The Problem of Domain Knowledge in IA Projects

By Deane Barker on July 19, 2011

Domain Knowledge: What You Need – Or Don’t Need – To Know: We have a burgeoning Information Architecture practice here at Blend, and there’s a problem I’ve always struggled with: where is the dividing line between (1) what I know about IA, and (2) what I know about [insert client’s business here]?

We did an IA project for a nursing organization last year. I was struck by the fact that while I knew a lot about IA, I didn’t know anything about nursing. And, as a freelance IA, you’re probably never going to know as much about the client’s business as they do.

I told my IA guy, Corey, to figure out what this means.  He did so, and wrote a blog post about it.

Imagine: you’ve just pulled in a big project for Major Academic Ornithology Organization (MAOO). The organization has big plans for standardizing its academic papers and providing a richer experience for its members, all while providing a lasting impact on modern ornithological study. It’s a big deal – they want to pay you lots of money, in REAL DOLLARS, for an overall content strategy plan.

You assume you should bone up on your ornithology. But how much do you need to learn?



  1. This is a tricky one! We’ve been talking a lot about this at Step Two, particularly since once of my team tried working for another consulting firm for a while (and came back).

    At one extreme, we’re bringing a skills set, which is generic across all situations. This complements the domain knowledge that the client has in bucket loads.

    At the other extreme, this can make us like idiot savants, incredibly good at a narrow set of activities, but without situationally-specific wisdom or insight.

    How many “good” designs have we all seen which are actually stupid, impractical, or counterproductive?

    I tend to think that, if in doubt, we should have more domain knowledge rather than less. How can we design a great solution if we don’t know what has been tried before? Or what impact the design has on the practicalities of delivering the corresponding real-world service? Or what’s likely to fly in light of internal politics and industry biases?

    Of course, easier said than done. But if I hear another “service design expert” talking about how user experience design techniques can shape business strategy, I’m taking a long holiday.

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