What vs. How

Enterprise IA is almost never about new, tricky problems. It’s about doing the basics well, despite enterprise-scale obstacles. This means that in the enterprise, IA is all about execution.

In many areas where experts work with generalists: information architecture, but also user research, SEO, and content design. As consultants or in smaller contexts, our job is to do our specialty well. We get to focus on the “what.”

  • What are the most impactful user research questions we could answer?
  • What is the most effective navigation paradigm for this set of users, content, and business goals?
  • What technical changes do we need to make to consistently rank in the top 5 for priority queries? In the enterprise, though, the “what” usually becomes pretty straightforward, because we’re not nailing the basics. As an IA, I’ve spent my career helping enterprises get to “not terrible.”

So the real “what” here becomes: “What would improve this site’s IA?” and the answer is “Almost anything.”

Instead of these “what” questions, we have really difficult “how” questions in an enterprise context:

  • How do I get people to pay attention to user research?
  • How do I get anybody to loop IA in?
  • How can I make anyone prioritize SEO? In short, “How can I make anybody else care?”

I think you mostly can’t. This “how” question is engaging because it’s emotional, but it’s also not helpful. I think it’s the wrong question.

Program entrepreneurship addresses the “how” with tools like the CEO exercise

After codifying this approach, I shared it with a good friend of mine, who isn’t familiar with UX but whose family has worked in politics. And she was like, “Oh yeah, that’s how my grandfather got Sesame Street its first funding. He’d get us to practice pitching the president at Thanksgiving dinner.” It’s not new, but it is powerful. If this approach can get Big Bird on the air and communication satellites launched and climate accords ratified, it can also get a header on one silly website.

In my case, I figured out that a PM colleague of mine could plausibly own the header experience on the site, and when I pitched him on it, he told me “I agree, it’s the right thing to do, nobody will ever agree on it, not in a million years.” I asked him to just prioritize and estimate a work item for the technical change, and I’d help make the case. One year later, while I was actually out on maternity leave, he flipped the switch and we got that single header. It’s not a great one! I think most of you could still go to Microsoft Learn and ask, “Wait, they have an IA, much less an IA team??” And like, yes, I know, I am on the internet also. We got it to not terrible.

This focus on “how” is something of a paradigm shift for many of us. In a simpler business context, at a less senior level, you get to just do good work. And that’s enough. At our level, unfortunately, it’s not. It’s rarely that nobody knows what would make things better, it’s that nobody knows how to make it happen. That’s a valuable gap to fill, and we need lots of different tools in our toolbox to make things happen, like this one.