5: Architect and Envision: Marry the Business Model to the Interface

The author draws a parallel to construction architecture - chiefly, a person can draw "plans" for a building that cannot be constructed, because he doesn't take into account factors such as gravity, the tensile strength of materials, the effects of wind and rain on the structure, etc. But on the other hand, many architects remain mired in traditional theory, and still apply the principles of wood-and-stone construction in spite of the availability of improved building materials. The point is: there's a careful balance to be struck: being too imaginative results in plans that cannot be accomplished; being too mired in reality results in plans that are uninspired.

The analogy is cautionary: as we move from Web design into additional channels, we will carry forward what we know about interface design, but must be cognizant that it is a different medium with its own unique capabilities.

(EN: this is a perennial argument with the emergence of any new medium. A decade or so ago, I was telling print-industry designers that the Web was not just digital paper, now it's the same message with newer media - mobile is not Web. In my experience, it takes a long time for that to set in, and some designers "get it" quickly, others cannot make the channel switch at all.)

The present chapter means to focuses on information architecture, which the author considers to be "arguably the most mission-critical" to success in any medium.

The Goals of Information Architecture

In discussing the goals of IA, the author focuses on the deliverables rather than the task: The IA "synthesizes the business goals and the customer model into a structured experience framework" and, as such, provides a blueprint that will help IT to plan its technical solution, designers to plan the product features, the usability team to plan testing procedures, the content team to begin writing, and enables the business to structure their conversations about requirements.

(EN: It's worth noting that the author does not define "information architecture" before getting into details. This would be a valuable step, as there are multiple definitions of what it means and what should be included - and from the information above, the author's notion of IA is a bit oblique to my understanding of the topic.)

Information Architecture Is Business Critical

"Information architecture is a highly refined skill, a creative process that blurs the line on the boundary between art and technology." (EN: Fluff and nonsense, that - but preserved as a harbinger of what's to come.)

IA is compared to designing the frame of a building, an essential step. It is likened to the "bones" of an experience, whereas the visible design elements are merely "skin" and cosmetics: you must get the underpinnings right, or the final product will be flawed.

The author presents an illustration that shows the hierarchy of information in a site - home page, main sections, and subsections. This determines how the information is presented, which drives the design of the site and helps to coordinate the development work.

Of primary importance is to arrange the content from the perspective of the user - specifically, it should not match the company's org chart (EN: however, there are exceptions to this. For example, an internal Web site that mirrors the corporate structure is often easier for employees to use.)

The author touches briefly on the notions of hierarchy (the parent-child relationships between topics) and taxonomy (the sibling relationship, with an eye toward how names are indicative and serve to differentiate among options).

It's also noted that a site should be designed based on tasks, rather than content; may use a segmenting scheme to route different groups or classes of users to appropriate sections; may include a "micro site" for a specific purpose.

The Evolving Practice of Information Architecture

The author mentions the notion of personalization: machine intelligence can be used to monitor a person's interactions with a site, and then customize the way information is presented on subsequent visits based on previous behavior and expectations of future behavior.

While this has not been done with sufficient intelligence, it's evident that more sites are becoming hybridized - there is not a single path from the home page to a given resource, but multiple paths that can be taken through the site, based on user interaction.

The author also foresees that information architects will eventually specialize. Just as certain building architects settle into a niche (residential construction, office buildings, factories), so will information architects fin their niche in a certain type or purpose - and platform.

Case Study in Scalable Information Architecture

The author presents a case-study of a firm that began with a small site, then built it out in sections, as an example of the way in which IA can be made "scalable" - such that it could accommodate future changes without having to re-architect the entire site each time information is added, as any new content hangs from the initial (shallow) hierarchy of information.

(EN: In practice, this is often the exception rather than the rule. Firms may have a good idea of what they might want to add in future, but they will often change plans later, or discover it doesn't suit customer needs. There's also the trick of "stubbing out" content with place-holders, a single page where a much larger section will later be developed - but this can do more harm than good, in that site visitors get the impression that the stub is all that's available on this site, go elsewhere, and never think to check back to see if more information was added.)

The Role of the Information Architect

The role of the information architect is to negotiate between the goals the business wants to achieve and the goals that users will seek to achieve, backed by the knowledge and experience of how individuals use the medium to find information and perform tasks.

It's also noted that IA should be tested, even before any "Screens" are mocked up or built, as a way to detect and correct problems as early as possible. Waiting until the entire site or application is prototyped risks a lot of rework to correct problems detected later on.

The author returns to the construction metaphor: many firms give short shrift to the task of IA: devote insufficient resources and have the task addressed by people who are not qualified to do it. Again, a good IA is critical, so it merits spending ample resources and getting qualified staff.

Information Architects: Skill, Intuition, and Empathy

The skill of an IA is to translate a "complex landscape of information" and translate it into a structure that is easy for users to navigate. Most often, people come to this role from design or computer science.

(EN: in my experience, the "best" people to handle IA are those with backgrounds in writing or library science. These individuals are trained in structuring information in books or collections of manuscripts, and are generally able to translate this skill to other media with relative ease.)

The author quotes a practitioner, who suggests IA requires a person who is "spatially oriented" and can envision the information as a physical space through which the user "moves" to get from one room to the next. (EN: it's a good analogy, and especially useful when explaining IA top a person who doesn't quite get it, but it's not the only metaphor.)

Mistakes in Information Architecture

The author enumerates a number of common mistakes in IA: basing it on the content rather than the users' needs, having inconsistent methods of navigation in the information hierarchy, having only one path to a given resource, preventing the user from breaking out of the site's hierarchy, having an IA that is overly complex, failing to take advantage of the conventions of a given medium or platform, being too rigid to scale when additional resources are added.

There is also the notion of "context": designing an architecture that enables the user not only to get from one place to the next, but having a sense of their location in the maze as they navigate the steps in-between.

The author also prescribes gentle evolution: once users interact with a site and learn its structure, moving things about can be very disconcerting. Over time, change will be necessary, and sometimes it will be dramatic. And while it may be easier for the site operator to throw everything away and start over with a clean slate, it's very detrimental to users, so transitions must be planned accordingly.

Case Study: MidnightTrader.com

The "midnight trader" site began as a way for individuals to get market research (real-time quotes, news, analysis, etc., regarding stocks) for a monthly subscription fee. Its value proposition was that it provided information "after hours" - whereas most existing sites operated only during market hours.

It started small, basically ass a news feed (a list of articles, newest first) with the ability to search and filter. Later, it subdivided the "master" feed into special interest feeds (by industry, by market, by type of investor), added premium content (a higher level of access, at a higher price, got the main feed, plus content from sources exclusive to that level).

At each stage, the company conducted market research in advance, and did usability testing in arrears, to ensure that their segmentation of feeds would be desirable by and usable to its various user groups - specifically, it was not done in an arbitrary manner.

Later, as users began to demand easier access to content on wireless devices, the company found that the existing UI, based on users tasks and goals, was fairly easy to transfer to other media with changes to the design of the content, but essentially the same AI.

Strategic Envisioning of the User Experience

Once the IA of a site is defined, it forms the framework for the remainder of the site, and should facilitate "rapid prototyping" of the entire site. It should be simple to develop sketches of the individual pages in the site with a reasonably accurate indication of their critical concept, as a way to show a model of the site to stakeholders and do some level of testing with target users to gather feedback and better refine plans.

It's also suggested that the same AI can be used across multiple media (e.g., Web and mobile) for rapid prototyping in multiple channels: you can develop a sketch that depicts the appearance of the screen in each channel.

Case Study: Trellix Corporation

Another case-study is presented of a company that provided an online "build your own web site" tool, initially intended for small businesses but later expanded to consumers for vanity Web sites. The "site builder" tool was largely a value-add, which enabled the company to make more income from hosting fees for small, low-traffic Web sites.

The company followed the path the author suggested in the previous section: they mapped out the IA, did quick sketches of the pages, paper-tested them, refined their plans, then built out the UI for the site. (EN: illustrations are provided to depict the visual appearance of documents at each step along the way).

The benefits of this process were a high level of flexibility in the development process, the ability to catch critical mistakes very early and thereby avoid rework, and a visual representation of the site so that the "insiders" were well0-focused on their tasks.

(EN: The company is dead now, largely killed off by better tools that are available at a much lower costs, and often for free. But this is a result of a flaw in their business plan, not their development process.)

Information Architecture Influences Technology Architecture

Of importance: the IA of a site is used to ensure that the site is built to the needs of the user, rather than requiring the user to adapt to the design of the technical underpinnings of the site, the latter of which is a common problem.

Ideally, the IA of a site is developed before a technical solution is identified, and as such, the design of the user experience helps to define the requirements that a solution must meet. In that way, the architecture has influence on the technology used to build the back-end of the site.