Lessons From a Factor Intern

Hello! I’m Xavier, and I’m the current summer intern at Factor. I’ve been with the firm for close to 3 months, and my time here is swiftly drawing to a close. Back in June, in the hopes of gaining more experience in the Information Architecture field, I applied to a number of positions, with little to no response, until a friend passed along the job posting for Factor’s summer internship. I applied, was interviewed, and now here I am, at the end of the finish line!

When I first arrived at Factor, I was worried that my previous experience wouldn’t align with what I thought I’d be doing. I had only a brief introduction to information architecture, taxonomy, and user research through my Masters degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Washington. It wasn’t until my partner sat me down and explained to me that libraries go hand in hand with information architecture that I started to think seriously about taxonomy and information architecture.

I was asked to write a blog post reflecting on my experiences at Factor, however I wasn’t sure how to approach it initially. I had the opportunity to focus on taxonomy, user research, and data governance. And through all the collaboration and projects, I still felt uncertain about working in the field. As such, I felt this blog post would be a good opportunity to share a few tips on how to approach entering a field you may not have experienced before. Here’s what I learned:

Don’t be afraid to ask questions

This is one I feel is the most important not for just an intern, but for the company as well. Early in my time at Factor, I was given the task to restructure a group of taxonomies. Though I tried to piece together what that meant from context, after a certain point I had to swallow my pride and ask what I felt was dumb question. “What does it mean to restructure taxonomies?” The answer I got was this: “Take a look at the (3) different taxonomies, find overlapping terms, merge them together into a more accessible taxonomy draft”. OK, that makes sense! Take a look at the whole, break down and analyze, put back together, and Voila! A learning experience. From day one, everyone at Factor encouraged me to ask questions if I felt curious or out of my depth. They understood that this internship was a learning experience, and encouraged participation above output.

I had more related experience than I thought!

I mentioned that my partner, a UX researcher herself, was the one to tell me that I’d be good at taxonomy and user research. This is because she literally had to sit me down, and point out my work and school projects to show that I had relevant experience. Turns out, I had compiled metadata before I even knew what metadata was! I’d interviewed people in graduate school to understand their thoughts and views on an exhibit, and as an IT support tech I helped people acclimate to unfamiliar technology. Once I arrived at Factor, I found out that many people who work in IA come from a variety of diverse career backgrounds, but they share a common experience of processes such as interviewing, gathering data, and analysis.

Grocery stores are information

Early in my internship, I was told that grocery stores are examples of good Information Architecture. Think about it, when you go into a new grocery store, the layout is generally the same. You know you’ll probably find milk next to the yogurt, but not next to the ice cream and popsicles. Though it may depend on the store, there’s a unity that’s shared, and once you realize this you have a grasp of IA structures and how businesses, and consumers utilize it. This has become my go-to saying, and has helped ground me more than once when approaching a new project. It’s something everyone can understand, and it speaks to how when organization is done right, it becomes part of the scene. Speaking of organization…

“Building a taxonomy is easy, it’s getting everyone to agree that’s tough” – Amy Wilcox

Most people know how to build an organization system that works best for themselves. But what might be right for you, might not be right for someone else. You know where you put your dishes in the kitchen, or how you organize your books. But if someone stops by your house, and says “that’s not right, the cups should be stored near the sink, not next to the oven”. Or, “It’s far more efficient to organize your books by color than genre”. It sounds absolutely mad, but it’s possible this person has some insight into organizational tactics, and you’ll need to tease it out of them to find out what they believe and why. I had first-hand experience with this, after the restructuring taxonomies exercise, I was allowed to sit in on a client call presenting the work I had contributed to. I sat quietly and listened while the clients pulled apart the taxonomy I had helped work on, before explaining that though the taxonomy worked, we had looked at it from the role of a “User”, rather than a “marketing and internal” use. As it was said to me; it’s not “how do you build a good taxonomy” it’s “how to build the RIGHT taxonomy”, and your ideas of what works may not align with your client’s mental model. And along those lines…

Present your reasoning for why you did what you did

“Good communication never hurt anybody”. This was told to me during a one-on-one session early on, and I believe it will stick with me. As seen with the previous example, there was a bit of miscommunication. We had assumed to approach the project from the User role, while the client forgot to mention to approach the project from an Internal role. People can’t see inside your head, they only see the end result of your work. Since interning at Factor, I’ve been in more meetings than my past jobs combined, and though I don’t always speak up, I do my best to explain my thought process behind things I work on.

Keep your own interests in mind

It’s important to complete the tasks given during the internship. You’re here to gain new work experience! But don’t forget about your own interests. What do you want to learn more about? Do you want to focus in one area in particular? I’ve had a few coworkers remind me that I should keep reminding the people giving out tasks about the projects I’m excited to work on, or the skills I’m interested in developing. It can be intimidating, but internships are for your benefit as much as the company’s, and it’s best to get as much experience as possible, even if you only have three months to learn.

What’s next?

These are a few snippets of advice I picked up in my time at Factor. I hope they helped and provided some insight into approaching Information Architecture from a non-traditional path. While I did have some background, I had to learn and discover along the way, which I think is the case with many jobs. After completing my internship, I hope to continue my path into taxonomy, information architecture, and user research by applying to roles in junior positions, or possibly looking into contracting. I’m fortunate enough to be able to continue working at Factor for the time being, to assist with projects and other secret ventures. I hope this was helpful, and I wish you the best of luck on your journey into IA and Taxonomy!