Applied Information Management

The AIM Alumni Project: Working with Information

The AIM Program continues its series of profiles about the professional work of graduates. The goal is to explore the diversity of work of the information manager and to examine how the field is evolving.

AIM alumni who wish to submit a profile should send an e-mail to the AIM Program at, or call us at 800-824-2714, and we'll send you a suggested framework. To date, profiles have been provided by Joel Tachau ('07), Linda Ballas ('05), Peter Battan ('98), Travis Luckey ('09), Connie Atchley ('10), Michael Wright ('06), Hope Angel ('11), Brandon Gatke (’08), and Scott Fenton (’95).

Information Architecture—An Interview with Joel Tachau ('07), director of user experience

Joel Tachau, Director of User Experience

What is your job title?

I am an information architect (IA). My specific job title is Director of User Experience. And while I was unexpectedly downsized last month, I quickly found a similar position as User Experience Lead and Software Design Expert. I want to emphasize that my project management training and technology management experience helped in the job search. I am currently using my project management skills and working on a portal projectóboth things I learned in AIM.

How do you spend your work time?

My job varied depending on the product lifecycle. When I started just over a year ago, we were in the requirements gathering and design phases. I was creating wireframes (1,000 pages!) and process flows for our next generation web app. For the last two months, I was preparing and conducting a usability test in three countries, ending with preparation of a test report to fix problems and strengthen online help. I had planned next to immerse myself in post-design documentation, creating a component library and style guide for the Web app.

Do you work alone, or in a group?

I worked in the Product Management Group—about ten people located in Atlanta, Geneva and Shanghai. I was the only person in the group with a design or information architecture role. I worked with someone doing taxonomy development as well as business analysts and product managers.

What about the job keeps you up at night—what makes you get out of bed in the morning?

My job was to bring customers into the design process and put my team, IT and senior management in the customer's shoes. What kept me up at night was the prospect that a customer might have difficulty adapting to the new application. What got me out of bed in the morning was the opportunity to establish the user experience team and process at the company. My favorite parts of the job were designing wireframes and interactive prototypes, and talking to users, whether on a site visit or in the "lab." Not only was it fun to see the environment our users worked in, but I enjoyed conducting usability tests and "teasing" out problems.

How does your job fit in to the larger organization?

It is Product Management's job to understand new business needs, gather requirements and design a user interface that enables users to accomplish tasks as quickly and easily as possible. This is a real challenge since the business rules and processes of an online marketplace are very complex. My job, my group and my team were on a "critical path" all last year, conducting a major redesign of a web application, in twelve languages and four currencies. This was the hardest project I have worked on in my career.

Are there more folks doing this kind of work now, than there were five or ten years ago?

Definitely. Ten years ago the job of information architect (coined by Peter Morville) was relatively new. I was an Intranet Architect—an information architect focusing on an intranet. My job combined information architecture with front-end or UI design. Although there were online publications like Boxes and Arrows and Web design conferences, there were no organizations dedicated to information architecture. Five years ago I landed at Microsoft as a Product Designer and have been focused on information architecture and user-centered design since then. My job became focused on user research, abstract design, engineering process flows and organizing/working with information. Although user-centered design was well established at Microsoft, in 2004 it was still a relatively new field. The Information Architecture Institute had just organized its first IA Summit and the Interaction Design Association (IxDA) had just formed in 2003. One sign of the growth of the IA field is the number of graduate programs that are offered. In 2004 there were a handful of programs—today there are over 20.

How do you stay current in the field?

I follow discussion groups on Information Architecture Institute, Interaction Design Association (IxDA) and try to attend annual conferences, the IA Summit and Interaction09. I am a member of CHI-A, the special interest group on Computer Human Interaction Atlanta chapter.

POSTED: June 4, 2009