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Lessons From the Making Learning Accessible Conference 2015 @ MSU

One of the benefits of living in a university town is that conferences come to you. Just this week there were not one but two usability conferences in the building literally across the street from where I live. Here are my tweets from one of them – the first (annual, hopefully) Making Learning Accessible conference at Michigan State University.

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The Structural Integrity of Meaning

I don’t plan on going to graduate school immediately after earning my bachelor’s, but I still often find myself reading about the universities whose programs I’m considering. When one of these schools tweeted a video of the full introductory lecture of their “Information Architecture” course, I wasted no time bookmarking it for later. It’s long (three hours if you combine both parts), but what I’ve seen so far has answered a couple long-standing questions I’ve had about IA. And – as any good lecture should – it’s led me to a couple more.

The biggest question is, of course, “What is Information Architecture?” (I must admit I’m a bit relieved that even at the graduate level this is still a question that’s being asked.) The lecturer, Dan Klyn, offered a definition that’s a bit of an improvement over the usual “information architects are the guys who design the wireframes.” Klyn said (in what are apparently someone else’s words),

“Information Architecture is about the structural integrity of meaning across contexts.”

How can a message be communicated not only through the information itself but also through the way it’s organized? Information architecture, as I understand it, is about structuring meta-meaning around content.

The definition of IA was further explored in an exchange that happened later on in the lecture. A student in the audience asked something about how content strategy fits in with IA (I think – it’s hard to hear anyone other than the lecturer in the recording).

Klyn responded by saying that, in his mind, IA and content strategy are one and the same. That was the first time I’d heard such a comparison. Are they really equal? One prominent (female) content strategist, according Klyn, sort of agrees. She says, “content strategy is just information architecture for chicks.”

Well… that’s not the sort of thing I expected to hear. And not something that Klyn is onboard with, for more than one reason.

But let’s put aside that (admittedly unconfirmed) definition for another day. Does all of this mean that content strategy is, in turn, also “about the structural integrity of meaning across contexts”?

Well, I’ve got a lecture to finish watching.

Something is Better than Nothing

The best advice I ever encountered for overcoming writer’s block is to simply lower one’s standards.

I should clarify that this lowering of standards should be thought of as temporary. There’s no reason to ever stare frozen at a blank page, debating how to begin. Just write – something, anything. It doesn’t need to be good or even halfway presentable. It doesn’t have to be spelled correctly or arranged coherently. What matters is getting words on the screen, getting the ideas flowing.

I consider it much easier to edit something that’s already been written than write something new from scratch. It’s this principle that I exploit when I write my stream-of-conciousness rough drafts. With every sentence (sometimes keystroke) I cringe, thinking that the words I’m producing are garbage – that if anyone were to discover this verbal eyesore, they’d revoke my writer credentials.

But after my furious scribble sessions are over, I look back and realize oh, maybe I wasn’t so bad. And, as I have many times before, I realize that I’ve underestimated myself. I think, “I’m my own worst critic,” and gain a bit of confidence back, only to think of that one Onion article about the guy who is deluded enough to think he’s his own worst critic. The cycle of self-doubt begins anew.

But hey, I just finished my first blog post on this site, right? That’s something.