Christian Manzella Rotating Header Image

Information Architecture

Designing for What Users Do

(Instead of what you want them to do)

Genius Loci is the “spirit of a place” in landscape architecture. The lighting, the path, the ambiance comprise the genus loci; and how the visitors of that place react to it, on an emotional, perceptive, and subsequent behavioral level is the result of working with the naturally occuring space. How a space is established against its natural setting dictates how we feel as we enter that space and how we manage ourselves within it. How easily we traverse the pathways within are dictated by our comfort with learning the space we’re in, greatly impacted by the space itself. All of these things contribute to a positive, emotional experience, encouraging a return.

A site launched for the first time has no genus loci. As designers, we know how we want the site to be used, but life isn’t breathed into it until the users have undertaken the onus of determining how the site is used. A website has no “natural space,” occuring in a virtual realm, devoid of any natural setting. A website’s genus loci is defined by its structure, design, and, most importantly, how users evolve to use that site. Ignoring how users have come to use a site, despite any quirks or perceived inadequacies could result in a failure for a redesign.

Missed, or ignored, because it takes place in a virtual space, an area connecting digital cues and mental interpretations, this space between grows to be is as much a part of the website as the content, the colors, the shapes and objects that fill the page. How your users have decided to interact with the arrangement of content, colors and lines, is your first baseline when improving a site.

While observing best practices is critical, users already have an idea in their head how a site works, based on how it has worked in its previous iterations. Designing away from this without any feedback from the users can have disastrous consequences. Long-time adherents to the site can suddenly feel disoriented and not have a sense of where to go. Engage your user base as an initial first step toward redesign. If you’re unable to do moderated interviews, setting up a survey online can be an acceptable starting point. Take the time to find out what your users like about the existing site and what they feel works. Examine the potential behind how they’ve evolved to using your current site.

Not to say that every crazy idea the users have are going to be the right one, but there’s great merit in putting faith in your existing users’ feedback. They’re the ones that have been using the website! Take the information you gather from them, compare it to best practices, meld it together with your ideas, and create a great experience. Improving the experience that exists, instead of trying to completely re-define it, is much easier and your users will react better to it.

Successful landscape architects look for patterns in the existing area they’re working with, respecting both the spirit of the place, and the way visitors interact with it. Trees don’t move out of people’s way, according to where they want to go. Instead, people weave their way through narrow paths and small, breakable branches, that allow them through. Their footprints are then followed by the next visitor, and then the next. Over time, a natural path clears and a walkway is established. New visitors will tend to follow that path, as an easy way to get from one side of the forest to the other. A talented architect recognizes that path, created by the natural inclination of visitors working in the existing space, and uses that as the walkway, creating the appropriate ambiance around it. Improving on the existing experience.

IA, Metamorphosis, & Design

I was mowing the lawn the other day and, although I spent $50 extra at the time I bought the mower for an electric start mower, i pulled the rip cord to get the mower started.  Why?  Because the electric start requires the battery to be charged.  This requires plugging it into an electrical outlet, preferably overnight.  Too often, my son or I forget to do it, or we simply don’t do it (since it would require at least three extra steps…)

So it got me thinking…what a great example of graceful degradation, or better yet, metamorphosis.  I mean, it’s similar to the concept of hybrid cars leading up to the eventual culmination in electric only cars with battery stations instead of gas stations.  We’re so very stuck in the way we do things; creatures of habit.  Very few of us really want revolutionary idea and even fewer want their world turned upside down by new inventions.  This is why redesign requires so much more than first design.  Inclusion of existing facets, nuggets of the previous user experience are a must to keep visitors from being overwhelmed with a feeling of alienation.

When building a better wheel, all consideration must be made for the existing solution.  Before a new frame and information approach can be defined, a full assessment must be made of the existing site and solution.  This needs to be done for a number of reasons, including salvation of existing content, brand discovery, and learning about your client.  More importantly, your assessment becomes your launching point.  Every item you glean from the existing site and solution becomes the outline from which you need to spin tales of what will and will not work in the new iteration of theNextBigThing.com.  The information you retrieve, before you even start architecting, is of the utmost importance to your redesign process.

The first question to be explored is how sophisticated is the current solution…. If the existing wheel is nothing more than a coconut with two holes bored in it and a bamboo shoot shoved through, then not a lot of work needs to be done outside of taking inventory of the current content.  Essentially, when you’re starting by redesigning a website that was someone’s FrontPage high school project (we all started somewhere), then you’re designing from a clean slate.

Of course, there is the possibility that your client’s nephew’s girlfriend had a keen, natural talent for design, and if so you should take note of what you review, visually.  Information Architecture is not typically about the visual design (masterpiece) which follows, but it is about visual cues.  There’s no question that strong existing visuals establish both a product brand and a use brand for a particular site.  Pay attention and record what’s obvious.  Record what’s distracting.  These could end up being the very items that keep return visitors comfortable upon the release of your newly redesigned usability showcase.

With a more sophisticated previous site, the work really begins.  Taxonomy of existing (and future) content becomes a small, first step; a single-digit percentage of the entire project.  The navigation structure and associated visual cues now need to be vetted.  What proceeds, really, is a series of questions for you to ask and bang your head against a wall as you take notes, ask again and again, torturing yourself with the good and the bad in which the site users are able to swim through these cheesy seas that your client previously called a website.

What makes sense? Has the content been categorized correctly? How many ways can the content be accessed? Who are the outliers… those good ideas that came well after the launch, but have no real home? Does the user know where they are at all times?

Do a complete investigation of the structure of the navigation of the site. Be critical, in order to build a better solution, but again (sense the theme, people), take special note of what is there and is working.  Despite that inexperienced ad agency’s best attempts at creating something a cat would vomit onto the internet, there’s bound to be kernels of good user experience, ripe for reuse. Keep what works.  It’s critical to maintain that user comfort.  Once you’ve exhausted the possibilities within navigation and location cues, the whims, the good, and the horrific, move on to layout.

Most of your time will undoubtedly be spent in layout.  It’s easy to discount the existing layout in favor of all those tricks that you know will work, but this path quickly becomes a precipice.  The layout is what users will become the most confused about when they jump from page to page, looking for a quick bail, or a link to a cart.  When they go to click the details button and it has suddenly become a home page link, your abandon rate will sky rocket!  Look closely at the visual paths.  How well does the site layout take the user across the screen to relevant areas of the site?  Is the eye drawn in the right direction?  A lot of sites have the right idea about layout, but simply don’t pay attention to the details.  Does it just need to be cleaned up?  Is there just a lack of consistency in gutters between content blocks creating a sensation of discontent for the user?  Make sure to identify all of the appropriate spatial use patterns.  Keep anything that you can, provided it won’t make you feel like you can no longer put your name to the project. Someone else’s layout, but with better usability principals applied, can go a long way.

If you’ve done an appropriate assessment of an existing website solution, you should end up with one to two pages of notes per content category of the site, one to two notes per layout of the site and four to five pages of notes regarding the navigation.  And, of course, your catalog of content.  You now have the tools to begin the process of merging those existing thoughts and ideas into what the client has asked for and what you know to be the right answer, based on your experience and training.

Too often, people expect to employ drastic change overnight, which is anathema to what humans prefer (hint: most sheep prefer comfort over innovation). Don’t be afraid to plan for multiple versions of a release. When working with an existing (quasi-)sophisticated design, there may be drastic departures from the original UI involved.  The larger the brand, the greater the traffic and use of the site, the more disconcerting this can be to the public audience.  It may make sense to release multiple versions, paced over a timeline, wherein you intentionally evolve the site from point-A to point-B.  This will involve creating multiple IA sets, or, at the least, multiple visual designs.  However, in the long run, this can prevent unwanted attrition of site users, something particularly important for transactional commerce sites… but let’s face it; no one wants to lose traffic.  Get the marketing group involved, if you can.  It’s a great opportunity to tell a story with the website and to drive repeat traffic.  Tease users with what’s coming and inform them about what’s been released.  Highlight changes and provide clear, well-written help areas.  Whether they are pages or tooltips make your user assistance easy to understand.

Metamorphosis is a process, by any definition.  Redesign is, in fact, a metamorphosis.  The easier you can make that process on your users, the greater chance you have of retaining your existing traffic and driving new users to your site.

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.