In this month’s column, I’ll describe six types of industry contributors and the basic activities that help them to shape and sustain the momentum of our evolving fields of practice. Since we’re all contributors in one form or another, you may find it interesting to assess how you’re currently contributing and where you could add further value to your field of practice in the future.
Six Categories of Industry Contributors
If you observe the many articles, blogs, presentations, and tweets on the Internet, you’ll find a lot of content about information architecture, interaction design, and UX design. Have you ever wondered whether there’s a pattern to all of this activity or what impact it has on our field? Well, there is a pattern, and the impact is great. Here’s my take on six categories of contributors that I’ve observed in my fields of information architecture and UX design:
- thought leader
Thought leaders are visionaries who contemplate the future and constantly provoke new and creative thinking. They contemplate their field’s future potential, develop theory and philosophy, and expose its underlying science. Simply put, thought leaders lead advanced thinking within a particular area of interest in their field.
Most thought leaders have one thing in common: they are unafraid to speak out and take risks. Thought leaders come in several flavors. First is the visionary. Comfortable with their intuition, visionaries are confident that they possess a rare ability to glimpse the future. Their forethought is often a futuristic leap—which can, at times, be so far detached from the current state of the art that it can be difficult for many to see the connective thread. You may find yourself trusting proven thought leaders more than understanding what they predict.
A second type of thought leader is what I like to call a synthesizer. Synthesizers see the future, but their vision is not as far out as the visionary’s. Synthesizers pick up on past and current trends that others may not recognize and easily blend their observations into predictions and convincing arguments. This type of thought leadership is valuable because synthesizers’ assertions are supported by more tangible, real-world evidence that others can critique and probe.
Then, there’s the provocateur. This thought leader stirs up constructive dialogue, challenging the field to question and test convention. They are a catalyst for contemplations that can sometimes lead to refinement of their field and even to innovation. However, provocateurs walk a thin line: they must offer sufficiently constructive and actionable dialogue; otherwise, their efforts become noise.
The most formal and, typically, the least traveled path of thought leadership is that of the academic. Academics perform research and investigate philosophic and scientific subject matter, either independently or under the auspices of a public or private organization. While this form of thought leadership may be the least explored in many circles, it is by no means the least important. In fact, at the first sign that a field is struggling to establish and defend its position, critics look to the more formal areas of thought when challenging a field’s substance and credibility. For example, the field of information architecture is rich in practice, but the gap that exists in its more formal areas of thought leadership make it susceptible to frequent critiques and marginalization.
One achieves the pinnacle of thought leadership by embodying a mix of all types of thought leadership. So, if you have at least one or two thought-leadership activities going for yourself, you’re that much closer to becoming a rare quadruple threat. Continue to broaden your range, because information architecture, interaction design, and UX design could use more well-rounded thought leaders. However, if your skill is in, say, constructive provocation—well, be the best provocateur you can be.
The vision set forth by thought leaders provides a north star for a field—a direction to pursue. But it’s the framer who identifies options for a new field’s immediate next steps, explores marketing opportunities, and defines the value propositions that will resonate with practitioners and future customers. In a way, framers provide the connective tissue that is inherently absent in a vision. Without effective framing, thought leadership results only in dormant propositions, promises, and predictions. Thus, framing plants the seeds for a plan of action to fulfill a viable vision for a field.
Framers are the interpreters of vision; the pragmatists who guide a field—for example, through the publication of books, articles, blog posts, and papers.
They actively communicate a field’s perspectives and produce models and maps that help to get practitioners on the same page and enable their field to come to maturity. The framers of our complex fields lend clarity to our understanding and practice of information architecture, interaction design, and UX design.
Synthesizing and provocative thought leaders make great framers. While they are skilled at seeing possible future states, they’re also well prepared to contribute to discussions that provide a bridge to that future state, which others can cross. But, you don’t have to be a thought leader to be a framer, and your field won’t always need heady thinking to map its future. In many situations, we’ll simply need the framing of processes, methods, and models that practitioners can use when they need quick and easy references.
Practitioners help to validate the claims of thought leaders and framers. Just as thought leadership depends, in turn, on coherent framing, framing is only as good as the practitioners within the field who actually produce work products for clients. You can have all the theory and framing in the world, but if there is no practical application of thought leadership and framing, they become irrelevant.
An active field of practice generates many things, including a body of knowledge and, most importantly, the elements of a discipline. As some practitioners mature, they grow into future framers and thought leaders of our fields.
To be clear, being a practitioner means more than just getting the job done. Practice encourages rigor around our professional activities that eventually leads to the evolution of the discipline. I’be offered my own thoughts on practical thinking in a previous column and have provided extensive coverage on the topic of practice on the DSIA Portal of Information Architecture. Even though I’be written my articles from an IA perspective, they are also applicable to the much broader practice of UX design.