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Summit 2014 March 26-30 in San Diego

The Path Ahead Lovely San Diego

Interview: Martin Belam

on research buy-in, consulting, community leadership

As we recently announced, London-based designer and journalist Martin Belam will be a keynote speaker at the 2014 IA Summit in San Diego.

Johanna Kollman, an IA Summit co-chair, interviewed Martin on some of his experiences as a designer and business owner. He shared some great advice on selling research, along with tips on starting your own business and rallying a local IA community.

I’ve found that getting buy-in for user research is a common problem for information architects. What has helped you to convince clients and stakeholders that they should include user research in their projects?

Martin: Sadly by this stage of my career, one of the most useful things is having a stack of first-hand experience stories that boil down to: “We had some great ideas, then the business did no research, and it turned out we’d made this dreadful error that even a simple piece of work would have spotted.” Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

But I also have positive case studies as well. Earlier this year I did some research for one client which showed that one of the more complicated features we’d designed, which they were planning to build, wasn’t wanted by the users. It cut out a chunk of cost and delivery time from the project.

Explaining to businesses that sometimes research will lead to them getting better products faster and cheaper certainly grabs the attention.

Looking back at the first year of running your own company, Emblem, what top ‘lesson learned’ you would share with fellow user experience practitioners about to start their own thing?

Martin: I’m not sure I’ve learned the lesson myself, but time management is a tricky business once you are running a business rather than working for someone else. There is a temptation at first to say yes to every project, over-commit yourself, and then not leave any time for your own professional development, or the improved work/life balance you were promising yourself when you left your last full-time job.

My best advice is to make sure you set aside one regular morning slot a week to tend to your finances and paperwork, and don’t book yourself out for five days a week if you can afford it. You need to allow time during usual working hours to go and have coffee with potential new clients, or with people from your peer group and network. When you are working for yourself, work potentially expands to eat up every second of the week. You could always be sending just that one more email, or reading just that one more article. You need to learn to manage that.

As one of the people behind the London IA events, you’ve done a lot to grow the IA community in London. What’s your advice for those of us who wish to engage their local community of peers?

Martin: Be helpful. It is a simple piece of advice, but I’ve found that if you go out of your way to be helpful to people, the best of them will go out of their way to be helpful to you in return, and that is a great way of building up some kind of mutual support.

If you want to get something up and running, there is also something in being bloody-minded and determined as well. Matthew Solle and I spoke about this during a panel session at the IA Summit in Denver. With This Is LDNIA, the aim for a long time has been to organise events of a distinctive type. By choosing speakers that interest Matthew, Andrew Travers and myself, we do it in a way which we hope conveys some character, and offers a type of event that you don’t get somewhere else. It is a little like having a small record label, or being a small publisher. You want every release to be different and interesting, but obviously coming from the same direction.