"This thing is just like that thing!" she cried

What's in the picture below? You get one guess. Go.

Wrong! It looks like The Board, doesn't it?

But it's not. Keen Information Architects in the audience will have noticed that this also looks very much like a Card Sort, because that's exactly what it is.

I don't mention it very often, but when I'm not writing for pleasure or untold riches, I am an Information Architect. I was working on this card sort a few weeks ago and noticed that it looked a lot like I was breaking a story. I was even sitting on the floor and everything.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that IA and TV Writing are practically the same job. This is how you get a website off the ground:
  1. Decide why you (or your client) want to build a website. [That's theme, kids.]
  2. Work out what pages, features, and functions your website will absolutely need in order to accomplish your client's goals. [Those are your major beats.]
  3. Brainstorm all the little nice-to-haves. The things that will make your website exceptional. [Those are the rest of your beats.]
  4. Card sort. It helps you decide how to organize all of those wonderful features. You want to give your users exactly what they're looking for up front and then entice them to stick around for other unexpected pleasures. Sound familiar?
  5. Put all those ideas down on paper in the form of a site map. [That's the outline, I hear you cry!*]
  6. Finally, you tackle the unending process of adding and arranging details on every page. These details make the difference between a disaster (which users will stick with for approximately 7.6 seconds), and an enjoyable, informative, and exciting web environment (which users will want to return to again and again and again). You will never be finished this step until your deadline says you are.
After the IA job is done, you turn over your documents to whomever hired you. You'll probably get notes. Lots of notes. If you have an employer like the one I'm working for at the moment, most of the notes will be brilliant. If you have a typical employer, most of the notes won't make any sense or they'll be downright stupid. You still have to be nice. Diplomacy is the key if you ever want to get hired again. You also have to keep the nonsensical notes from killing your site. If users don't like the site, you'll get the blame, not the guy who gave you the silly notes.

After notes and revisions, the documents get copied to a whole team of designers, producers, coders, and executives who can do with them what they will. If you're lucky, you'll have some say in the development process. If not, you just hold your breath and hope for the best.

Now, here's your homework. Think about your own day job for a few minutes. How is it helping you become a better writer? Are you a waitress or a barista? Then you get to listen to people talk all day long. Your dialogue should kick butt. Are you an accountant? Then you know how the tiniest detail can change the outcome of the whole. Your stories won't have any plotholes and you'll have no trouble spotting typos. Dog walker? What better time to dream up fantastic characters and plots? Construction worker? You won't be tempted to hang the paintings before you've built a solid foundation.

Once you have your little list, keep it in your wallet or stick it to your forehead. When your job is driving you nuts, pull out the list (or look in the mirror) and remember all the ways that job is preparing you for the writer's life.

Artery Cloggery
Told ya my health-food kick would be short-lived. We went to Auntie Em's on Eagle Rock Boulevard for breakfast yesterday. We left with a box of 13 cupcakes. I don't even like cakey sweet things, but man, I am a sucker for these little two-bite sugar highs. Try a Red Velvet. Then run away before you decide to bring a baker's dozen home with you.

*I was just reading a scene in Emma in which everyone was crying. Not in the teary sense, but like: "I'll have coffee," cried Mr Knightley. "Coffee! You can't have coffee," cried Mr Woodhouse. "I'm sure it is not good for you." "Oh, Papa," cried Emma, "Of course Mr Knightley shall have coffee if he wants it!" Hilariously overwrought.

1 comment:

adam _______________________ said...

I've never heard of card sorting. This may be the most distractingly -- and yet appropriately and applicably -- interesting writerly blog post I've read in a while.

And you manage to be brazenly optimistic about day jobs. Which is no easy feat. Normally I just sneer to myself and remain resentful of my job when I read such things. But I may just have to think before I do so next time.

Damn you.

(and thanks. :) )