Usability, content, search and analytics on the corporate intranet

Evolution of an information architect

2 November, 2010 – Luke Oatham

Last weekend I went to Bletchley Park, the home of the code-breakers and Top Secret government facility during WW2. The tour included a visit to the National Museum of Computing, which evoked some old memories. Since returning from the trip I’ve been reminiscing about the world of computers and information when I was a kid and what it’s like for me now.

Old photo of Bletchley Park


I consider myself blessed to have gone to a school where I could take Computer Studies as an O Level. I remember our computer room with one Commodore PET and Computer Club kids fighting over time on the machine during lunch break. A quarter of a century on and it was so funny to see one on show at the museum. One of my nieces, along for the day, remarked about the inbuilt cassette player and wondered if it was there so you could listen to music. She couldn’t believe that we used to have to *load* programs and *save* our data.


My first computer studies lessons at school introduced punch cards and ticker tape, ROM and RAM, hard disks and floppy disks, bits and bytes. And after 2 years I’d progressed to programming in BASIC.

I consider myself lucky enough to remember working with Winchester hard drives and mainframe systems. It was interesting when our guide remarked at one point during the tour, that we could get the entire contents of the data stored in the room onto one of our smartphones.

But since leaving school, I’ve always been in the business of digital information. From my first job as a database programmer to working on management information systems and humongous data-warehousing projects, my whole career has been the challenge to wrestle with information and attempt to portray it usefully to someone at the end.

I didn’t call myself an information architect or a usability guy until the internet came along. But that’s what I’ve always done. I’ve coded, queried, designed, tested and analysed. I’ve sat with many users, watching them try to complete tasks, seeing the same old design mistakes again and again. Somewhere in my head, the rules, standards and best practice guidelines are stored. But although a lot of the usability rules that I’ve learned since the web thing happened have remained valid and may continue to be valid, the landscape is changing. Fast.

Back to the present day. As the landscape becomes more social or as social becomes more integrated into our online experiences, so I have to be aware of social and be able to integrate it into my solutions. Jakob Nielsen says that you have to do 10 years in the field before you can consider yourself a usability professional. But even if this social thing has been around that long, it’s constantly changing. How can anyone be an expert? By jumping into the water, learning to swim and getting into the flow.

While having a mildly amusing double-entendre as a title for the UK audience, Chris Dixon’s post: “You need to use social services to understand them” is so true. You have to use social, get involved and experience it. I’ve been tweeting for over a year. I started my blog in February. I’m linked in, facebooked and delicious up to the hilt. I have foursquared, yammered and dug. I’ve got glued, poked, bumped and ground. I’ve commented and voted; been rated and liked. I get it. I get the potential of it.

The challenge and next stage in my evolution as an information architect and usability pro is to design the path and encourage the flow of social data through the intranet and the public website. To work with this new form of data within and outside the organisation, attempting to portray it usefully to someone…

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