DonnaM » Books


A practical guide to information architecture (my new book)

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

Book cover for A practical guide to information architecture
My new book: A practical guide to information architecture is out.

As the title suggests, this is a very practical book. It covers all sorts of IA issues you’ll come across in projects – including setting project goals, analysing content, planning for content, understanding people (user research), designing IA, designing navigation, usability testing and documenting your work. Plus it covers IA principles such as categories, classification, labelling and common IA patterns.

While mainly focused around examples of websites and intranets, it’s also relevant to application design (web and non-web) and other situations where you need to organise, group and label content.

Folks have asked me how it differs from other information architecture books (IA for the world wide web, Blueprints for the web). Personally I think it is more approachable than the first and more comprehensive than the second (I love both books and have recommended them for years, but that’s where I think mine sits in comparison).

It’s available in PDF and epub and you can pre-order a paperback.

Anyway, go check it out, and let me know what you think.

Stories and examples for my IA book

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

I’m working like mad through March to write a book on information architecture.

As I go, I find I need two things – stories to illustrate points I describe, and examples of sites that do particular things. This post will be a continually-updated one that lists what I’m interested in and what I have enough of.


I’m interested in stories – usually about a page (400-500 words) around the following ideas:

  • How skills in previous roles helped you when you started in IA. I’m looking for an example from people who previously did usability testing and business analysis (I have tech writer, graphic designer & developer all covered)
  • How setting clear project goals at the beginning of a project helped that project run smoothly, and how you used them the project
  • How not having clear project goals caused all sorts of project crap
  • Stories about how you brainstormed and selected content for a new site or redesign. Particularly any that used a quantitative approach to selection (e.g. a scoring system)
  • How you’ve worked with clients to get content from them
  • How you’ve communicated about content needs, what content you have, and gaps
  • How did you test a draft IA before you designed navigation and pages

All stories will be in your words (I may tweak slightly for length or clarity, but will show you) and I’ll include your name, role, website etc.


I’m interested in examples of the following sites or features. It would be fantastic if you’ve been involved in designing the one you give me – I may want to chat to you about them (I don’t want to say ‘this is a good example’ and later find out that it’s completely unusable for real users):

  • A real-estate website that uses an interesting filter or faceted browse
  • Great comparison interfaces, of any type
  • Tools other than Xenu Link Sleuth that can list out everything on your website
  • Link-rich home pages

Contact me

You can leave me a comment, tweet to me (@maadonna) or email me on

I’m writing an information architecture book!

Friday, December 18th, 2009

This week’s big news is that I’m writing a book on information architecture.

It will be a introductory-level book, mainly for people who have to create an information architecture but who don’t do it very often. It will be very practical and down to earth and written in a friendly way (if you know me, it will sound just like I’m talking to you, though without the swear words!). If you’ve taken one of my information architecture workshops, it will be the workshop expanded and updated.

It will be published via Mark Boulton’s company Five Simple Steps. I’m really excited about this – I think we are a great fit for each other.

More details to come of course, including release date (which we haven’t discussed yet, but I think we’re both hoping to get it done fairly quickly), table of contents and a book website.

Given I’ll be writing more, I’m likely to be blogging more – yay!

I’ll also be on the look-out for people who can review chapters or who I can talk to for some case-study material to provide real-world examples. Let me know if you’re interested in either of these.

My card sorting book is available

Saturday, May 2nd, 2009

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of becoming a published author.

My book on card sorting is now available.

You can buy it right from the book website – either the printed version (plus digital) or digital alone.

Or you can get it via amazon if you are buying other things at the same time : Card sorting (Donna Spencer).
Please let me know what you think!

What’s in a bio?

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

I usually tweak my bio now and then, but with my card sorting book coming out soon (yes, really – March) I want to have a better look at it – after all, it will be on the printed version forever.

It made me think about the point of a bio and what you really want to learn from it. Mine at the moment sort of tries to tell a bit about my experience, a bit about my personal approach and some of what I want people to know so I can do more of it (i.e. teaching!)

But is that what you want to know when you read someone’s bio? How important are these:

  • Time in the current industry or doing the current work (I have 9 years up, and it feels strange…have I been at this long enough to be less specific?)
  • Types of systems I’ve designed (intranets, websites, applications, e-commerce, search). Does that matter? Or is that actually the most important thing?
  • Who I’ve worked with. I never include this – do you trust me more if I’ve worked with big-name brands?
  • My approach or philosophy. I care about this when I read other people’s bios, but do you?
  • What I do when I am not working? Does that make me look human, or get in the way of what you really need to know?

Ah, this is all too hard. And I teach people how to write. Now while I wait for your comments to pour in, I think I’ll go take some of my own advice.

And if you’d like to tell me about your favourite bio (of someone else), that would be fantastic!

This Is One of the Best William Gibson Interviews Ever

Thursday, September 20th, 2007

After telling friends tonight that I don’t link blog, I’m going to do it. For my friends who like William Gibson as much as me:
This Is One of the Best William Gibson Interviews Ever

I’ve been keeping an eye out for his new book – think I need to go on a concerted hunt tomorrow. I always travel with a Gibson novel and may as well leave for Oz-IA with a new one rather than an old.

(found via one of my other favourite authors – Bruce Stirling)

Being brave & usability testing

Thursday, August 9th, 2007

I did something very brave and very scary recently. No, I didn’t skydive, bungy jump or ski – I sent out chapters of my card sorting book to colleagues to review. And in doing so, I realised something very important about usability testing.

The reason it was so scary to get review feedback on my book was that I was sending out something quite personal and the people I sent it to are people I respect. That was an insanely scary thing to do. I didn’t know how good the book was and was putting myself in a situation where my peers could have thought ‘I thought she was smart, but what’s this rubbish? Maybe she’s not as smart as I thought’.

But I knew that the book would become better with input from smart people. And I knew that I wasn’t making a token effort – I was genuinely interested in the feedback and would do something with it. So I took a deep breath and sent it out.

I got a lot of good feedback and my colleagues were honest enough to tell me the things that didn’t work as well as those that did. The feedback was constructive, nicely balanced and didn’t make me feel like I was silly. I feel good about myself, and know what to do to make the book better.

How does this fit with usability testing? In the past year or so I’ve been on the receiving end of some usability tests of my designs and have had the chance to read some done for a client.

Universally, they failed to acknowledge how hard it is to put something up for critique, and to respect the expertise and hard work of the client team. A few reports included a short list of ‘things that worked well’ (that felt like a token), and a long list of things that didn’t go well. Most reports I read included nothing about the good aspects, and no comments acknowledging the challenge of the situation. None commented that the good things are often invisible and the bad things stood out. And large parts of the reports reported on tiny, trivial things wrapped up in the guise of ‘usability problems’. And the recommendations…well, i won’t go there today.

If usability folks want to get their contribution acknowledged and become more involved in projects, they must start to think harder about the human aspects of their work – not on the user’s side, but on the client’s. They have to get off their high horse and acknowledge that loads of hard work has been done and significant problems have been successfully resolved. They can’t continue to report failures without reporting successes. And they have to identify the difference between observations and genuine problems.

It takes a brave person to put up their work for critique. Respect their skills, tell them what is great, and be constructive about the things that aren’t.

Why I read

Wednesday, April 26th, 2006

Mum: What are you doing
Me: Reading
Mum: I thought you were meant to be writing a book, not reading one
Me: But I ran out of words today and need to top up

I’m so funny…

Discovering great writing

Friday, April 21st, 2006

I’m reading ‘The Best Software Writing‘ at the moment and have found two pieces that are both beautifully written and compelling in content. You can read them online, and I encourage you to do so (or buy the book of course):

  • Paul Ford’s Processing Processing which is a wonderful ramble about elegance, the web, the world and his attempts to make something better
  • Paul Graham’s Great Hackers which is an insgightful discussion about what it takes to be an amazing person (not just an amazing programmer, although that’s his pitch)

There are other great articles in the book (and I’m only half-way), but these two really grabbed me. They are great pieces of writing. They are also quite personal pieces, which I think supports the message. You don’t have to agree with it to be moved.

My card sorting book is underway

Friday, April 21st, 2006

I’m very excited to let you know that, between now and the end of the year, I will be writing a book on card sorting. Specifically, it will be about how to use card sorting in information architecture and similar projects. I think it will fill an important gap – there is some material about how to run a card sort, but little on how to actually use the outputs.

My book will be one of the first published by Rosenfeld Media, a new publishing house focused on producing short and practical books on user experience design. RM will be applying UX methods to determine what books to publish and how its books should be designed. RM will also be incorporating users’ input as much as possible throughout the writing process, primarily via a blog and dedicated site for each book. You can find mine at the Card sorting book website and monitor it via an RSS feed:

I’d love to hear from you about your experiences conducting card sorts and have set up a survey to help collect this. It is short – 10 questions – and should take no more than 10 minutes:

Card sorting – your experiences (survey)

I’m really looking forward to working on the book, and hope you’ll consider participating by sharing your suggestions. Send comments and ideas via the site or to me at (cardsorting -at- maadmob -dot- net).

New book goodness

Wednesday, April 19th, 2006

Most of my recent book order just arrived and I’m so excited – new books are better than Christmas!


I’m going to start with Understanding Comics and The Best Software Writing. My head cold won’t let me do anything harder just yet.

Maybe, maybe not

Monday, August 22nd, 2005

I was talking to my husband last night about a book idea. I’m in that phase where I’m switching between ‘cool idea/no-one will be interested’. I had an idea yesterday about a way to frame the topic that could make it work.

We talked about it for a bit, and I said:

“I think I might actually start thinking about maybe doing this”

I don’t think I’m going to get anywhere with that level of commitment…

Announcing Maadbooks

Monday, August 16th, 2004

Announcing another site into the Maad collection … Maadbooks.

My husband and I read a lot and buy a lot of books. Maadbooks is a collaborative effort and contains book reviews for the books that we love most – user experience, society, brewing, winemaking, food, fantasy and more. The content is slim at the moment, but we don’t expect it to be something that you read today and forget tomorrow. Although run with a blog tool (WordPress) and blog style in format, we don’t expect this to be the type of site that you have to ‘keep up with’ but a resource for when you need more books and need a friend to recommend them.

We’d love to know what you think, so leave feedback here or there. And come back later as we catch up on reviews.

Weekend reading

Saturday, May 1st, 2004

The weather is nasty this weekend, so I’m staying inside, catching up on some reading goodies I found this week:

OK, I know that I’m not going to get through all of this – but given that the alternative is working on uni assignments, I’ll give it a go…

Compelling bookshops

Wednesday, November 12th, 2003

Had an interesting bookshop experience today. Went into Readings Books and simply could not walk out without buying books – my problem was figuring which to buy. Went into Borders across the road and not one book jumped off the shelf into my arms – even though the books I was looking at were in both stores.

Atmosphere does count…