Information architecture, interaction design and much more

Goodnight DonnaM

March 9th, 2011

I haven’t posted here for a long time, and can’t see myself doing it in the future, so I think I’ll put this blog to sleep (I’ll leave it up, just won’t pretend that I’m ever going to post again). If you liked it, you might like these places where I write:

  • Practical information architecture (my book site)
  • Card sorting (the other book site)
  • Blather (my personal development site)

Posted in Blogging | No Comments »

IA workshops – London and Oslo

January 11th, 2011

I’m teaching two IA workshops in Europe in the next few weeks.

  • Thursday 27 Jan. London Information architecture workshop
  • Wednesday 9 Feb. Norway information architecture workshop

Both workshops cover much of the content in the book, and give you the chance to practice the skills, discuss issues and ask questions, instead of just reading about it.

I hope to see you there!

Posted in Information architecture, Workshops | No Comments »

A practical guide to information architecture (my new book)

June 8th, 2010

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.

Posted in Books, Information architecture, Writing | 1 Comment »

Stories and examples for my IA book

March 3rd, 2010

I’m working like mad through March to write a book on information architecture.

As I go, I find I need two things – stories to illustrate points I describe, and examples of sites that do particular things. This post will be a continually-updated one that lists what I’m interested in and what I have enough of.


I’m interested in stories – usually about a page (400-500 words) around the following ideas:

  • How skills in previous roles helped you when you started in IA. I’m looking for an example from people who previously did usability testing and business analysis (I have tech writer, graphic designer & developer all covered)
  • How setting clear project goals at the beginning of a project helped that project run smoothly, and how you used them the project
  • How not having clear project goals caused all sorts of project crap
  • Stories about how you brainstormed and selected content for a new site or redesign. Particularly any that used a quantitative approach to selection (e.g. a scoring system)
  • How you’ve worked with clients to get content from them
  • How you’ve communicated about content needs, what content you have, and gaps
  • How did you test a draft IA before you designed navigation and pages

All stories will be in your words (I may tweak slightly for length or clarity, but will show you) and I’ll include your name, role, website etc.


I’m interested in examples of the following sites or features. It would be fantastic if you’ve been involved in designing the one you give me – I may want to chat to you about them (I don’t want to say ‘this is a good example’ and later find out that it’s completely unusable for real users):

  • A real-estate website that uses an interesting filter or faceted browse
  • Great comparison interfaces, of any type
  • Tools other than Xenu Link Sleuth that can list out everything on your website
  • Link-rich home pages

Contact me

You can leave me a comment, tweet to me (@maadonna) or email me on

Posted in Books, Information architecture | 8 Comments »

I’m writing an information architecture book!

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.

Posted in Books, Information architecture, Writing | 10 Comments »

How I draft an information architecture

July 29th, 2009

When I teach information architecture, the most common questions aren’t about the principles, but about the process. Just how do you decide on a particular method, how do you choose categories, how do you know what you’ve come up with is right.

As a teacher I’ve spent much time thinking about this, reflecting on my own process and how it actually works for me. And I’ve figured out the answer.

When I teach I tell people this answer. Most are surprised, but there are always a couple of people in the room who nod to themselves and look comforted.

Would you like to know the answer?

Here it is.

Wait for the surprise.

Just make it up.

Yep. As some high profile product says, just do it.

This is surprisingly easy, but there is a dependency. You need information. You need to understand what you are trying to achieve, what users of the service need and know, and you need to know the content well. If you don’t have these things, it will be hard. But if you do have them, pulling them together into a first draft is surprisingly easy.

When you have made something up – and I don’t care whether you do it on a whiteboard, in a spreadsheet or in your head – then start thinking about whether it will work for the users, and whether it will work for the content. Revise and play with your idea until these things start to fall together.

At some point you’ll start to feel good about your made up draft IA. In your head it will look like it will work for the users and the content will fit in. You can see how it will help the organisation achieve its goals. (If you can’t get to this point, it’s likely you are missing some kind of information. You’ll need to do something to fix that, or it will never work).

For me, there’s a funny feeling at this point – it feels simple and clear and makes me wonder why it took me so long to figure out.  That’s when I stop fiddling and start talking to people about it. And I’m yet to be be majorly wrong, so there must be something in it.

Today’s example

So I was doing this today for a client (I won’t say who, not that it’s sensitive – I just haven’t mentioned this to them). I took photos as I played with the new IA & thought you might be interested.

The background is that this is a fairly straightforward redesign of some government content. I know what the team want out of it, have done some basic user research, cleaned up the content and decided what to keep and create. It will be for a simple hierarchical site, so the IA in this case is a set of categories/subcategories to be used in navigation.

I don’t always do it like this, but today I jotted the main content chunks onto sticky notes. Apart from being physical, this helps me get away from the way content is organised now:


Then I jotted things we learned from user research onto a different colour note:


Then I shuffled them around into groups of things that go well together:


I played with these for a little while and moved a couple of things between piles, but it wasn’t hard. It fell together easily. All the user needs are catered and all the content fits in. There are some spots where we need some extra content, and there is no content that someone doesn’t need. I could come up with sensible titles for all the groups.

My followup step from this was to create a quick spreadsheet with the categories, subcategories and main content pages that came out of this shuffle; and also add a couple of special navigation items that will pull together some things across the piles (like forms and publications, which are scattered across the piles according to their topic, but will need separate entry points for some user tasks).

Next steps

Tomorrow I’m going to run through this with the client team. I’m not drawing it up into a sitemap now. I’m going to talk them through it as I draw it on a whiteboard. This lets me describe each section and the rationale behind it, without them being distracted by something I have already written down. I’ve done this before and it is a great trick for communicating the draft IA – it lets me present it as a story, and triggers sensible questions.

Then, of course, there is lots more to do. I’ll be using an existing navigation approach, so don’t need to design navigation. But I need to design all of the index pages – these will introduce each topic and provide deeper links plus cross links.

And we need to revise all the content. As this happens, the IA will change, but if I’ve done my job well it won’t change dramatically.

What, no card sort

OMG, I just wrote a book on card sorting, and didn’t run a card sort. Why not?

Well, I did other forms of user research which gave me a fairly good idea of the main issues and needs for users. Most users only ever need one or two content pieces, so there was little point getting them to do a card sort on things they don’t care about. And I didn’t feel like I had big gaps in my knowledge that would mean a card sort would help. So I didn’t.

We’ll do usability testing on this as well, probably before content rewriting and after.

Posted in Uncategorized | 30 Comments »

Dear retailers…

July 24th, 2009

I’ve been recently looking for new suppliers for products (lanyards, badge holders, pens etc etc). No matter what I’m looking for, I start my search on the web.

Now I don’t usually write black and white rules for things, but today I’m going to.

If you are a supplier of a product, and that product can be purchased elsewhere, you must, on your website:

  • Include prices
  • Not make me register to see prices
  • Not make me wait for my registration to be approved to see prices
  • If your product is out of stock, tell me when it will be in stock
  • Make it easy for me to order online
  • Be credible
  • Help me feel confident that my order will turn up

Because, duh, if you don’t, I’m going somewhere that does.

Posted in User experience | 6 Comments »

My card sorting book is available

May 2nd, 2009

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of becoming a published author.

My book on card sorting is now available.

You can buy it right from the book website – either the printed version (plus digital) or digital alone.

Or you can get it via amazon if you are buying other things at the same time : Card sorting (Donna Spencer).
Please let me know what you think!

Posted in Books, IA - card sorting | 10 Comments »

London – social filtering needed

April 9th, 2009

I’m going to be in London in June (for UX London) for the first time and have about 4.5 days completely free to tourist. I have absolutely no idea what I absolutely must do. I will definitely see stereotypically London things but need some help with the weird things that I might specifically like. 

So, based on my previous touristing, here’s what I like:

  • Walking through interesting history & architecture (can probably tick this off with no effort)
  • Anything that is just stunningly beautiful, or unique nature
  • Costumes, of any type and any period
  • Weaving
  • Other textiles
  • Design museums (even better if they have textiles, but furniture and interesting industrial design is excellent)
  • Paul Weller, The Jam & late 70s punk
  • Dr Martens – is there a Dr Martens museum? Or awesome shop. That would be cool.
  • Doctor Who
  • Interesting, funky shopping streets. Even if I don’t buy anything
  • Cool arts & crafts markets
  • Secondhand bookstores
  • Pubs that combine great beer with great people watching
  • Pubs with good beer
  • Live theatre
  • Cathedrals – not for religiousness, but they are often awesomely beautiful

And I really don’t need:

  • General art galleries: Yes, I’ll pretend to be cultured, but I feel more like ‘yes, I saw that’. If I must do it, I must
  • Snooty expensive things
  • Touristy expensive things
  • Any tour that makes me do it your way, not my way (I’m looking at you, Gracelands audio tour)
  • Nasty, flashy shopping streets where I feel like I can’t walk into a shop (I’m looking at you, South Beach)

So tell me what I should at least research. And tell me what I should think about…

Posted in Personal | 20 Comments »

A Camp Grenada catch-up

April 7th, 2009

Sometimes twitter just doesn’t do it for a good, solid ‘what have I been doing’ catch up post. So here’s one that takes more than 140 characters.

It’s already April and I feel like I haven’t done much work this year. Of course, I have been busy as hell. I’ve done loads of planning and administration for UX Australia, wrote a brand new full-day advanced information architecture workshop, and had plenty of meetings with content authors for a long-running government project.

What I’ve really been doing is teaching. I’ve done five in-house full-day workshops, 2 conference talks, 1 full-day conference workshop and 2 full-day public workshops. So that’s work, and it’s work I love. But it is so fun that I forget that it is actually work, and feel like I haven’t done anything.

But really, the pain of airports and airplanes should make it feel like work. I’ve travelled so much this year that I can visualise the Qantas Club lounge in every Australian city (except Adelaide). I do think I could walk in and make it to the wine bar with my eyes closed. 

But April is looking up. I’m home all month, in my lovely house, with my lovely dog and a brand new bed (mattress arriving Thursday, 1000TC sheets ready in the cupboard). I have a nice pile of client web writing, new book writing (I’m writing an e-book on web content for Rockable press), some wireframes for a favourite client, and more bits and pieces for UX Australia.

I hope that the biggest news for April will be that my card sorting book is published. It is at the printer now, and should be ready in a couple of weeks. I promise I’ll tell you when that happens.

May is also looking like fun. By then I’ll be over my travel fatigue, which is good as I’m going to Philadelphia to talk at the jboye conference (IA workshop and content talk). Just as cool is that I’m going to be around for the IXD/IASummit redux in DC. Going to hire a car, drive from Philly to DC, see some friends. Ahhhh, I’m already getting excited about it.

Then June. OMG June!

In June I’m first going to Denmark to teach an interaction design masterclass (and some community of practice meetings). Then to London to do some touristing with my friend CJ (I’ve never been to London), then two workshops at UX London, then more touristing, then home.

So in late June, I’ll be saying ‘I’m so glad to be home’ and desperately waiting to get away again. I feel like that Camp Grenada song – you know, the one where the kid starts of hating it, then loves it. Me & travel – Camp Grenada.

Posted in Conferences, Speaking gigs, Workshops | 3 Comments »

Categories & the real world

March 26th, 2009

One of the main challenges with creating any categorisation system is to make sure it collects what you need and matches up to the real world.

Here’s a list of single-select items I just came across on an otherwise-decent survey for a hotel where I recently stayed:

  • Household with children no longer home
  • Couple, no children
  • Household, with children
  • Single, no children

Firstly, I wonder how it is useful to them to know about my family situation. But secondly, where do I fit? Right now I’m single, with a child who lives with me half time. That so doesn’t fit into any of those categories…

Posted in Uncategorized | No Comments »


March 18th, 2009

I woke up feeling strange this morning. No, it wasn’t the three hours sleep – I know what that feels like. And it wasn’t a hangover – I certainly know what those feel like. It was something quite different and it took me a little while to figure it out.

But it needs some backstory. I was at South by Southwest Interactive this weekend. It is an incredible conference, with lots of smart people and interesting talks, and quite famous for its parties. The SXSW film festival is on at the same time so Austin is packed and there is more than plenty of stuff to do.

I was on a panel with the awesome Nick Finck and Michael Angeles, called ‘Wireframes for the Wicked‘. It was fun to work with them and according to twitter our session went pretty well. Lots of people appreciated that we left half of the time for audience questions and that we actually tracked questions asked via twitter (#wickedwire) and answered them at the time and alongside questions from the floor. 

Immediately following our talk was one by Bruce Sterling. His SXSW rants are famous (his SXSW party at his home also used to be famous), and I’m a big fan of his writing, so this was absolutely mandatory for me. I didn’t realise it would be so hilarious. Via a few wandering twists and turns, he spoke about change. It was a serious topic, and delivered seriously in some sections, but right in the middle he had a Bruce party right there, with crisps and beer and awesome cookies. His delivery is amazing and his timing is just perfect – he had the audience roaring with laughter (or was that just me).

With that over, I grabbed my buddy Dan Willis and we went out to dinner. Dan always makes me laugh – I’m still wondering just how mad he really is. But that doesn’t matter because we really can spend a lot of time just talking and laughing.

With the film festival on, we could get into first-showings and Dan suggested we go see ‘Observe and Report‘. I love going to movies without knowing anything about them and that certainly was the case here – I hadn’t heard of the film, the director, the actors and had no idea what it would be about. The lack of expectations can make for an amazing experience and that certainly was the case. This was one of the funniest (and weirdest, and with incredible timing) movies I have seen in a long time. I don’t usually laugh out loud in a theatre but I was laughing and hooting and clapping and so was the rest of the audience. I also don’t usually talk about movies straight after, but Dan and I were laughing and cracking the best lines all the way to the next part of the evening – the Blue Flavor party.

When the bar closed and we were all pushed out the door, as happens every morning at 2am in Austin, Dan, myself, Matt Balara and Ola hung around for another hour or so just shooting the crap, talking about everything and nothing and laughing a lot.

So can you pick up the thread here and know why I woke up feeling strange. I spent about 10 hours straight laughing. Laughing in Bruce Sterling’s talk, laughing with Dan, laughing at the movie, standing ’round on the street laughing with friends.

And I still have a big ball of laughter glowing inside me. It feels incredible and amazing and wonderful and I can’t wait to do it some more…

Posted in Community, Conferences, Random thoughts | 3 Comments »

What’s in a bio?

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!

Posted in Books, Personal, Writing | 9 Comments »

UX Australia: August 2009

February 4th, 2009

I’ve been annoying my friends by hinting at a secret project underway. Sorry guys, but I’m glad I’m finally able to tell you.

The big secret is that we (me, Andrew Boyd, Steve & Danielle Baty) have been doing the initial planning for a user experience conference, to be held in late August in Canberra (Australia).

I think it goes without saying that I’m really excited. I’m excited to be involved in conference planning again, and excited to be able to arrange a conference for my community.

One of the things I’m happiest about is that it will be a proposal-based community conference (ie one where anyone can submit a proposal, and the community reviews to help select the program). Don’t get me wrong, I love conferences with professional, high profile speakers; but I also love the homey feeling of a community conference where you get to contribute to who presents what.

The other thing that we are going to be doing, and this will get started later in the year, is running workshops. I haven’t been able to run my own workshops as often as I’d like in Australia, so hope to do that more. And we’ll be inviting other folks to teach practical full-day workshops. If there’s someone you’d like to see, or a topic you’d like to see covered, let me know and we’ll see what we can do.

Anyway, that’s the news. I hope you’re almost as excited as I am!

Posted in Community, Conferences, User experience | 5 Comments »

Conference season

January 29th, 2009

For me, the next few months are full of conferences and workshops. My calendar is so packed I don’t know where the work will fit. You can catch me at:

  • Web standards group Canberra (4 Feb): Talking about user research, why we don’t do enough of it and my new user research decision diagram
  • Webstock, Wellington (11-14 Feb): I’m not speaking here, just hanging out at a conference for once
  • South by Southwest Interactive, Austin (13-17 Mar): On a panel with the awesome Nick Finck & Michael Angeles, called Wireframes are wicked
  • IA Summit, Memphis (18-22 Mar): I’m teaching my full day workshop on information architecture, and doing a presentation called ‘Design games for IA’
  • Wellington, NZ (end Mar): my good friends from Optimal usability are hosting me to teach beginning and advanced IA (more details to come soon – this will be the first time teaching my new advanced IA workshop)
  • April – wow, I have the whole month free spacer
  • JBoye09, Philadelphia (May 5-7): I’m teaching my half day IA essentials workshop, and doing a talk called Getting content right
  • UX London (Jun 15-17): I’m teaching two half day workshops – IA essentials and  Designing for people

I hope I see you at one or more of these.

And remember, I can teach any of these workshops in-house to your team (see my list of IA, interaction design, usability & content workshops).

Posted in Conferences, Information architecture, Interaction design, Speaking gigs, User experience, Workshops | No Comments »

I am

  • Maadmob home page
  • My CV
  • My short bio
  • My links
  • Contact me

I'm speaking at


  • No workshops scheduled


  • No presentations scheduled

My writing

A practical guide to information architecture


'A practical guide to information architecture' - available 8 June 2010 (UK time).

Card sorting


Card Sorting

Designing Usable Categories

by Donna SpencerRosenfeld Media, 2009.


  • Four Modes of Seeking Information and How to Design for Them (Boxes & Arrows article)
  • Card Sorting (Boxes & Arrows article)
  • Card based classification evaluation (Boxes & Arrows article)
  • Subscribe

    • spacer Subscribe to my feed, DonnaM

    Recent posts

    • Goodnight DonnaM
    • IA workshops – London and Oslo
    • A practical guide to information architecture (my new book)
    • Stories and examples for my IA book
    • I’m writing an information architecture book!
    • How I draft an information architecture
    • Dear retailers…
    • My card sorting book is available
    • London – social filtering needed
    • A is neither affiliated with the authors of this page nor responsible for its contents. This is a safe-cache copy of the original web site.