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IA, Rosenfeld Media, and EUX: An Interview with Louis Rosenfeld

May 8, 2017

As a founding father of the field of information architecture (IA), Lou Rosenfeld applied the principles he had learned in the University of Michigan’s Information and Library Studies program to organizing information on the Web. With his partner, Peter Morville, Lou built one of the first information architecture–consulting firms, Argus Associates, which provided consulting services until 2001. When the recession brought down their company, they both moved on to independent consulting. Together, Lou and Peter wrote the seminal work on information architecture, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web: Designing Large-Scale Web Sites—affectionately known as the Polar Bear book—which O’Reilly Media first published in 1998. The book is now in its fourth edition (2015) and has sold over 300,000 copies. Lou is also the author of Search Analytics for Your Site (2011).

Lou has played a very active role in evangelizing the professions of information architecture and User Experience. He was a co-founder of the IA Summit (2000), the Information Architecture Institute (2002), and UXnet (2002), an organization whose mission was to foster cooperation and collaboration among the many organizations that serve the international UX community. I joined UXnet as a Local Ambassador for Silicon Valley in 2004. My active participation in UXnet was instrumental in my being able to launch UXmatters successfully. I first met Lou in person at DUX2005, where I convened the first meeting of the UXmatters Advisory Board, on which Lou had agreed to serve.

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I’m pleased that Lou, shown in Figure 1, was able to take the time recently to tell me about the path his career has taken since those early days. In 2005, Lou launched Rosenfeld Media, a publisher of practical books and training for UX professionals that is based in Brooklyn, New York. The company began offering two virtual conferences per year in 2014. Then, in 2015, Rosenfeld Media held the first Enterprise UX conference, which took place in San Antonio, Texas. In 2016, their virtual conferences were Product Management + User Experience and User Research for Everyone, plus they delivered the second annual Enterprise UX conference. The 2017 edition of Enterprise UX will take place in San Francisco, in June. Rosenfeld Media will launch the first DesignOps Summit in November, which will take place in New York City.

Figure 1—Lou Rosenfeld
Lou Rosenfeld

In this interview, we’ll cover Lou’s career transition from IA to User Experience and his subsequent return to entrepreneurship in founding Rosenfeld Media, then later, organizing the Enterprise UX conference.

IA to UX

Pabini: When did your interest broaden from IA to User Experience? What evolution in your own ideas or trends in the UX community prompted that shift?

Lou: I’m drawn to topics that are in the process of being defined—and require different kinds of people and perspectives to define them. IA was like that in the mid-90s. User Experience was in a similar place a decade or so later. These fields are related, so it was easy to find my way from IA to User Experience. I don’t know what’ll be next, but it’s so refreshing to work in areas where the vocabulary, approaches, and methods aren’t yet locked down. Once they are—as is now happening with User Experience—I tend to move on.

Pabini: In recent years, the topics of your presentations seem to have a more strategic bent. What are your views on UX strategy and the impact it can have on business outcomes?

Lou: User Experience is certainly strategic—most kinds of important work have both strategic and practical aspects. But to be honest, I’m still not really sure what UX strategy is. I think the most successful organizations integrate User Experience within their overall business strategy rather than creating a separate UX strategy.

Entrepreneur

Pabini: Moving from consulting on IA and User Experience to building a business that focuses on content creation is quite a leap. What were the main factors in your decision to found Rosenfeld Media?

Lou: It’s not really that huge a leap. Information architects help make things out of information. Instead of working on sites, I now do that with books and conference programs.

I left consulting because I felt depressed that my ideas and recommendations had little chance to make an impact. So I traded my flexible schedule, minimal responsibility, and high pay to start a company that created things out of information that people would actually use.

I also found consulting to be a lonely pursuit. Work needs to be social for me to find it meaningful. Now, I get to collaborate daily with Rosenfeld Media’s fantastic team, as well as dozens of conference curators, speakers, and authors. I also spend as much time talking with our customers as I can.

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Pabini: What have been the key elements that have contributed to Rosenfeld Media’s success?

Lou: Patience and persistence. You don’t launch a publishing house overnight. Books take a long time to create, as does building an audience. We’ve been around for 11 years now, but I didn’t go full time at Rosenfeld Media until about five years ago. I had to keep consulting to make a living.

Also, it takes a long time to figure out complicated things. Duh. So obvious, right? But many of us feel pressure to move quickly and don’t allow ourselves enough time to really dig in and work through complex problems. For example, we’re just figuring out the traditional publishing ecosystem of wholesalers, distributors, and sales channels.

Not surprisingly, I’m so interested in enterprise UX because it’s such a long-haul pursuit. It takes years and years to get large organizations to change the way they relate to their customers.

Pabini: Over time, Rosenfeld Media’s offerings have expanded to include books, training, podcasts, and both virtual and face-to-face events. What opportunities do you see for evolving your business in the future?

Lou: Unlike many traditional publishers, I’m format agnostic. I just want to have strong relationships with people who have deep expertise in our field and get their ideas and knowledge to market in the formats that make the most sense. These formats change over time, and I’m sure we’ll be considering more in the future.

The bigger challenge is how to integrate all of those formats so they support each other. Making the sum greater than those parts is a huge information-architecture challenge—one I wish I could find more time to work on.

Pabini: What role do you foresee for Rosenfeld Media within the UX community?

Lou: I’m not sure, but the bigger question is what User Experience will look like over the coming years. We’ll just keep doing our best to continue supporting its evolution.

Publisher

Pabini: It seems like Rosenfeld Media has really picked up its publishing pace of late, with six new Rosenfeld Media books in 2016 and five planned for 2017, as well as your kicking off two new imprints in 2016: Two Waves Books and Digital Reality Checks. What is driving this growth?

Lou: We’re improving our processes and, increasingly, operating as a platform. That means we can create more products—books and conferences—than we have in the past, without sacrificing quality. I’m really happy about that.

Pabini: What will be the focus of Rosenfeld Media books going forward?

Lou: That’s a good question. We’ll never abandon User Experience, but as I said earlier, it’s becoming a stable, mature profession that one can go get a degree in. That’s the point at which things become less interesting for me personally.

I’ve also been struggling since the election to figure out what is meaningful to me professionally. User Experience is important, but extending it to a broader mission around humanizing products, services, and technologies—as many of us already are—is what makes me want to get out of bed in the morning. The world is becoming less livable, and designers must play a role in changing that.

Pabini: What made you decide to create your two new imprints? What is their focus and how do they differ from each other? What is the audience for Two Waves Books versus Digital Reality Checks?

Lou: User Experience is moving beyond belonging to a tribe. It’s becoming something that all sorts of people in the workplace need to know something about. We’re already serving so many of these different kinds of people—product managers, IT people, marketers, and leaders—because they read our books and attend our conferences. We want to grow these connections more, and that’s where the two new lines of books come in. Two Waves Books live at the intersection of business and design, and we hope that anyone who is interested in creative leadership will find them useful. Digital Reality Checks books help us connect better with marketers and IT professionals who care about evaluating enterprise software.

Pabini: For authors, what are the unique advantages of working with Rosenfeld Media?

Lou: I hate it when people treat ideas—and that’s what books are made of—as a commodity. That’s why we don’t publish many books, so we can focus on handcrafted quality over industrial quantity. For example, our managing editor and I work closely with our authors to really develop their ideas and content—both before they sign with us and during the writing process. We also come up with innovative ways to give many other people—reviewers, experts, and more—a stake in the outcome. And we actually make an effort to promote each book, which is horribly rare these days for publishers.

Other than that, we’re no different. ;-)

Pabini: Is the growing popularity of self-publishing having an impact on your business?

Lou: No. There are some authors—including some of my favorite people in the industry—who can manage and even enjoy the scale and complexity of effort that goes into successful self-publishing. They’re doing great work—more power to them.

However, many people who consider self-publishing don’t realize that writing is just a small part of what it takes to produce a successful book. I’d also caution them about that big company in Seattle. There are 100 reasons not to self-publish, and 75 of them involve Amazon.

Conference Organizer

Pabini: With your experience programming the content for the early years of the IA Summit, launching your own conference seems like a natural thing for you to do. But what made you decide to create a conference whose focus is enterprise UX? How did that come about?

Lou: Four or five years ago, my staff was urging me to get into the in-person conference business, but I kept saying no. I felt we’d already reached a peak with UX conferences. Then, the UX team at Rackspace approached me about partnering on developing a conference on enterprise UX, and I was immediately sold. Not only was it great that they provided the venue and other support—which really lowered our risk—but the topic was instantly compelling to me.

I’d been teaching a workshop on IA for enterprises a decade earlier. It was discouraging because few people seemed to be making progress on enterprise challenges back then. Now, thanks to working on the program and hearing the talks, I’m being exposed to the cutting edge of UX work in the enterprise. And I’m thrilled to see how much things have changed for the better!

Pabini: What makes Enterprise UX unique among the myriad conferences for UX professionals?

Lou: We’re the only conference focused on helping UX people who work with and for large enterprises to succeed. Enterprises present huge challenges in terms of scale, complexity, politics, and culture. Succeeding in that context requires a very different mindset, skillset, and cadence than, say, in a startup setting. Attendees frequently tell us how happy they are to have a conference focusing on this unique context for User Experience.

I’m also excited to announce that we’ll be launching a related conference to help UX people build out the operations that are necessary to support scaling up research and design in large organizations. The first DesignOps Summit will take place in New York City, in November 2017.

Conclusion

Pabini: How have you applied the principles of information architecture in your work as a publisher, purveyor of training, and conference organizer?

Lou: It would take me pages to really answer that question, Pabini. So I’ll just mention a few:

  • When we launched our first book, we did a lot of work on designing and testing its IA. That design has been reused—with minimal modifications— on every book we’ve published since.
  • My main role in developing each of our books is to work on its chapter sequence, flow, and cadence, so the book is more readable and scannable. This is very much an IA problem.
  • We structure our conference programs very carefully, and we even work on their narrative arcs, so attendees’ energy levels flow well. That’s also very much IA. We’ve gotten a healthy assist from Donna Lichaw, whose book The User’s Journey helped us with narrative arcs. 

Pabini: Thanks for sharing your insights with us, Lou. It’s been great talking with you!

Lou: Thank you!

Discount for UXmatters Readers—Register for Enterprise UX 2017, using the discount code UXMATTERS15, and get 15% off.

Publisher & Editor in Chief at UXmatters

Founder and Principal Consultant at Strategic UX

Founder, Publisher, and Editor in Chief of UXmatters

Silicon Valley, California, USA

Pabini Gabriel-PetitWith more than 20 years working in User Experience at companies such as Google, Cisco, WebEx, Apple, and many startups, Pabini now provides UX strategy and design consulting services through her Silicon Valley company, Strategic UX. Her past UX leadership roles include Head of UX for Sales & Marketing IT at Intel, Senior Director of UX and Design at Apttus, Principal UX Architect at BMC Software, VP of User Experience at scanR, and Manager of User Experience at WebEx. Pabini has led UX strategy, design, and user research for Web, mobile, and desktop applications for consumers, small businesses, and enterprises, in diverse product domains. Working collaboratively with business executives, multidisciplinary product teams, and UX teams, she has envisioned and realized holistic UX design solutions for innovative, award-winning products that delighted users, achieved success in the marketplace, and delivered business value. As a UX leader, she has facilitated conceptual modeling and ideation sessions; written user stories; prioritized product and usability requirements; established corporate design frameworks, standards, and guidelines; and integrated lean UX activities into agile development processes. Pabini is a strategic thinker, and the diversity of her experience enables her to synthesize innovative solutions for challenging strategy and design problems. She is passionate about creating great user experiences that meet users’ needs and get business results. A thought leader in the UX community, Pabini was a Founding Director of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA).  Read More

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