Nerding out on UX and IA: meet James Erwin, Product Designer

5 min read Optimal Workshop

James Erwin fell into the world of information architecture (IA) by accident earlier in his design career and it’s fuelled his curiosity ever since.  We talk to him about his design journey, his obsession with understanding where IA and UX meet, and his approach to product design at Optimal Workshop.

You go by the title of Product Designer – what’s that mean to you?

Product Designer is a common industry term for people who think a lot about the user experience.  I see designers as responsible for the wider user experience, including the user interfaces people interact with when using our tools. It’s not just getting into the tools and pushing around pixels but thinking about the whole process – understanding what the problems are, and if there’s a problem at all.  It’s doing research, understanding quant/qual data, and talking with every stakeholder under the sun.

When you started out, did you know this is what you wanted to do?

Definitely not – it’s not where I imagined I’d end up. I studied a Bachelor of Design Innovation with media design as my major.  That’s where I learned to write code, and design video games plus a little bit of graphic design – a patchwork degree of multimedia.

I went through the Summer of Tech program and through that learned about UX/UI design and really enjoyed talking to customers in my first role. Pretty much all I know I’ve learned on the job, how to use the tools and the business lingo are all an important part of that journey.  Ironically I started out studying commerce at university before changing direction completely and deciding to study design.  I’ve ended up with the best of both worlds.

You’re a fan of information architecture – have you always been?

I fell into information architecture by accident – a very common story.  A thing that exists as IA is a problem that appears all the time whether you know it or not.  When I worked on websites earlier in my career, what I was doing was information architecture work but I didn’t know it at the time.  I was working with content they had, shaping it, choosing the words, making sure they were understood by people, and making things as clear as possible.  It was taxonomy and choreography kind of stuff – all part of information architecture. I was finding and solving navigation and labeling problems but I just didn’t know what to call it at the time. 

The thing I love about information architecture is there’s never a right and a wrong – it’s more complex than that.  It gives guidance on how you might do something and allows you to test and if you’re not successful try again and always keep improving. 

What excites you most about the field of information architecture?

The big question for me is what is the relationship between IA and UX design? That’s been really well documented in the last 20 years with talks in the field by really knowledgeable people but I think it’s changed because UX design has changed, Product design has changed and what that means has changed. Where does information architecture lie in that space now?  There’s IA work happening but what are we calling this work? 

So many people influence the information architecture of a website or product: content creators have an influence, developers have an influence, and other designers have an influence.  How do we get everyone to have a shared understanding to create a well-understood experience?  That’s kind of the hardest part and that’s what excites me – thinking about how to push out and to think more deeply about these things rather than just prioritizing the short term, and sometimes it can feel like that.

What’s the best thing about the work you do – what makes a great day?

For me – it’s really nerding out on something, really looking at something, and really trying to understand it thoroughly and learning how to improve it – that’s my job.

I’m in a design tool or whiteboard tool: just writing things and putting things down and trying to understand what makes it tick, and bringing in all the data we have on our customers – that’s the stuff that really gets me going. It’s not like it used to be, when I first got into this, it was all about wanting to make cool stuff, like making a page look really great. That’s the furthest from what I want to do now.  I want to know if the thing works well and the interface and all the other stuff come afterward.

There’s this great definition of design I heard recently:  Design is the process of taking something from an existing state to a desired state.  For me, understanding that existing state is exciting – doing the research, asking what data and information I have to back up any decision making?  Going home at the end of the day after doing that I’m exhausted, from just turning things over and over…

Who’s your hero in your field – the person you most want to hang out and talk to?  

I spoke to a guy called Adam Polansky – who’s one of Andrew Mayfield, our CEO’s friends, from Texas who’s been doing this for a very long time. I just want to sit down with him more and hear his perspective on the industry, and how IA and UX relate to it.  Anyone like him who’s been doing this for a long time but also find people right now who want to talk about this stuff too – like Abby Covert, she is a trailblazer for sure.