Noreen Whysel is a freelance information architect and user research consultant. She has worked with startups, government, education, finance, real estate and local community organizations. Her own startup, Decision Fish, a financial decision-making application, has just released an alpha version. As if that is not enough, Noreen is steadfast in her dedication to making the Wikipedia representations of information architecture and user experience be curated by these communities of practice.
What’s on your IA/UX/Content Strategy “nightstand” reading pile?
My literal nightstand has Michel de Montaigne’s essays (I call him the world’s first blogger), Umberto Eco’s The Infinity of Lists (because lists), Haruki Murakami’s The Strange Library (because creepy bedtime stories), and Abby Covert’s How to Make Sense of Any Mess (both because it is a useful book and also as a visual joke since my nightstand is a literal mess). I am currently reading Why We Fail by Victor Lombardi, Liminal Thinking by Dave Gray and Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.
What/ who is your creative muse?
My children and my father. We all have a maker gene and are building, tinkering and setting aside any number of projects at any given time. If I hit a snag on a project I always think about those trips to the hardware or craft store for just the right part or tool or something to repurpose to make something work. I approach creativity the same way. People do ingenious things with found objects, looking at old things in new ways, recycling and making something fresh. Having conversations and watching their design process, seeing things from different angles helps me to come up with creative solutions.
How did you find IA/UX/Content Strategy? What drew you to it?
I was a real estate researcher at Price Waterhouse in the 1990s. I was developing our library and reporting processes and started bringing in new technologies like digital photography, geographic information systems and electronic research tools. I remember being really frustrated by Lotus Notes and how it handled taxonomy. I didn’t know at the time that it was a burgeoning field, but I think my first IA job was creating a list of category terms for a Lotus Notes database based on a user generated vocabulary, something I later learned was called a folksonomy.
In 1998 I was invited to join the global website team to work on the merger with Coopers and Lybrand. I discovered a mailing list at ASIS&T called SIG-IA where people were speaking my language. Through SIG-IA, I got involved with an education initiative of the Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture, the precursor of the IA Institute and eventually joined IAI as the Operations Manager where [I] worked for almost ten years [and] discovered the IA Summit.
Who are 5 practitioners that you follow on Twitter?
Dave Gray (@davegray) posts a lot of illustrated insights and open ended questions to get you to challenge how you think. I also follow his Liminal Thinking group on Facebook.
Dan Klyn (@danklyn) and I are both architecture buffs and have been friends from IA Institute for many years. I am enjoying his music recommendations and Christopher Alexander references.
Charlene McBride (@ursonate) is a UX Designer and a maker. She has been showing a lot of colorful, gooey, tactile projects that are inspiring. See creative muse question above.
Miriam Posner (@miriamkp) is a professor of digital humanities, media and visual culture at UCLA. She’s writing about gendered tech roles at the moment.
Peter Morville (@Morville) has insights on all things IA and is great at bringing interesting people to the conversations.
What are your favorite tools of the trade? Why?
I use post-its, sharpies, whiteboards, Google Sheets, Slack, and whatever conferencing software the client happens to use. I use Google sheets a lot because clients understand it. I’ve been finding interesting little tools like Trello and Air Table for planning and sharing and have been learning how to use Github for more than just code sharing. I use paper, Balsamiq and Omnigraffle for wireframing (though paper more often) and Axure for prototyping. I will occasionally throw something into WordPress for high def prototypes. We are prototyping a financial model in Excel right now that we are testing with users. It’s been surprisingly useful, just not terribly pretty.
If you could become instantly smarter one one subject, what would that subject be and why?
Coding. I wish I knew better how designs are translated to code. I do know some languages and have used it on projects but not at a very deep level. I find it tedious. I really wish I wanted to learn it.
How/where do you “start” a project?
Interviews. I always start with a problem or needs assessment. What does the client hope to accomplish? What problems or constraints are making it difficult to accomplish their goals? What is the budget and how much time do they have to complete?
If you could choose a capstone project for your career, what would it be? Why that one?
I am currently working on a project that may well be my career capstone. I am the COO and UX Lead for Decision Fish, a tool to help people make their most important financial decisions with confidence. My husband and I started with a model he used over the past few decades for municipalities and thought: Why can’t we offer something similar for regular people? We are applying behavioral finance and cognitive science research to uncover the things that keep people from making decisions in their own best interest. It’s been eye opening.
Name an educational resource (book, website, publication, etc) that you turn to regularly?
One of my clients is a public-private collaboration developing a standard to fulfill the National Strategy for Trusted Identity in Cyberspace, a White House initiative. I am doing user research for a registry of entities that attest to the standard and also developing a set of guidelines for usability of ID products. It has been helpful to review standards from the W3C and usability resources from NN Group. I introduced the UX team to Abby Covert’s IA Heuristics which they loved. That said, I have a huge bookshelf of UX treasures at my desk and keep a copy of the Polar Bear book and Andrea Resmini and Luca Rosati’s Pervasive IA close at hand.
What is one of your guilty pleasures?
I like to shut off my phone, push away my computer and go walking. I have always had the urge to unplug and experience the actual world. If you’ve ever seen me walk into a room and then just leave, that’s what you are seeing – a choice to just shut off and go do something different, like birdwatching or last month in San Diego when I wanted nothing more than to go see the parachuters at the Gliderport. Since the election I’ve been found to be reading a lot more poetry lately. It’s good to slow down find an escape from the modern trappings of life.