During the summer the team at Synaptica was able to secure an interview with Bram Wessel as part of our Insights series. We talked to him about how his early career and experiences helping users solve problems have had an enduring impact on his career up to and including his work at Factor. Bram believes that technology should enable natural experiences for real people. He is one of the co-founders and Principals of Factor. Factor provides enterprise-scale information architecture consulting for a roster of high-impact clients including many Fortune 500 companies.
As an advocate for the Information Architecture and User Experience (UX) disciplines Bram Wessel has many speaking engagements and articles to his credit. In 2019 Bram co-produced Interaction 19, the IxDA’s international conference held at the Amazon Conference Center in Seattle. He remains committed to educating the next generation of UX practitioners through teaching Information Architecture at the School of Visual Concepts and as a guest lecturer at the University of Washington’s MCDM and MLIS programs.
Tell us about your early experiences?
BW: I’ve been working in the field of user experience, in one form or another, since 1991. One of my first jobs was in the developer support department at Aldus. This was the company responsible for creating desktop publishing when they released Page Maker in the mid-1980s. From there I moved into a freelancer role providing independent user support and consulting. This was a period before the Web, so most people weren’t familiar with the Internet. The majority of my work was helping creative professionals learn how to use products like PageMaker, Photoshop, and Illustrator.
Looking back on this period, I realized that it had been what amounts to a seven or eight-year immersive education working deep in user research, especially what in the research field we call contextual inquiry. My interest in understanding user behavior began here.
At around the same time the field of information architecture was emerging and becoming established. I moved from coaching clients on how to set up web pages and email servers and establishing networks to designing databases for tracking customers, basic CRM, using database software like File Maker, Access and Fox Pro. As the ’90s progressed I moved closer to Information Architecture as a dedicated career.
How did Factor become established?
BW: During the mid-2000s I teamed up with some folks based in Los Angeles who were starting development for the Blu-ray high definition platforms. That adventure was cut short when we lost our funding due to the 2008 financial crisis, so my natural next step was to return to UX consulting. At that point, I reconnected with Gary Carlson. We had been acquaintances during college but hadn’t seen each other for quite a while.
Gary had been an independent taxonomy consultant for a few years. He brought me in on one of his projects to conduct user research studies because he had been experiencing a gap in this area of his work. I brought him into one of my UX projects, and it clicked, so we started working together often. Pretty soon it became clear that we should merge our consulting practices and we formed Factor at the beginning of 2013. We chose the name Factor to represent the importance of the user or ‘human factor’ in these large-scale information projects.
Our practice brings user-centered design and research, the user-driven perspective, into these large complex enterprise-scale information problems. We set out intentionally to create an enterprise information architecture firm from the ground up. There are a handful of other firms with a similar focus, but we still feel it’s an underserved area of expertise.
Tell us more about your role with Factor?
BW: My primary role is to see a project through from inception to delivery. I act as the executive lead, overseeing the projects I am part of. Gary and I work very much as a tag team. If one of us is the executive lead on a project, the other is available in a consulting role, for escalation, or for a fresh set of eyes. It’s important to us that we stay deeply involved in the work Factor does. We both like to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty.
I also provide a supervisory role to our practitioners as well as contribute to the business development side. We are a medium-sized shop working with employees and contractors. Gary and I have intentionally had a philosophy of manageable growth. We don’t want to compromise the quality of our work. We want to do quality work in this space and solve interesting challenges.
What do you enjoy the most about your work in UX?
BW: Supporting and developing new practitioners is very rewarding. Factor has a couple of graduates who have moved on to interesting projects and organizations like Microsoft. Seeing individuals that you have helped become professionals and establish their profiles is great.
Tell us more about the User Experience process?
BW: It all starts with understanding user behavior. It’s research that informs the design. When conducting user research, it’s very important to ask the right questions. It’s not a new science. We blend quantitative and qualitative techniques to be able to understand why and how users might behave a certain way or make certain choices.
Our research is focused on exposing user behavior patterns so we can design taxonomies and information architecture that supports the goals users have and anticipates their information needs.
What do you normally advise your UX students?
BW: I’m going to sound like a broken record. I always tell them to start with user research. Whether you want to specialize later in interaction design, content strategy, or information architecture, user research will always provide the foundation you need to. understand user behavior, needs, and goals.
I think everybody who practices UX or IA should be grounded in user research. Don’t specialize too early in your UX journey. Instead, try to stay generalist, broad-based until you have had some exposure to the field. Then consider – what am I passionate about? What am I interested in? And move in that direction.
Are there common challenges that the UX process resolves?
BW: We have worked extensively with e-commerce-based customers and we can see common practices and standards start to emerge.
A merchandising taxonomy evolves organically because it manages both product inventory and merchandise. During the 2000s, when many organizations started taking their businesses online, many took the view that, well, we have this product taxonomy for merchandising, let’s just use this for our customer-facing site navigation. The downside of this approach is that it’s confusing for the customer. Merchandising taxonomy is purpose-built for managing merchandise and products. It’s not a model created with user behavior in mind. You will need taxonomies that serve both your customers and internal stakeholders, and you will need to tie them together. Customers shouldn’t have to know or care about how a company or its internal merchandising department is organized. Navigation and UX should be designed to satisfy the customer’s needs and goals.
What do you think are the biggest challenges the UX field faces in the future?
BW: This is my chance to explain the long historical arc of UX, and user interfaces design as a whole. Initially we were solving basic problems, such as how are you going to get people to understand how to use this machine.
Then as the web evolved, we needed to resolve the problem of communication and connectivity. How do you create a platform where people can communicate with each other?
Soon after this we embarked on building what I call the technology layer. Companies took their first steps with the Internet and digital transformation. For example, e-commerce dawned in about 1998.
Throughout the early 2000’s, companies were building out their technology layers, which mainly involved installing big pieces of software like content management systems to develop their infrastructure.
Then in 2008, the world changed. Factors like the financial crisis and the rise of social media and mobile devices changed the impact of UX. For us, the UX professionals, it felt like we had been toiling away in obscurity, and suddenly, we’re in the center of the universe.
Now we are in the experience era. Companies are focusing on their digital experiences, whether this is through an app or web experience that has evolved way beyond simple e-commerce or content discovery. Now, all of us have a smartphone. These devices are pervasive and social media is deeply woven into the majority of people’s lives. Digital experiences are becoming increasingly information-dense and information-rich.
The next era coming is the information era and this is great for companies like us. Big organizations and businesses are starting to realize the value of their information.
This is especially true as more and more organizations transform digitally. Information itself is a tangible asset with equity, like infrastructure, software, brand, and user experience. These tangible assets need to be managed, cultivated and cared for. The challenge will be how do you ensure this works for people, ensure humans fit within the equation?
Do you feel that the sector is prepared for this next stage?
BW: If you read Forrester reports they have things like Information Strategy Playbooks. They talk about practices and capabilities within businesses and say that information strategy is the least mature practice area. Which means it has the most opportunity for improvement. One of our customers said to us once that the biggest benefit of hiring Factor was that we’ve dramatically sped up their ability to manage their information.
That’s the key, right there.
Synaptica Insights is our popular series of use cases sharing stories, news and learning from our customers, partners, influencers, and colleagues. You can review the full list of Insight interviews online.