting. In probably 30-plus interviews I think I’ve only really run across maybe one, maybe two people at the most who didn't state it as succinctly as I would, but got the idea. So in the course of that, and having a definition which I don't give away yet because hopefully you’ve either heard it from me or if you haven't you’ll come see my presentation.
You don’t have to give away all your tricks.
The thing is, it’s something I picked up in business school. And it's fairly succinct. And it really brings the definition down to earth because I think part of the problem is that term, like other terms, has taken on quite a bit puffery. Because of that, it's become harder to define. Because there’s so much noise going on around it and other things have been attached to the notion of it. I think the most important thing about it is that innovation in and of itself is a neutral thing. It's neither good nor bad. It's what you do with it. It's what you do to put legs underneath an idea that can help you figure out if it's good or bad, and if it's worth continuing.
On that note of ambiguity of terms: would you say the same is true of user experience design, or for that matter information architecture? It seems to me these terms, to those of us who are professionals who do this stuff eight, ten, twelve hours a day, day in and day out, we know what this is. We know what at day in the life of a UX’er looks like in our context.
But these terms, they tend to get watered down or hijacked, maybe, by business. Certainly in a corporate environment it happens. But even, I would say even sometimes, at some of the conferences you go to, you hear these terms bandied about as though they’re a little more malleable maybe than they should be – in my opinion. What's your take on that?
Well, I don’t know if I’m much help there. Because I’ve made a particular effort to stay out of those debates. Again, going back to the first IA Summit, the question was asked then, you know, “what are we?” Our original charter then was, one of one of the measures there was to be able to explain to our parents what we did. You know, what's our title?
I've always seen it become this very circuitous conversation. “Well, I’m an information architect and here's what I do.” “Well, I do those things, but I'm an interaction designer!” “Well, I'm an interaction designer and here's what I do!” And it can go around and around and around. I think the reason for that is … I've only ever really tried to characterize the space in which we operate, not necessarily the exact things we do there or the exact words that we use for it.
I’ve carried the title information architect for a long time simply because, even within a smaller context. at least it was fairly well understood. And it leaves me quite a bit of room for personal definition within the context of a project or even within a company. But if I were go someplace and they had a very definite idea what an information architect was, and decided that that wasn't me, and they had another name for it, I’d say, "Bring it on. Okay, I’ll go with that." I tend not to get to married or concerned about it. The English language, as we said earlier, evolves.
Is it a valuable conversation and all then? Or is it just navel-gazing?
I think from a philosophical standpoint, yeah, it is navel-gazing. But I think from a tactical standpoint, yeah, you do have to come up with the terms that everybody's going to use that are good enough to be going on with.So within a project environment what we call things is how you develop a controlled vocabulary. And part of that is what we call the people who are doing the work. So, yeah, at a tactical level I think it's important. I just don’t think you're going to be able to draw a line in the sand and then pour concrete into it that says, always and forever and empirically, “this is what this person is or will be called.” Even the rise of the notion of an information architect evolved out of other things so to say it’s going to stop here, I think, is kind of silly. Whether it’s information architect or any other term you want to lay on.
There are bigger things to worry about. Like I said, I’ve been bumping around media development of one kind or another for 30 years. I’ve got a pretty good look at the timeline and I like to think that I have a sense of what things are probably going to keep shifting around and what things remain very consistent.
In your career, how much of your time has been here in the Dallas-Fort Worth area? You’ve traveled around a bit, right?
Well, I grew up in North Dallas. I went to work for Uncle Sam. Spent a little time in the Air Force – more than a little time. Got the opportunity to travel then, but then came right back here and went back into printing and advertising.
Initially spent some time working in retail as well, which is another way of saying I got a job to pay the bills until I could get a grown up job. Ironically it was during my time in retail electronic sales, specifically managing a retail store, that I picked up probably some of the most material lessons that I’ve ever acquired.
But no, it’s been pretty much in this area. I mentioned I went back to finish a degree in business. As I was finishing up there all these little web companies cropping up, and through a mutual acquaintance I got to have conversation with a guy who was running a small agency, a small boutique agency we call them now. I went to talk to this guy really not knowing what I could do for him or whether this was something I wanted to be when I grew up, because nobody quite yet knew what was. Fortunately, this guy – I think it's safe to say, “visionary” is not a reach when you're talking about what he saw happening with the Internet. As opposed to just being a way for geeks to pass information around, he was one of the earliest people to think about it as a marketing tool and as a messaging medium.
At the end of our conversation after about two hours he sort of drew this process flow up on the wall, and says, “here’s how we build stuff, where do you live?”
And I said, “well, there’s a guy up here thinking of stuff and selling stuff. And there’s a guy down here building stuff. I’m in there, in the middle.”
And then I didn't know what I would call that. It was two years before I knew what you would call that, but he says, “Okay, well come back to me tomorrow and tell me what you think would be an acceptable compensation package.” I was panicked. You know, going into his office the only thing I had that I thought lent me to working in any kind of an Internet company was the fact that I could surf from home. That was it!
So I have I have a brother-in-law down in Austin who has been in the high-tech space for a long time. I said, “Man, what do you ask for something like this?”
He gave me a number and I went back and the guy beat that number. So, okay, I’m in! So upon graduating I immediately went to work for a small agency that was later acquired, merged with several other agencies, and later became a company called Rare Medium. And there are pieces of that still all around the Dallas area, but that was really when I got on the track to this point.
And it was two years after that that I even took on a title of any kind. I didn’t have one for the longest time. I was just this handy guy to have around, and I was happy with that because I was doing things I liked doing. As we got a little bit bigger and began to be a little more prescriptive in job titles and things like that, I was given some options. I knew pretty quickly this is the thing I had the most fun doing, so I would do this. Information Architect was becoming a convention in terms of a title, so I that’s about the time I accepted that, and that’s about the time that community really began to gain some traction. So at all happened pretty quickly. I really had the feeling at the time that it was in on the beginning of something.
Other than just growth in terms of sheer numbers and scope – What are the key changes you've seen locally in the Metroplex, you know, in regard to web and software design and technology in general? As I’ve mentioned, you’ve seen a lot, over the years.
Probably the biggest change is that, for the longest time this was a conversation centered around websites. And even then, they were usually corporate websites that were, you know, we used to call them brochure-ware.
So we saw the rise of, not just “who we are, what we do, how a contact us,” but people began thinking about this as a medium for the development of applications. And HTML and CSS went from being just this way to translate a bunch of visual stuff and linked images and linked information to being a software platform. People began to think about it the way they would any other software platform.
Now I would say the biggest shift is … like I say it has lifted itself away from just being websites. Part of that has been forced by all the different channels that we have now. You can't just develop for your website, you have to develop for smartphones. You have to develop for tablets. There are all these different channels out there and if you’ve got a brand that you’ve got protect, you have to make sure that you're showing up consistently in all these different environments. And so it has become a pretty big job but it's also moved into – there’s a term I like – it has moved into the "meat space."
Going back to the IA summit, some years back in Las Vegas, our keynote speaker was a fellow by the name of Joshua Prince-Ramus, who is a real live grown-up architect. So if you live in the Dallas area, he is the guy that designed the AT&T theater down downtown. He talked about that. But he also talked about taking the principles that have come out of information architecture and how we move around virtual spaces and talked about how real architects – I keep saying “real architects” – have taken some of those principles and incorporated them into the way people move around physical spaces. The importance of way-finding, and the importance of knowing where you've been in relation to where you are and being able to see, evidently and quickly, the next thing that you may want to do.
So, yeah, to sum that up, I’d say that the biggest change is just that it has moved off of webpages and it's gotten to not just virtual but physical spaces. It’s moving across a lot of different devices and channels and people are interacting with them differently. And it seems like for a long time, really that's all we thought about. And now, we’re having to think differently, and I think that’s going to be a challenge. Some people are going to embrace that. Some folks are going to be stuck I think.
So what skills should IAs or UX designers be working on right now to get ahead of the curve of the changes that are happening and the changes that are coming?
It’s kind of a tough one, because it’s …?
Innovation, right? Go to your talk on innovation …
… The environments are so different … The environments are so different in different places that, again, I don't think that there's one empirical skill set that is going to get you anywhere in this area.
So is specialization the approach?
Well, I think in some areas, and that specialization is probably going to be borne out of what it is that really gets you excited. But in terms of empirical traits, those I don't think have changed too much. I think, first and foremost, you need to be empathetic because you’re NOT you’re user. Other people are using the applications that you’re designing and thinking about and you need to be pretty good about feeling their pain and figuring out how to make that go away.
And that's a skill that that never really … the need for that will never really go away, will it?
No, that’s intrinsic. The other is skill at assessment. IAs historically, and UXers now, still kind of drop into the middle of the conversation. If we’re lucky we get to be in there at the start. Oftentimes somebody else … you show up on idea that's already getting some traction. You need to pretty quickly be able to look around at all the people around you, who are also working on this effort, and understand pretty quickly what are their strengths and weaknesses. Look at the project itself – look at the things that you're being asked to do – what are the goals, what kind of shape are you in, in terms of being able to meet those goals, if it's not good what can fix that.
So you still have to be very malleable. You still have to drop into a situation and form fit into the space that you find there. Your chief job – and this was a quote from Richard Saul Wurman a couple years ago – he said an IA’s job – and I think you can insert other titles there – but he said an IA’s job is to create understanding.
I think we get awfully focused on deliverables. We get focused on artifacts because that’s what folks associate with us. Wireframes is one takes a lot of heat. And I think that’s because they’ve become over-formalized. We’ve got some great applications out there that do, you know, some really rich prototypes. But we also still have sketch pads and pencils. We’ve got whiteboards. If you can communicate an idea to a stakeholder or to a designer and do the whole thing in abstract with your hands behind your back, and it’s enough to be going on with, you’ve created that understanding – you’ve just done the job that a wireframe does. It's not always that easy and so you have to go look at the situation – it goes back to assessment – and figure out who's my audience here, internally, on the project, what do they need to see, to understand. And then reach into your toolbox and find the thing the helps you do that.
And now we have experts – Bill Buxton comes to mind – who will tell us how to sketch. We’re coming back full circle. You know, we’ve built the tools to do the wireframing and the prototyping and now we’re going to learn how to sketch again.
I kind of smirk at that. I’m kind of a snot. I started as an illustrator. So being told how to sketch is …
… You don’t need the book.
… Yeah, I don’t need the book. I can draw cool pictures.
A minute ago, you mentioned empathy as being a really important skill to develop. What you say to those people who say, “Well if I AM the user – maybe I’m the designer or the business owner or the product owner – but I am a representative user so I don't really need to invest in heavy user research or usability testing because …” It’s kind of the Apple approach. That’s what people will say – “That's what Apple does.” Or “That's what 37 Signals does.” What's your take on that?
Well, both Apple and 37 Signals have things going for them that a lot of places don't. So, when you’re talking about Apple, you’re talking about a single design point of view. So there are a lot of things … where projects really get stalled a lot of times is on the design side of things, because everybody’s a designer. And everybody has some input there. (Apple) has done a particularly good job of keeping ownership of that, so that isn’t on the table as much.
And 37 Signals, I think, while I’ve read a lot of stuff that they’ve put out as well, but I have a little bit of an issue where they claim to just be going on intuition, when in fact what they're doing is essentially heuristic design. That's not just flat-footed. You’re really bringing to bear your experience. That counts for something.
The other thing is – if you’re willing to say “We don’t need this and we don’t need that. We just need to get something out there.” That's not entirely a bad thing either, if you ever get to have Phase Two. If you’re really willing to go back and get something up there and you have a means by which to measure what you’ve done, see how well it's working. Okay, so maybe you don't do it – I would argue that you should always try to hedge your bets a little bit by testing up front – but it gets explained away sometimes, particular by the people who own the profit and loss statements for these efforts. Sometimes you have to go with that. But if you get something up there and you’re willing to go back and punch holes in it and fix it change it and update that, then I don’t think you’re in a really bad spot.
But there are a lot of places where Phase Two never comes. So everybody gets pretty keyed in to that and so they want to make damn sure it's perfect before it goes out there. And then you’re pretty well sunk then, because it’s not going to be – I’ll save you the suspense. So these questions sometimes, if you take them in isolation, you really can't say they’re good or they’re bad. You have to look at the context around them. Some of these things can be good ideas as long as there are other things to help mitigate and support and continue on with an idea, as opposed to just taking it is a one-shot deal, and saying, “We’re just going to do this once and then everybody is going to focus on the next big new shiny thing.” Which means you’ve either done it right or you’ve done it wrong, and if you’ve done it wrong and you’re not measuring it, it’s going to languish, because everybody has gone on to something new. … I love sound bites.
You want to throw out some sound bites?
Got a lot of words of wisdom that I’ve picked up from others along the way …
Who’s the best? Who’s the best at sound bites?
Probably the best has nothing to do with this industry … I played soccer overseas for couple of years. And I was on a team that was almost entirely British – to say that there were Scots and English on the team. But the manager of this team was this old Scottish Royal Marine and the phrase they use when they're harassing you is, “To take the Piss.” And they used to Take the Piss out of me pretty regularly as the only Yank on the team.
Talking about soccer, this guy used to, well when he wasn't screaming at me, he would say that “Football is a very simple game made difficult by the people that play it!”
(laugher) That’s encouraging.
He would say, “It’s quite easy. You get the ball. You get open. You pass the ball. You get open to get the ball again.” I’ve kind of gotten that all out of order, so I’ve just made it hard. But he’d say, “I’ve just given you the whole thing. They’ve written great stacks of books about it, and I’ve just given you the whole thing.”
But that’s probably – “Football is a simple game made difficult by the people that play it.” – is probably one of the most useful piece of information that I’ve probably ever picked up. I think we have a tendency, for any number of reasons, to take things that can be done simply, that don’t bear 35 responses in an email string, and we draw these things out, we make them harder than they need to be. So if you tie that back to user experience, if you take on the belief that your job is simply to create understanding as it moves down the line, if you apply simplicity to it, I think you can be pretty successful.
But aren’t there entire careers wrapped up in making the simple complicated?
Oh, absolutely. I told you I was a consultant. (Laughter)
So, THAT’s what they do.
Yeah. Well, again, it goes back to value proposition. People have different ideas about what value is. When you’re working as a consultant, a lot of times you find it's much easier to get your ideas onto the table because the company that's hired you is keenly aware of the fact that that are paying a lot for you – particularly if it's time and materials – and your ideas have a little more likelihood of getting traction. You want to look good to these companies that have hired you and so your deliverables need to look really fancy. Your artifacts need to look really good.
If you come in and you make it sound too simple, then you’re going to get done too quickly, or they’re going to say, ‘Well, what the hell do we need them for?’ People do that – with themselves and their careers. I want to improve my brand, the brand of ME, and the way I do that is by making what I do look as complex and difficult and requires this is a phenomenal level of intelligence and I'm the only guy who can do it. So, yeah, I think we’re prone to that.
I’ve heard it said that you know you’re doing the right thing, in life, in general, in a career, what have you, when it seems so simple and so easy and so clear, that you can’t believe you’re getting paid to do it. You can’t believe people would want you, as opposed to other people, to do it because it seems so easy. I wonder how that relates to this idea of complexity?
Well, sure it does. It has been said a lot of times and in a lot of places that the best user experience that you can build into an application is one that no one notices. If what you've done is so simple you … Nobody ever comes back – well, at least, nobody outside this audience – comes back and says, ‘Wow! That was great information architecture on that site.’
Now user experience is beginning to find its way in the parlance, and so people are starting to think about that. But no, people tend to focus on beautiful imagery, and the fact that they got from point A to point B fairly easily. It’s a hard thing to sell to somebody that's coming into this industry that wants to be successful at that, if you’re not getting noticed, chances are you’re doing a pretty good job. (Laughter)
It becomes important, certainly within the UX community and within a corporate environment, to make sure that people do see the value in what you do and you sell that. But that’s one user group. But to the external people – the people who are using the applications that you are building out there – ideally if you're invisible and they keep using your app, then you’ve done something pretty good there. So I think that plays into that.
If you make something over-complicated, your customers are going to bail on you. And they may not even know why. They just [think],"This was too much of a pain in the butt to do for what I wanted to do. I shouldn't have to go through 25 pages to get Bic pens."
Right. Right. Thanks for being a guest on the podcast, Adam. It has been great talking with you. And we’ll do it again sometime.
That's it for this episode of the DFW UX podcast. Thanks for joining me.
During the program, Adam and I talked about a number of online resources – articles, different things you can look up. You can find links to all of those things that we discussed in the show notes. Just go to DFWUX.com and find Episode Number Four. You can also follow us on Twitter @DFW UX.
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Well, until next week, I’m Ben Judy. Go make the world a better place.