In today’s business world having a website is practically equivalent to being in business. There is no question in regards to IF your business should have a website. There is, however, still very much a question in regards to how best to structure and position that website and the information it contains for maximum business and customer benefit.
As an Information Architect, it is my job to help businesses understand purpose. More importantly, it is my job to help others understand how to structure specific information on their websites (and apps, and anything else that has information that needs to be communicated) to meet that purpose.
Recently, we have developed some interesting viewpoints in this endeavor. Before I share those with you, it is important to understand what I mean by the term “structuring a website.” It is also important to understand a bit more about how and why websites are structured today.
Back when the web was first born, there was no rhyme or reason to what information was strewed across it. As more and more information was put on the web (NOTE: By the word “information” I mean content, videos, images… anything.), it became harder for people to find their way around. People not finding their way around meant that they weren’t able to connect with businesses in the ways they needed to become customers, let alone loyal customers. This not only frustrated users, but it was also not so good for business.
This issue birthed the field of Information Architecture. Started in large part by those who studied and worked in Library Sciences, Information Architecture was created in order to help organize all the information that was floating about on the Internet. Since then, Information Architects have been helping businesses figure out which information needs to go where on their websites. They have also been helping to organize and structure said information into nice, neat taxonomies. These taxonomies work to catalog each piece of a company’s information so it can easily be found on the web.
You may have worked with one of these people before, and evidence of their hard work is everywhere. One of the most popular examples, as of late, is the mega menu. Here are some screenshots of the mega menu in use:
These menus are organized to give each piece of a company’s information a “home” in the hopes that customers will seek out and find what they need.
There’s just one problem with these sites, and most other sites regardless if they have a mega menu.
These structures don’t allow the sites to be optimized for their necessary purpose. Instead of helping customers to meet their goals, the structure of the website is actually creating more noise for customers to sift through, which is bad for the bottom line because customers aren’t able to find the information they need in order to complete the transaction.
This brings us back to the customer’s intention.
Focusing on customer intention starts with considering what customers intend to accomplish interacting with a website. Instead of doing things the old way, i.e. designing a site by starting with all the information a company wants to put on their website and organizing a structure around it, we first think about the customer’s intent.
With these intentions in mind, we can then sort through all of the information the company has that can fulfill those intentions. This is ultimately the totality of the information that will live on the website. Being sure to leave out any extraneous company information that simply adds noise to the equation. Because, after-all, the last thing a customer needs in today’s world is MORE information thrown at them.
Structuring for intention is one of the very first steps needed in order to aim your website toward cultivating customer loyalty. The above looks to provide the basic outline of a much grander idea. There is a lot more to the process to share, and you can be sure that I will be doing so soon.
But for now, it’s important for us all to realize that the old way of thinking about what information goes on our websites and how that information is organized no longer works. Yes indeed, it’s time for a change.
There’s something troubling that I’ve noticed happening with many people (not all, maybe not even you) in our industry over the past few years. It’s something that I want to bring to light in hopes that A. I can be enlightened to the necessity or trivialness of this thing, or B. I can help others to enlighten themselves and stop the thing’s progress. So what is the thing? Simply… that we are stuck in our ways, and if we don’t start moving, our industry will never change. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, Newton didn’t lie…
Our World, Today
The current state of where we are is not really a revelation to many of us. We are working doing design or architecture or web “stuff”. Some of us call what we do UX. Some of us claim UX doesn’t exist. Some of us wireframe. Some of us claim we don’t. None of this will be addressed in this piece, for this is what it is, and the arguments will rage on. Instead, I want to point out the bigger issue that I have seen. That is that many of us, no matter what side of the fence we are on in these arguments, HATE where our industry is. We hate our clients (“Two weeks for a complete overhaul of documentation that took us months to put together. #ClientsGottaLoveEm”). We hate our co-workers (“When can you get the UX wireframes done for this project? #UXIsntWireframes”). We hate our careers (“Hired as a UX Strategist, but they just asked me to make a screen ‘better’. #WhatsThePoint”). In short, we hate our state of being, and this causes us so many problems.
What’s the big deal?
First off, in many ways, we aren’t progressing as an industry. What does that mean? It means we spend so much time focusing on the negatives of doing what we do, that we don’t save brain space to focus on how to change the negatives into positives, and, therefore, change ain’t coming.
Secondly, all this negative energy actually zaps our ability to see that WE ARE THE TALENT THAT EVERY BUSINESS NEEDS TO SUCCEED. Obviously, we can’t do it alone, but come on guys, this is our TIME! Everyone wants to be the next Apple. Everyone talks about how facilitating great user experiences will make the business more successful. WE really are in control. But we have beaten the idea of our profession down so much that we believe that we can’t change our environments. We talk to our clients in words that mean nothing to them, and wonder why they don’t “get it”. We take jobs because they show us a glimpse of hope at being the real deal, instead of asking the hard questions that prove we’ll be doing the work we want, and turning down the gig if it’s not the work we want. We blame our lives, our clients, our coworkers, our cities, our companies for holding us back. And, we do this, simply because, we don’t have the energy and courage needed to do something about it.
Third, and perhaps worst of all, we isolate ourselves from other disciplines and industries. This is the gravest problem of all because it means we don’t educate ourselves about what information or context these other disciplines and industries need to really understand where we can be of use. We don’t learn about business (yuck, suits), and then wonder why we get screwed in negotiations. We don’t learn about company process, then wonder why our ideas are labeled as being outside of the process. I can go on.
Four, this all means we perpetuate our cycle (wait did I go back to number one again? That’s meta.) The crappy jobs keep getting resourced with talent (us) that is too good for the jobs. The crappy companies keep getting resources (us) that are too talented and smart to work with people that don’t want to hear how we can help. Then we blame the company, the clients, the co workers for the crappy jobs existing… and the cycle persists. We continue to hate the work that we are supposed to love, and live in misery complaining to each other how bad we have it.
But fear not dear reader, there is hope! And to inspire this hope we turn to none other than Sir Isaac Newton (you may have heard of him). As many of us may remember, Newton was a famous physicist who is known for proving three laws of motion. For our troubles to be cleared, I’d like for us to remember Newton’s first law of motion:
An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an unbalanced force. An object in motion continues in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.
Put more simply. Things won’t change unless you act, unless you exert some kind of force. Try this… an object at rest (let’s say the environment we work in, our industry, your clients or your co-workers) will remain as it is unless acted on by an outside/unbalanced force. Here’s the secret… you have to be the force in order for your luck to change.
Now, you may be thinking, “But, wait, what if I don’t WANT to change.” Or “But I have to take these crappy jobs I have a family to support.” Or “I’m not you, Lis, I don’t have the people skills to do it.” Or whatever other argument you can think of. But, I’m here to tell you that all of these are invalid, yes even the family one. Why? Because the definition of the force is flexible. Doing any one of these things can change the environment:
Ask more questions during interviews to discern if the job meets your goals. Things like “How often do you do usability testing and why?”, “What does user centered design mean here and how is it implemented?”, “Does, and how does, my role help bring a user centered focus to the company?” will help you know if they are for real.
Network more with people like you to let people know that you are an awesome person. Go to industry and non-industry events that spark your interest. Talk to people about what it is you want to be doing with your knowledge and skills even if you aren’t doing them “for real” at your current job.
Choose to interview or work for companies whose mission you believe in, and whom believe in a user centered mission. If those companies aren’t in your area, at least start to follow companies whose mission you believe in and try to meet others who work at them when at the next conference or event. Ask these other employees, designer or not, how they got the gig, or get advice on how to manifest your career in the same way.
Choose co-workers who are awesome like you. Obviously we can’t choose who we work with, but we can choose who we cooperate with and provide favors or extra help to, etc. Prop up those co-workers that you see as awesome.
Choose to believe you have a choice in your career, because we are all free beings, and we always have a choice.
Insert any other type of force here.
Further, if you are thinking about how you have already exerted force and created change, but it hasn’t worked… then I would argue that you need to exert a different type of force in order to manifest change in a different way. I’m by no means assuming that none of us are acting, but instead hoping to give you ideas on how to exert force, or act, if you currently are not exerting force, and if you are exerting force and it’s not working, giving you ideas on how to exert force differently.
The main point I want to make is, it’s not all about completely throwing away every part of your career and starting fresh. Instead, it’s simply about using whatever amount of force you can use to affect change in your environment. Even a little force will create some change (it’s a law of physics, remember?!). Of course, Newton’s second law says that the greater the force the greater the change, and that is to be expected. But, the happy news is, the laws of the universe tell us that as long as we are exerting a force, no matter how small, there will be a change in return. Anyone can assess the level of force they are able to exert and then start manifesting change, no matter what your situation is. Newton said so!
It Keeps Getting Better
And, guess what? The more we see the change, the more energy and ideas we’ll have to exert more and better force. It’s a cycle that gets better and better. Then the more force we exert, the more change will come. We’ll venture out and learn more about other disciplines and industries and become better integrated into cultures we like. We’ll stop with the cycle of taking crappy work, complaining about that work, leaving that work only to find more crappy work. We’ll instead force better jobs, ones where we can actually use our talents, to be created. We’ll force jobs that have a better understanding of the help we can provide, thereby using our talents to the fullest. Best of all, with all of us exerting force, our industry gets better. We don’t do it alone! By all of us exerting even a little, itty-bitty bit of force, we are all, in culmination, exerting a lot of force. And, that means, we’ll all see a lot of change and reap a lot of benefits. It means we can finally help in the ways we’ve always known we can.
In the end, it really is about taking responsibility of our fate, and then taking action to change that fate if we are unhappy with where the object is at rest. It really is just about not being the object at rest, if we don’t want to be, but instead being the force that moves that object in the right direction. And once the object is moving, it can’t be stopped… unless, of course, another force is exerted on it :-).
This summer has, so far, proven to be a very busy one (music to an Independent’s ears!). I had the opportunity this June, to travel to 3 different cities, present 3 different talks, and, in the process, I got to meet, interact with, and learn from many different people.
My first trip was to San Francisco for the UX Strategies Summit. There, partner in crime Donna Lichaw and I, unleashed our Adaptable Product Roadmaps workshop. Although the workshop is one that we prefer to give as a full day, we were able to successfully present our points and exercises to an eager group in a 3 hour format. The workshop is one that we use to help both clients and practitioners alike, to figure out new products, features, updates to old products, etc, in a prioritized, organized, and engaging way.
My next stop was in Chicago for ConFab for Nonprofits. There, Donna and I teamed up again, but this time to present our Storymapping: A MacGyver Approach to Content Strategy talk. This is also something we usually present as either a full day, or a few day workshop, but at this event we presented an overview of our method, how it works, outputs from a real-life case study, and then, of course, fielded some great questions. This talk also seemed to be a big hit with the group, and we learned alot from all the feedback.
Lastly, I headed over to Las Vegas for Future Insights Live!, where I debuted my Why I’m Sick of Calling Myself a UX Designer talk. I was extremely excited and nervous for this one. Luckily, I got the intended response from the crowd. That being, an ongoing conversation about the validity of our job titles, and how the topic as a whole effects this industry. I look forward to, hopefully, sharing this talk with many more groups in the future.
So, if you’ve been wondering where I have been for the past month or so, wonder no more. Apologies for not keeping up the writing, but there will be more to come later on this Summer and Fall. What am I going to do in the meantime? Well, I finally realized just how exhausting all this travel stuff is. So, besides working on some awesome projects that I hope to write more about in the near future, I’ll be looking to catch up on some sleep. I do hope that you all get to do the same!
And, lastly, here are some slides for your viewing pleasure. Thoughts are, of course, always welcome.
I keep a list of ideas, buried deep in Google Drive, of blog posts that I mean to write. This is a great way to ensure that I never lose a spark of inspiration. However, this list only works if one takes the time to go back and look at it (which I rarely ever do). But, today I did take the time to go back to that list and I found an idea from almost two years ago that happened to catch my eye. And, even though I have written about this topic before, it has been etched into my brain so deeply, that I decided to write about it again today. What is that idea? That Information Architecture is, and always has been, about creating for the user’s experience.
This idea may not be new to many of you (I hope). UX has been the new IA for some time now, and all of us who started out by calling what we did Information Architecture knew that it involved the user’s experience. Problem was, at least for me, we just didn’t know how to describe it very well, or did we?
Is it IA, or is it UX?
Like what happens to most everyone, when I meet new people they often ask me what I do. For a long time I told them I practiced Information Architecture. Then, as the UX tide came in, I started to surf as a User Experience practitioner. But, more and more I have found myself back riding the Information Architecture wave. I tell you this not to show you what a flake I am, but to show that it’s obvious, and has been obvious, that something was missing in IA before, that enabled one to confidently say “I do Information Architecture which means I model user experiences.”.
And so, two years ago, I think I found that missing statement. I logged it in the back of my mind, as well as in my ideas for blog posts to write, and it has been festering ever since. And, although what I’m sharing with you today about Information Architecture is not all together new, I did want to share the link with you, to hopefully implant the idea of what Information Architecture is in your brains so that it festers and grows.
Of course, all of the material is interesting, but the line that stuck out to me, and that began my road back to IA was this:
“Information architecture relates to science as its models draw on insights and theories of cognition. And its models relate to art as they aim to create a meaningful experience.”
Whoa. There it was, again, in black and white. Information Architecture models aim to create a meaningful experience. Duh! How could I have forgotten this in my aim to describe what I did while saying I practiced Information Architecture? You see, those practicing Information Architecture create models which aim to create a meaningful experience for the users of those models. Brilliant!
Thus, all those years ago, when User Experience came on the scene and sounded so much easier to describe than Information Architecture, I abandoned my IA post for the promised land of UX. However, I realize that the words I was looking for to describe my value were right in front of me all along.
I share these thoughts with you today, dear reader, in the hopes that you begin to understand this:
The User Experience is not an input or a discipline, but is, instead, the result of modeling information in such a way that creates meaning in an experience.
AND, That modeling of information… that’s the job of someone who is practicing Information Architecture.
I love being a consultant because I love the freedom to choose my work, the freedom to choose when I work, and the overall ability to meet and work with so many different teams. Given all of these positives, there are still downsides to consulting. One big downside is that I don’t always get to see my work come to life because I’m not inside the company helping to push the work through. However, with Light & Motion, a client that I worked with last year on their site redesign, I was able to see my work come to life! The team pushed through and, two weeks ago, released the new version of lightandmotion.com. Of course, the design and photography are beautifully done, but the reason that this is the Most Beautiful project (or at least in the top 3 projects) I’ve ever worked on is not due, in my point of view, to either of these characteristics. The beauty, dear reader, is in the way the information is architected. Allow me to explain.
The Problems With the Old Site
“I feel like you should be wearing a cape or some sort of super hero outfit. The title Information Architect makes me think you are here to save the day.” Those were the words of my client when we met for the first time in the airport in Monterey California. I had flown across the country to help Light & Motion to redesign their site, and, as you can see, they needed help pretty badly.
Besides the look of the site being dated, there were some other major issues they were facing. First the navigation, and the way information was organized on the site made it hard for users to find what they were looking for. Second, and perhaps more important, was that the way the site was setup did not properly reflect Light & Motion’s core mantras, nor did it allow them to properly showcase the extent that their product could be used. Instead it segregated products into Dive, Bike, and Outdoor. These categories gave users very little idea of all that the L&M lights could accomplish. Third, customers usually were segregated into one of the three categories, however, L&M wanted to bring customers across the categories to see the power of the products. This just wasn’t possible given the old site setup. Lastly, the site’s product pages, and in fact the site in general, didn’t support the way users shop for lights. This meant that the site wasn’t suited to get users to purchase. This was a big ecommerce no no.
From there, Craig hired me to help come up with a concept of what the site should be, how it should be laid out, and what the features & functions would ultimately need to be to support the L&M vision.
From our meetings with the L&M team, I could tell right away that they were a different company. They were passionate about their products and their users. They had sketches everywhere of the lights and the accessories that their users would need to participate in the activities they loved. They had a 3D printer onsite so that they could test their concepts. They were invested in, and passionate about, their line of products in a way that I had never seen. They did 95% of their work onsite in Monterey (including creating and shipping the lights!). It is a special company indeed.
Thus, I took great care with this project. I took a good amount of time to use Craig’s (amazing) work and research to create the right concept model for the site (this defined the entities of the site at a high level and how they related to each other. i.e. Products, The Company, The Activity, etc). From that really abstract level, I started to narrow down into the details of what information needed to be on the site, and how that needed to be constructed to meet L&Ms goals. From what Craig put together, it was so easy for me to see that the site needed to be all inclusive. People do a LOT of research when buying these types of lights because for one they are not cheap, but also these users are centered around the activities they use the lights for. Biking to work, diving photography, mountain biking… these are life mantras for the people that L&M’s products service. They care a great deal about the activities, and thus the lights that go with the activities.
Therefore, I was able to discern that the ability to shop both by product line/name AND activity was a key component that was missing from the old site. Further, making sure that both the products and the activities were all inclusive, content and information wise, was hugely important. And, lastly, making sure that all of these connected back to L&M’s presence in the industry, and that their mantra and passion for lights shone (pun intended) through was a huge deal.
You can see from the product and activity pages on the new site, how these relationships play out. And the beautiful thing about the IA that was created (and executed to!) is that it’s seamless. A user can move from activity to light, from light to activity, from light to company information behind why they light was created, and more without leaving the site, getting lost on the site and definitely without getting bored!
To bring it all together, L&M hired the Bkwld team to execute the design, and boy did they! Their work is not only beautiful BUT it’s, more importantly, designed for the IA. They did a magnificent job of taking the direction that the Information Architecture laid out in both information and concept, and creating a design that enhances that direction.
After meetings and arguments and successes between all these parties, what L&M released two weeks ago is a thing of beauty for lighting purchasers across the world. It is a site that is delightful, informative, representative of the company, and indulgent of user needs. I’m extremely proud of the work that everyone on the team has done (especially L&M for sticking with us and pushing the work through), and I look forward to hearing the successes that come from it!
By valuing Information Architecture, and not just the “little” IA of the navigation, but the “big” IA that helped to lay the foundation and structure for the site, I’m sure L&M will see huge lifts in not only their sales, but in the passionate and loyal customers that reflect the company itself.
For months I have been trying to write a post about Detroit. Why Detroit? One, because it has been in the news so much. Two because, as an IA, I think the downfall of Detroit is quite obvious. The city is a manufactured city, instead of a natural place of settlement. It was put together to help fuel the auto plants, and now is faltering in a huge way. But, this isn’t surprising to me. It reminds me of all of the new ideas that startups and even large businesses have that just seem so meaningless. Why are they meaningless? Because they have zero to do with natural human behavior.
Scott Berkun wrote this piece about Google Glass, and I couldn’t agree more. I think we get distracted a great deal, by the coolest and newest technology. Sometimes this is important, but many times it takes us away from our roots. These are, understanding and designing for, and to enhance human behavior. We want to make our users lives better, but in a sustainable way, not in a way that will fall apart.
So the next time you see something new and shiny, I’d like you to ask yourself is this meaningful? And if so how will it help people in real life (not just how it could help people, one day, maybe, with a whole bunch of changes). We IAs are no different than city architects. We have a responsibility to our users and our businesses to not throw together ideas without an idea of how they can sustain, but to vet them, to make them better and to make them help people live better lives.
I can’t help but continue to write about my recent thoughts regarding our profession. As of late, I, like many of you, have contemplated even calling myself a UX professional anymore. The truth is, I’m tired of fighting the “they just don’t get it” battle. I’m constantly reminding myself of the “pave the cowpath” theory, and think “Why aren’t we just doing that?”.
What do I mean? I mean why aren’t we just using terms that those that we want to work with are use to hearing. I’m talking things like Customer Acquisition Designer or Customer Retention Architect. Those types of titles mean something to the people we have been trying to hit over the head for the past 15 years. After-all, that is really what the value of Information Architecture and User Experience Design and Service Design and Interface Design and any other hot buzzword design or architecture is. It’s all about making a company or organization and their products and services better for their users or customers (or both!).
Perhaps we have been using the “How” to describe what we do, and maybe, just maybe, that is means we’ve been trying to build a new road, instead of paving the path.
Have ideas and thoughts about IA or UX that you want to write about but you:
A. Don’t want to set up a blog
B. Don’t have time to keep a blog
C. Just have one or a few ideas that are ready to “write about”. Not enough for your own blog.
D. Just want to test the waters and see if you can do it, or
E. Want to publish it to a new audience?
Well then… perhaps we can come to an arrangement. I personally love writing for my blog. It keeps me sane because it allows me to voice my ideas and opinions, while hearing your thoughts about those ideas and opinions. It takes me away from the day to day and launches me into conversations that I may never have had.
Unfortunately, for the next month or two, I’ll be too booked up to write as much as I’d like. (no worries though, I’ll be jotting ideas to pen once I return). And, although interns Chris and Kofi have been doing a great job contributing content, I thought I would give others the chance to contribute as well.
I ask you this. Why is it that every time I’m on a project that runs into a road block during the visual design phase… why is it at this point that people start to question and pay attention to my IA work? Is it because my work is flawed (always a potential)? Is it because they “favor” the visual designer (highly unlikely since we are both teammates on the project)? Or is it because client simply cannot grasp that information architecture of a system?
And… can they not grasp the IA of the system because I am not explaining it clearly? Or is it that the idea is too abstract? Is it that IA is simply too complex?
I don’t have any answers to these questions, but today I am in a sea of deep client frustration. I spent months pouring over a concept model and IA that is one of the best I’ve ever produced, and now, at the point of design, it not only comes into question (which is natural), but it is deemed as flawed. Further the client has spent a great amount of time with it, and now wants me to address the flaw that she is convinced is there (as if I spent a few hours with it, and don’t already have answers to each concern and question she has).
So, I ask you all this…. am I the only one that faces these woes? If not, how do you usually handle them to help the client understand your point of view and your work, while also addressing their feedback and concerns.
As I sit here, listening to the usual pounding of the construction next door (which has been going on for about a year now), the thought came to me. Noise (not surprising). Noise, I thought, there seems to be so much of it in the world. In both the IA profession and outside of it.
In the IA and UX world there is the noise of what we should be doing versus what is being done successful. There is the noise of what should we call ourselves and who sees us as what, and the noise of what our profession is becoming. Not all of this discussion is noise, of course, but much of it is a distraction from real progress. This noise can become frustrating, and so loud that our brains stop thinking effectively about the points and questions that really matter.
Outside of our professions we all deal with Noise all the time. How I am defining noise here is not the usual day to day sounds of annoyance (like my good friends next door), but it’s the thinking noise that fills up valuable space in our heads like the worrying about our commute or the anxiety about what our boss will think of our work or even the big anxieties surrounding the meaning of our lives and where they are going.
My goal for today is to start to parse out the different between noise and meaning. As an IA, it is my job to bring meaning, to make the unclear clear, and thus I aim to bring more of this to my own life as well. To filter out the noise, so that more meaning can be exposed, that is the key!