July 21-22, 2021 / Online

An interview with Lisa Maria Marquis

Written by Steve Fisher

May 20, 2020

In this interview, Steve chats with Lisa Maria Marquis who, in writing her book Everyday Information Architecture, unpacks how we need to think about how we present information on the web and the need to make decisions that empower our users as opposed to hurt them.

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Steve Fisher: Welcome to the Design and Content 2020 podcast. This is our first episode and I'm really excited to introduce you to the first speaker we'll be interviewing.

Lisa Maria Marquis is a writer, speaker, and editor who practices content-driven information architecture. She helps organizations understand, organize, and structure their web content for empowering user experience. Lisa Maria is the managing editor of A Book Apart and the author of "Everyday Information Architecture," which you should pick up a copy of.

And we're happy to have her here with us today. Hello, Lisa.

Lisa Maria Marquis: Hello, thank you so much for having me.

Steve Fisher: Well, it is my pleasure and we are really excited that you'll be able to come to the conference. So, your talk for the conference is titled, Categories & Consequences: The politics of organizing information. The theme around that is the ways in which we choose to organize ourselves is a direct reflection of who we are, for good or ill. And so, within all that, I'd love to know where do you think that you'll be taking everyone when you're looking at this talk, this type of work that you do? What are some of the key elements that you would like to share from that?

Lisa Maria Marquis: A lot of this talk was born out of some of the earlier work I was doing, the work I had been doing the last couple of years with writing my book, "Everyday Information Architecture." And thinking about, how do I break down the way that I make decisions about information on the web. You know, whether I'm doing an activity that is more information-architecture related or content-strategy related, when I'm working with content, I'm making a series of decisions, that I'm hoping are, you know, politically supportive, that I'm hoping are empowering to users, that I'm hoping aren't hurting people. I'm not perfect, I've made a lot of mistakes. We're always going to be making mistakes. But, I realize there is a process I go through, right? There are a series of questions I ask myself when I'm doing this. And writing the book was a way of starting to unpack that for other people.

So, this talk kind of came out of that process, that action of unpacking it and trying to say to others, here's how I'm doing it. Maybe this will help you. I think when it comes to how we make decisions about, for example, a sitemap, how are we organizing that main navigation? How are we setting up those navigation menus? I've seen that so often happen as, like a by-product of a different design decision, a different design process, right? We're just like, let's just get the content up there, here's what the wireframes look like. And the sitemap is kind of what happens just to label the wireframes, or something like that. And I realized, you know, I actually make so many little, tiny decisions about the labels and the hierarchies when I'm putting a sitemap together. And I wanted to make sure other people were being that kind of purposeful.

So, I draw on, you know, the content that already exists. Really being familiar with it. Getting really granularly, nitty-gritty, deep-down, let's dig into this kind of stuff with the content. Really understanding it, and knowing it from the inside out. Really thinking about what the audience needs, right? What the users are trying to do. Thinking about those tasks they have to accomplish. Thinking about what the business is trying to accomplish because, unfortunately, we do still live in a capitalist society, and that's just how it is. So, we do have to think about what's in it for our boss. And trying to pull all those things together, and then you have to layer on top of that, this sort of aspirational, well, what's the future going to look like? What do we want the content to be doing that it isn't doing right now? How do we step away from the current situation, into, you know, the better future?

And I realized that's the tricky part, right? Like, that's the part where we know how to think about user needs, we know how to think about business goals, we know how to conduct a content audit, but how do we step forward and really push that envelope, push that thinking? And that's where I've started to really think about critical thinking and looking at society and looking at politics.

I draw a lot on the work that Erika Hall's been putting out. I draw a lot on the work that Ursula Franklin has put out. And trying to think about what does it mean to not just create a, how do I want to put this, an ideologically perfect information structure, right? It's not just working with neutral information, you're not just [asking] what's the correct way to organize the information. Because I think that's, you know, I come from an upbringing and a personality that's very focused on, I wanna to do it the right way. I wanna do it correctly. I wanna get the A+ on this sitemap. I would also like a gold star, and yes, a cookie.

So, I wanna land on a sitemap that's gonna be like, the most platonically ideal version of information organization. And there's so much more to it than that, right? That was an epiphany for me a couple of years ago. Where it was like, it's not about being right, right? It's about making conscientious choices that are going to help users, not just do the thing the business wants them to do, but do things that help them, like live their lives more fully, right? Do things that help them feel like they have agency, and they can make choices. Hopefully, you're able to dovetail that with the business goals, the user needs, the content architecture that's already in place.

But, that's where that process came from, was this sort of additional step of, it's not just the purity of the concept. It's also about making it progressive.

Steve Fisher: Yeah, and that's a really great way to frame a lot of that like I do think that people get set on whether it is the exact right thing for the business. Or what they feel is best practice, whatever it happens to be. But, you know, a lot of things just don't survive in the wild, the way that we plan them out.

Lisa Maria Marquis: Yeah.

Steve Fisher: And it's our opportunity to do our best, but then to also, you know, keep going with that, I'd say. I do agree sometimes, a lot of people just run ahead with something and, like how you described it, it could be a well-intentioned designer makes a sitemap, based on their wireframes...

Lisa Maria Marquis: Yeah, or the developer who's working in the CMS is like, well, this is the content tree that I've got going. Or, a copywriter is like, well, I've come up with these labels, you know. We're all kind of working in our own little bubbles, and not necessarily pulling it together in the kind of systemic thinking that information architecture asks of us.

Steve Fisher: The understanding of structured content is so important, so I'd love to know what are your views on the financial and societal impacts of our choices when it comes to things like this?

Lisa Maria Marquis: Ultimately, what we're trying to do for our teams is, we want our business to make money, right? Like that's the goal behind a website redesign. That's the goal behind a product launch. You're trying to get more people to click, to buy, to subscribe, to sign up, to attend, to whatever. So, ultimately, that's what we're trying to do. The better we can meet users' needs, the better [we] succeed at that goal, right? So, again there's that dovetailing of the user needs and the business goals coming together. So, step away from that for a minute, cause that's gonna happen no matter what, for better or for worse, that is going to happen.

Stepping away from that for a moment, this thing I kind of start with in my talk, and in my book as well, is this idea of categorization, as something that has financial, social, political impact. Or I should say, it has political and financial impact because it has social impact, right? We are, when we label something, when we categorize something, we group things together, we are making a statement on how we see those concepts. How we view those concepts. So, it's, if you choose to group items together on your website, whether that's products, whether that's publications, events, whatever it is you're working with in your content. You group that stuff together and you are telling your users how you think about it. You're saying to your users, I see these things as being related, there is a relationship between these items. And, this is in my talk, so that's the first thing, I'm giving you the talk right now!

And the second thing is it also tells your users how you see them interacting with the content. So, it's not just, again, it's not just about your relationship to your neutral, you know, flawless content pieces. It's about how you interpret people interacting with that content. How you interpret who your users are. There's an example in my talk of a website that sells bicycles. And their bicycle categories and their product drop-downs are things like, Hooligans, and Bad Boys. And then there's one item that says Women's.

Steve Fisher: Oh, yeah, because they can't be those things.

Lisa Maria Marquis: I mean, there's just such a, it speaks volumes. It says so much to me about, not just how this bicycle company views their bicycles, but how they view their riders, right? Like who they think is coming to this site and what they think those people need to see. So, it just lays all your assumptions there. Like users aren't stupid. We can see what you think of us.

So, I think that's a social awareness that is going to have political and financial ramifications. I mean, listen, I'm not in the market for a bicycle, but if I were, I wouldn't be buying it from that website. So, you know, you tell me what the financial underpinnings are, you know. We'll see.

Steve Fisher: Yeah, that's a really good example and a good point. We bring our bias forward and when we don't have a real understanding of how to check those, or how to present them and really represent our business in a way that our customers think about themselves, yeah, that has huge impact.

Well, I'm really looking forward to your talk, cause I think it's going to help a lot of us understand some of the things that maybe we bring to it, but also some things we can do, too. Whether it's to rebuild trust or do better and better things, maybe not the right thing every time, or the exact right thing...

Lisa Maria Marquis: Upward trajectory, we're moving forward.

Steve Fisher: Yeah, well you're still going to help us get gold stars I hear that and--

Lisa Maria Marquis: Yes, gold stars for everyone.

Steve Fisher: Gold stars for everyone. That's what your next talk should be called. I'm curious, so I had invited you to come up to Vancouver. I loved that people can come here in the summer. And of course, we're not going to do that this year, because we want to keep people safe, and healthy...

Lisa Maria Marquis: Yes, yes.

Steve Fisher: But, this is a really important event to our community, and so I'm curious, now that you can't come here, what are some things or a thing that you're looking forward to for DCC online?

Lisa Maria Marquis: I'm really psyched to see the content that people are gonna be sharing. And see some of those relationships between attendees, between speakers and attendees, between the speakers. Like all of that awesome intellectual brain juice that's going to be coming out of that. Just want to, like, juice it, and put it in a martini, right? Like that's, oh, that's a terrible quote. Anyway, I'm sticking with it.

Steve Fisher: No, that's good, that's good. Thank you so much for taking time today to chat with us. I do encourage everyone to check out "Everyday Information Architecture."

Lisa Maria Marquis: Yes, please buy my book. Buy the book.

Steve Fisher: It is really excellent and...

Lisa Maria Marquis: Thank you.

Steve Fisher: And I would say accessible, too.

Lisa Maria Marquis: Oh, now I appreciate that.

Steve Fisher: I've been encouraging a lot of the designers on the community practice side, at the company I'm at right now, to learn more about information architecture.

Lisa Maria Marquis: Yeah.

Steve Fisher: Even if that hasn't been quite in their wheelhouse all the time...

Lisa Maria Marquis: Information architecture is for everybody. So, that is, that's my premise, so I'm glad to hear that. Thank you so much for having me on. This has been really awesome to talk to you.

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