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July, 2010:

Information Architecture & Communication

There’s no formal, respected education track to becoming an information architect.  The most widely-held is Human Computer Interaction, but the role of an information architect tends to be filled by people from a variety of backgrounds who have seamed together along a few common threads.  Most prevalent among those threads is a conscious or sub-conscious need to create organization out of chaos.  That chaos most often is in the form of the client.  Or, more specifically, the personalities composing the client’s team.

Executive management committees, secretary turned art director for a day, programmers, brand managers, and the list goes on.

The challenge, of course, goes far beyond meeting the stated goals of the project.  Information architects have a stringent sense of duty to get the job done correctly, despite constant protests to do things the “wrong way.”

Information Technology will insist things can’t be done “that way.” Brand managers will require the use of specific icons as bullets because it’s part of their brand manifesto (for print design).  Executive committees will be paralyzed and horrified at every concept with the potential to offend the board or CxO.  There already exists plenty of reference material of the “Secretary Art Director,” so I’ll skip the examples on that.

The other common thread typical of good Information Architects is the ability to communicate well.

The conversation is the point.  The outcome of the conversation is the point.  If you’re doing the right thing as an IA, you’re spending more time talking to stakeholders and points of contact than you are reflecting on, or producing, your work.  Effective communication is the crux of IA.  You can’t proceed with your work without these critical discourses, no matter who the conversation is with.  What’s more important than your diagrams is being an effective communicator, both as a sender and receiver.

As an IA, however, you’re also decoder and encoder, having conversations on multiple technical levels, multiple business levels, and even multiple social levels.  As an IA, you’re the interdisciplinary expert who can speak intelligently about design, layout, computer science (as programming and hardware), business, analysis, ergonomics, library science, taxonomy, brand image, and marketing.  To make matters worse, you have to speak to audiences within nearly every one of those disciplines, plus executives, who have spent the bulk of their career focused on their singular path and convince them that you know more about the topic than they do, which is why you’ve done things the way you have, with their direction.

By the same token, there’s a delicate balance to maintain in your ability to listen patiently, record and review even what seems to be the most inane natterings of your client team.  This is critical to the success of your project.  You cannot and must not reject ideas out of hand simply because the person you’re talking to “doesn’t comprehend what you do.”  Despite your comparison to their brain being similarly sized to a dinosaur’s (insert note/reference to Will Ferrell’s Land of the Lost), good ideas can come from anywhere.  Any idea can be implemented.  Because your experience and yes, “best practices,” say it shouldn’t be done in general, it does not mean you automatically rule it out for the current project.  Ask questions. Review the answers in your head.  Re-state the questions; ask new questions relevant to the conclusions you’ve made.

The ability to effectively communicate is a critical skill to most everything in this world worth experiencing.  A successful Information Architect relies on two-way communication and can’t do their job without the ability to effectively communicate on every level.  You have to be able to send and receive.  Artfully.

The 5 C’s of a Successful Website

Originally published in Boating Industry Magazine, November 2008.  PDF here.

In a downturn economy such as ours, little is as important as the efforts that go into marketing your product.  Production is paced to match consumer interest, and consumer interest is generated primarily through effective marketing.  In today’s world, some of the most effective marketing and some of the least expensive marketing is done in the interactive space.  The World Wide Web.  The internet.  Your website.

So, are you getting what you need out of your website?

Websites are only as effective as the effort that you put into them.  It’s not uncommon for people to spend a lot of money optimizing their site for search engines, or paying for direct traffic on keywords, or even paying for banner ads.  This is great for driving traffic, but only gets the customers to your site.  I can’t imagine anyone who would want to spend the money for radio and TV ads to send someone to a marina that was unclean, had outdated boats, and no personnel to guide and assist you.  It just wouldn’t make good business sense.  So why do the same with your website?

Every website needs 5 things to stay on top of your prospects and to keep them coming to you.  Traffic is great, but ultimately, for a dealer, the true measure is whether or not your site visitors are impressed enough with your site and your inventory that they send you their information with a resounding, “Yes!  I want you to sell me a boat.”  There are five things that make a website effective.  While these things hold true for any website, they are especially true in the Marine industry:

1. Clean Design
2. Current Content
3. Concise Information
4. Clear Navigation
5. Contact Strategy

1. Clean Design:
Clean Design is the cornerstone to persuasive websites.  All of the truly successful and well-known websites have very similar approaches to design.  Every commonly used website uses visual cues that are light on the eyes with heavy contrast to text.  There’s no challenge determining what has importance in the page’s layout and there’s no confusion about what the brand behind the site represents.  It goes without saying that humans are accustomed to reading black text on white backgrounds.  As I think about it, I don’t recall reading a lot of books with white text printed on black pages.

2. Current Content
In the Marine industry, the main point behind your site is to get your boats online.  If your inventory doesn’t reflect what’s actually, currently in stock, then why have it up there?  The first thought a customer is going to have when they visit you on a boat that you no longer have, is whether or not this is some kind of bait and switch.  Your site should reflect current happenings at your dealership, also.  Set up a newsletter.  Fill out your calendar.  Post your job openings.  Designate someone whose job it is to put an article up on the site once a week.  There’s never a guarantee to generate return traffic on the site, but it’s a lot more impressive to your prospects to see that something was just updated on the site in the last week.

3. Concise Information
It’s been researched, fairly exhaustively, that human attention span has shortened over the last hundred years, and that attention span is drastically more limited by web experience.  Someone once told me that we get through about 26 words on website pages when we view them, which seems like a stretch to me.  I suspect it’s closer to 7.  The point is that it’s best to keep your message short and visual.  Search Engine Optimization is all-important these days, but not if you risk losing your message and your audience.  Using the showroom comparison again, it doesn’t do much good to send prospects to your lot if they have to ride through 17 gates, make two left turns and find the cheese at the end of the maze in order to view your boats.

4. Clear Navigation
Clear Navigation is often mistaken for boring navigation.  It’s not the same.  Navigation does not have to always be horizontal, nor does it have to only be one level and static.  However, navigation should always clearly indicate where the consumer wants to go and what the results are going to be when they click there.  The English language is filled with an endless supply of words allowing us to do this easily and simply, with great effect.

While cascading navigation is wonderful at the second level, it can often generate frustration at the third and fourth levels and beyond.  Gone are the days when all navigation needed to be on every page.  While this is helpful, it can also be overkill if there are too many options.  Lead your prospects.  They want to be shown where they need to go in order to get the information they’re looking for.  This means you need to anticipate their needs and drive them to the relevant portions of your site in three clicks or less.

5. Contact Strategy
In the end, your website needs to provide you a return on investment.  This boils down to Contact Strategy.  Whether you’re selling items online, or looking to generate leads so your qualified sales staff can turn those leads into sales, you want your contact cues to be persistent; available at all times.  When you’re on a portion of the site that highlights your product, your contact navigation links should be obvious and consistent.  An old adage says that you don’t get the sale without asking for it.  You want to make it as easy and painless as possible for your prospect to reach out and contact you.

There’s a great deal that can make a website exciting and interactive.  This can be done while keeping the 5 C’s in mind.  A successful website under the above guidelines can still be interactive, educational, and entertaining.   The key is to properly plan and maintain your website.  Following these guidelines can give even the smallest marina enough leads to maintain an edge in what is sure to be a competitive market in the foreseeable future.