DonnaM » Writing


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.

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.

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!

Article: Designing and selecting components for user interfaces

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008

The User Interface Resource Centre have published an article I wrote for them called What, Where, How: Designing and selecting components for user interfaces.

The article is about how to make sure your components will be usable and easy to learn. It covers some fundamental cognitive principles and their implications for component selection.

10 tips for conference presentations

Friday, November 28th, 2008

Yesterday I attended what I think will be my last conference presentation for the year. And it was a doozy.

I’ve sat through at least 100 conference presentations this year. Some were awesome, some were awful and most were pretty good. But the awesome and awful ones stick with me – when a topic is not of interest to me or is about something I already know, I pay more attention to the presentation style, looking at what works and what doesn’t.

So I’ve compiled my ten tips for presenters. These represent the things that great presenters do well and bad presenters just butcher. Of course, I’m not perfect, and I know I’ve made some of these mistakes, but I’m trying to do silly things less often.

1.  Work to time

In the worst presentation of the year, the speaker got up in front of 500 people and said “I have too much material, so I’m going to go through this quite fast”. Immediate FAIL. Then, 10 minutes before the end he said “I’m almost out of time, I’ll just go a bit quicker through the last points”.

Conference organisers are usually quite clear about how much time you have allocated. If they are paying your airfare, accommodation and a speaker’s fee, not tailoring your presentation to the timeslot is just rude, and doesn’t help you or the audience.

The best presenters know how much time they have to work with, tailor their presentation to fit the time and then keep an eye on the time. One of the best I saw this year was Jeff Veen at Web Directions – with technical problems at the start he lost 15 minutes and still came in almost on time.

And if you are running out of time, stop. Jump past a couple of slides if you need to make one last point. Otherwise you are saying “I’m more important than you, you can wait until I’m finished”.

2. Leave time for questions

A common behaviour for bad presenters is to run right up to, or over, time, then ask ‘any questions’ (in a rushed voice too of course). No-one asks questions, and the speaker thinks they’ve done a great job.

Great presenters run 10 minutes before time, ask ‘any questions’ and get a ton of hands.

This, believe it or not, has nothing to do with the material. It has everything to do with feeling permitted to ask questions. If there is obviously no time for questions (especially right before lunch or coffee break), the person who asks one is holding up the room. We are polite folks and we know how to play the game – we don’t want to hold up everyone just to ask a personal question. But when there is plenty of time, we feel like we are allowed to, so we do.

And questions are a good thing. They give you a chance to elaborate on something that wasn’t clear, or cover the topic that everyone wants to know but you forgot to include. They help the audience feel like you are approachable and a peer.

3. Know what your point is

I attended many presentations that were well-spoken and well timed but never actually made a point.

Yesterday’s presentation was a perfect example. I spent most of it wondering what the speaker’s point was, and finally concluded that he didn’t know what his point was either. Talks like this waffle all over the place and never get anywhere. And listeners walk away feeling stupid.

If you aren’t sure of your point, do the ‘Why, who cares, so what‘ test. Think about what you’re actually trying to convey, think about why someone needs to know it, why they would care about it, and what the consequences are. This is a simple trick that really helps you think about what you should be communicating.

4. Rehearse

The first time you give a talk, especially if you are using slides someone else has prepared, rehearse it.

Really. Yes, I really mean it.

Rehearsing helps because you hear yourself say the words. You can hear your jokes (I think my jokes are hilarious until I say them out loud), practice stories and figure out the pace. Then when you have to perform for real, your brain doesn’t have to figure it out from scratch.

You can rehearse in your bedroom – it feels odd, but works. Or ask a couple of friends to listen to you. Our local IA cocktail hour has been the rehearsal ground for a few people this year, and we are happy to do it.

5. Avoid self talk

This tip came to me via the very awesome Dan Willis.  We were sitting together watching someone who is super-smart and always has really insightful things to say. And Dan said ‘if only he’d stop self-talking, he’d be perfect’.

Self-talking is all the little things speakers say when they are simultaneously trying to deliver a talk and thinking about themselves doing it. Comments about technology, ‘oops, there’s a spelling mistake’, ‘oh, there’s an extra slide’, ‘what does that point mean’. They can subtly undermine your credibility and make you look inexperienced.

Of all the tips I’ve ever learned, this one has been the most helpful to me personally.

6. Understand your audience

The two worst speakers of the year made the mistake of not understanding the audience. But the reason they were the worst went further – they also assumed that the audience didn’t know anything and needed educating. Guess what – audiences can actually pick up on it when you think of them like this.

Before speaking to a group, find out what they already know and where they are up to with your topic. If you think you might need to explain some fundamental concepts, don’t talk down to people. Just say you are going to quickly go over some background so some key points later on make sense.

But really, the trick to this is to genuinely care about your audience. No matter how hard you try, if you think they are beneath you, they’ll pick it up.

7. Talk about what you know

Another difference between great presentations and mediocre is the presenter’s knowledge of their material. A great presenter not only knows what points they are making, but knows why those things are important and what they mean. They can answer a question on the fly, or elaborate on a point as needed.

You might be caught having to give a presentation on a topic that you don’t know thoroughly, or use a presentation someone else has written. If this happens, rehearse it a couple of times, think about each of the points, why they are important and what they mean. Do some background reading, discuss it with colleagues and think up a story for each of the main points. This will increase your understanding of the material and your confidence.

8. Tell stories

Humans don’t learn by listening to strings of facts. We learn from stories and examples.

One of the best things you can do in a presentation is to tell stories. Make a point, then put it into a real situation. It may be something you’ve experienced, something a colleague has, or your opinion about an issue. Your listeners will understand your point better, and you’ll sound more credible. Win-win.

I tell stories in all my presentations. Sometimes I even completely ignore what is on a slide and just tell a story. The thing I have to be most careful with is that I don’t tell a story twice in one session – how embarrassing would that be!

9. Talk in inverted pyramid

Inverted pyramid is a style of writing where you present the most important facts first, then elaborate on them, then elaborate further. The urban myth is that it developed with the introduction of the telegraph and the need to get the facts through before the connection was lost.

Whatever the history, get your point across, and then build up on it. Your audience can then make a decision about whether to listen to you or do something else (think about sex, read twitter, write nasty things about you on twitter). If you build up to your point essay style, chances are you’ll lose part of the audience part way through and they’ll never get the point you are so carefully working up to.

10. Balance imagery and text

If you’ve been attending presentations for a few years like I have, you’ll have noticed that bullet points have almost dissappeared. The current style, at least amongst the user experience and web folks, is gorgeous imagery and a small amount of text.

Some of the worst presentations I saw this year went so too far with imagery – I kept getting distracted trying to figure out how the image and the speaker’s point related, and ended up missing the point entirely.

Don’t be terrified of text and bullet points. They are OK when:

  • the point you want to make isn’t easy to communicate visually
  • visual language is the best way to communicate the idea
  • people need to see the whole idea in order to understand it
  • you are discussing lists of steps or sequences

But if you are going to use bullet points, make them communicate your point. Don’t use them as a memory trigger for what you want to say – that’s what speaker notes are for.


So, if you don’t want me sitting in the third row twittering about how terrible you are:

  1. Work to time
  2. Leave time for questions
  3. Know what your point is
  4. Avoid self-talk
  5. Rehearse
  6. Understand the audience
  7. Talk about what you know
  8. Tell stories
  9. Talk in inverted pyramid
  10. Balance imagery and text


If you’d like to improve your presentations, my two favourite resources/books are:

Ramsay/cluetrain mashup

Tuesday, June 17th, 2008

I don’t know if this is such a good idea, but I’ve been watching Gordon Ramsay’s kitchen nightmares, re-reading the Cluetrain Manifesto and helping a client write a set of guidelines for social media .

And I just realised what each has in common…


Ramsay, when you remove the f*** word, talks always about authenticity and simple, true food.

A big chunk of the cluetrain, and the part that I connected with when I first read it, is about communicating with a true, authentic voice.

And the core of social media is about being real, being yourself and communicating with people as a person not as a corporation.

In every case, the authenticity, realness and honesty is most important, and will always be so.

Web directions UX: Getting content right

Monday, May 19th, 2008

Here’s my presentation from Web Directions User Experience, titled ‘Getting content right’.

The description for it was:

“We all know that great content is a core part of the website user experience. So why is it so hard to find content that isn’t dull, lifeless and uninteresting – blah, blah, blah?

Web content can be vibrant, interesting and fun. It can draw you in, fill your head and make you learn without having to think. And it’s not really hard to write. Three simple tricks can turn poor content into a great experience – remember that readers care more about themselves than you; write in real words with authentic voice; play show and tell.

This presentation will discuss these principles, with plenty of funny and not-so-funny examples. You’ll go away with practical steps to make your writing kick-ass. And you won’t even have to think.”

I think it went well. Good questions at the end, and a number of people commented that the tips actually were things they could do (which was the aim).
(Lots of car references in there too…)

It’s not about you

Tuesday, February 12th, 2008

In the last few weeks I’ve been in different situations that all reminded me of a key principle in any persuasive communication – no matter whether it be writing, designing, pitching or delivering a report. It is a principle that is absolutely key, and all so easy to forget…

The situations I found myself in were something like this:

  • I was writing my new ‘Why choose me‘ page. I started out writing about how fabulous I am and why you should hire me (yes, that’s crude, but go see what most consultants do). Even to me it was boring and dumb and flat and I hated it. So I thought about why I hated it and what I needed to write instead.
  • I was helping someone interview candidates for a website manager job. One person really got up my nose – when asked ‘Why do you want this job’ he explained how he wanted to work in a new domain, how he needed a change and how interesting it would be. I spent some time thinking about why he annoyed me so much.
  • I was struggling with a content rewrite for a client. It was hard to understand, dense overly-complex and really dull. It was potentially an incredibly interesting topic turned deadly.

On reflection on the similarities between these situations, I realised the problem – in each situation the writer/interviewee talked about themselves and how great they were, instead of talking about the person they were talking to. And I remembered something that I already knew:

Nothing is about you. Everything is about the reader/listener.

I think it was Kathy Sierra who really nailed this a few years ago (and who I would like to thank for her many ideas and insights). She put it so eloquently:

who kick's ass

This is the key to every single piece of communication. No-one cares about you, but they do care about what you can do for them.

Remember it, embed it, do everything you can to make other people shine; and good things will come your way automatically.

Writing for the print

Friday, October 12th, 2007

A funny thing happened to me a few months back that helped me learn something very important about how I write, and writing in general.

As you may know, I’m writing a book (on card sorting). Earlier this year I was up to the point where I had some chapters drafted and thought they were OK, but not great, and couldn’t figure out how to make them great.

So, as is the normal thing to do when writing a book, I sent the chapters to my editor. And as editors do, he read them and gave me feedback.

He pinpointed my problem easily. I had over-structured my writing. Well, I am an information architect, and structuring stuff is what I do. On advice on how to approach the writing process, I had written an outline with points on what to write, then filled in the gaps between the outline with content – explaining each of the points I had included in my outline. I used lots of headings to break up the writing so it wasn’t too dense, bullet points to make it readable etc etc.

What happened was interesting (to me). Because I had written outline points and then filled them in, I pretty much treated them as independent chunks of information. As a result there was a lot of overlap between the chunks, the writing was very choppy and there was not much flow between points.

My editor initially blamed it on powerpoint syndrome – the overuse of choppy structure and bullet points…but I knew better…

Do you know what I think it was? I think it was writing for the web. What do we teach in writing for the web – lots of headings and subheads, lots of bulleted lists, scannable writing, writing so people can read independent chunks and get what they need. That’s what I did – I applied how I had been writing for the web for years and made a miserable mess.

How did I fix it? I pulled out all the headings and bulleted lists and wrote it from top to bottom in prose. I made every paragraph link to the previous and following without using headings. Then, when it was working as an entire flow, I went back and added in headings, lists, pullquotes and other scannable items. But I added those that would enhance the flow, not make the structure.

It was a very, very interesting learning experience for me, and the book is so much the better for it.

Don’t take away my wireless

Wednesday, October 18th, 2006

My husband asked me a funny question this afternoon:
“Do you need the wireless. I might have to give the box back to (our friend who loaned it to us)”

Aaaaghhh. How do I manage without the wireless? I can’t watch TV and write at the same time, check email while I do dinner or read feeds while my daughter uses the computer in the office.

Luckily our friend doesn’t need it back…I think I owe him one.

Article – User Research for IA Projects

Wednesday, September 27th, 2006

I prepared an article for a journal earlier this year. After 2 rounds of edits the editor and I both weren’t happy with the article (it is pretty good, just needed a load more work to get it publication-ready).

The article covered some topics I have not written about elsewhere, or seen much about. It focuses on user research particularly for IA projects, how to analyse research data and how to use the data in an IA project.

So, here it is: User research for information architecture projects (PDF, 218KB)

Can you review an article for me?

Sunday, June 11th, 2006

I’m currently writing an article on information architecture for a special issue of a journal (not sure if I’m allowed to say which one, so I won’t).

I’m working on it alone, so don’t have anyone to sense-check it before it goes in for peer review.

I’m looking for a couple of people to read it for me, make sure it makes sense and give me some general feedback. It is aimed at people who do user research within IA projects, but who may not have loads of experience with this. If this sounds like you and you have time to read a 4000 word article, please leave a comment or email me.

Why – who cares – so what

Wednesday, May 3rd, 2006

Why, who cares, so what
I was stuck on a block of text today – looking at it wondering why it was so damn boring and how I was going to make it interesting. And I remembered something Kathy Sierra had said on a podcast – something that was so important to me at the time I ran to write it on my whiteboard (I’d link to the podcast, but do you think I can refind anything these days).

She said, in talking about writing, to keep asking questions – “Why”, “Who cares”, “So what”, just like a 5 year old, until the answer is ‘or you’ll use your job’.

So I asked myself why, who cares, so what and realised I had written the exact wrong stuff. I had described the answer to a question but not answered it. I thought about why I was writing that particular piece, changed it around and it was great.

So now I just have to remember to do that to every paragraph…

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.