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Jan 22, 2002: What Good is Information Architecture Anyway?

What's the canon of information architecture goodness? Put another way: when you try to make the case for IA, what are your bullet points? Here's a stab at a list; please add more in your comments:

Reduces the cost of finding information
Reduces the cost of finding wrong information
Reduces the cost of not finding information at all
Provides a competitive advantage
Results in increased sales
Improves brand loyalty
Reduces reliance upon documentation
Reduces maintenance costs
Reduces training costs
Reduces staff turnover
Reduces organizational upheaval
Reduces organizational politicking
Improves knowledge sharing
Reduces duplication of effort
Solidifies business strategy

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Comment: Paul Nattress (Jan 22, 2002)

If your content is not found, and therefore not read, by its intended audience then the entire cost of researching, writing, editing, producing, publishing and supporting that information has been wasted.

Comment: Tom Smith (Jan 22, 2002)

Enhances the ability of the information to communicate what was intended.

Comment: Jeff Stuit (Jan 22, 2002)

Lou, you're being so serious! All of the things you've listed here are phrased in economic and/or business terms. Let's have some fun, and climb out from under the balance sheet, eh? ;-)

Making a case for IA is certainly an important and often difficult thing...and a case won't ever be credible unless an IA can make a case for itself. I suppose these things might just be restatements of what you put above, but here are some things I think a great IA will do

*Find the truth
*Look at the truth from many sides (something a creative IA can do with amazing richness)
*Foster new ideas, and help old concepts die
*Encourage storytelling about the thing the IA is navigating
*Produce an appreciation for diversity
*Create a space for meditation (kind of like a walk in the woods)

Also, I'm not sure I agree with a couple of your items. I think a good IA will actually:

*Increase* organizational upheaval - by removing archaic barriers to information that old organizations used to exert control
*A by product of increased organizational upheaval might be *increased* staff turnover, which isn't always a bad thing. Renewal can be a very good thing. :-)
*Challenge* existing business strategy: a good IA can reveal strengths and weaknesses in a system, and open eyes and minds to new things possible.

We spend a lot of time online these days - for both business and pleasure. In addition to making a business case, IA has to make a case to the people we want to live within what we create.

Comment: Melissa Bradley (Jan 22, 2002)

I'm not sure what's meant by "reduces reliance upon documentation" -- can you clarify this, Lou?

Also -- in my experience as a corporate IA, good information architecture doesn't necessarily reduce politicking. Even proving "it's better/easier now" with user testing, logfile stats, and backup studies by other pros is no guarantee. There's always someone who wants more "visibility" and gets it, despite a sheaf of evidence pointing to the contrary. Every rose of IA documentation has its grasping marketing rep just waiting to brand himself at your expense.

No, I'm not bitter....

Comment: Dan (Jan 22, 2002)

Melissa, (can I call you that?) the reduced reliance upon documentation takes place when a web app or web site is so usable and easy to navigate (via best info arch practives), that you don't need to write documentation telling people how to use it. Which is a good thing, because writing documentation is not cheap, and no one likes doing it, except tech writers, and I question their zeal for it too.

I'd love for IA practices to make FRD's and other sorts of documentation go away.

One can dream, can't he?

Comment: Shiv Singh (Jan 22, 2002)

Louis, I can't wait to see you organize this and define the "goodness" more deeply through strategies for accomplishing these objectives, tools to use (IA & non IA ones)and key indicators/measurements of success.

This is a great starting point and I like the fact that it is in business language. We've always got to talk the language of our audience!

Comment: Andrew (Jan 23, 2002)

I don't want to pick on Jeff, but his comment above that includes "Find the truth" as an IA selling point strikes me as the kind of thing we want to start toning down.

This weeks "guest speaker" on SIGIA--a developer who's responded thoughtfully and at great length to a discussion about fitting interaction design into development processes--has made some really good points. One of those is that IAs seem to tend to want to claim certain domains in a project, in particular the fun-to-work-on ones. Business strategy on a broad scale, but not the nitty gritty of, say, negotiating with business partners; "design" in general of global and abstrack attributes of products, but not, say, the color of fonts; and addressing organizational politics in general ways, but not, say, dealing with corporate politics or efforts on a detailed level.

Again, I'm not picking on Jeff here; I certainly also think of (some) work I do in those terms. But I see in Lou's list some of this attitude that domain we've carved out in projects is kind of "the fun stuff" on projects that a lot of other professions (project managers, graphic designers) have long seen as their expertise, or at least something they want to be involved in.

We need to be careful not to simply announce that we are now here to take over certain jobs in an organization; an impression that we have certainly given in the past, and which I have seen in responses to William, the developer posting to SIGIA this week. Rather, we need to get across that we have recognized a well-defined place within a team which both fills a particular need, and also _supports_ the efforts of business stragists, designers, HR staff, etc.

(Did I just come back to the "what is IA" question? Uh-oh.)

Comment: Peter (Jan 23, 2002)

Andrew, you're very right. I recognise the "wanting to do the fun stuff" in my work as well.

But then again, really, fun is only what you call fun. Do you really think the programmer wants to do taxonomies, or calls that fun? Or the designer wants to do wireframes or calls them fun? Or the business analyst wants to specify the user experience and thinks that's fun? Not so.

Our designers love doing font colors. That's why they design. Our business people love negotiating, it's what keeps them going. So I don't really think we're trying to steal all the fun jobs :)

Comment: Larke Paul (Jan 23, 2002)

Information Architects are imperative to a project team for the following reasons (in addition to the reasons aforementioned)

*Aggregate individual ideas and produce a cohesive structure; It is this structure that creates the road map for successful development activities
-This structure could be a detailed site map, content inventory, Functional Flow or combination of all three

*Improves user experience; A site can not be successful if the intended audience cannot perform specific tasks in a successful manner

*Translation: Information Architects translate abstract ideas and requirements into functional ideas and system blueprints

Comment: Melissa Bradley (Jan 23, 2002)

Dan -- (yes you can call me Melissa)

Ah, it's the *user* reliance upon documentation that we improve or dispel. I was confusing this with the documentation/wireframes/architectures I provide to programmers/account managers to build and strategize from.

And I agree with Peter that one man's trash is another man's wireframe. I look at a heap of poor information design masquerading as a web site and think "oh, goody," and start dissecting and restitching, referencing the best IA frameworks I know. Designers are perhaps more visual, programmers more , but we can't help ourselves.

The fine line for us all, I think, is the transformation of manifesto into interface. I know I'm putting this broadly, but if our clarifications -- briefs, wireframes, face to face meetings, usability reports, etc -- debunk design hype and turn it into usable design, it will perforce reference several vocabularies -- "business," "design" and "programming" languages, for obvious reasons.

Maybe it's the skilful negotiation among these vocabularies that defines usable design.

Comment: Samantha Bailey (Jan 23, 2002)

I think this is a great list to be working on, but feel that context is as critical here as anywhere and subsequently it seems to me that these claims are in danger of seeming empty and/or falling flat if we don't back them up with explanations and examples. I'd be willing to wear them on a t-shirt, so I could be there in person to explain them, but I'd be hesitant to send them out into the world on their own.

Comment: Michael Satterwhite (Jan 23, 2002)

"Serious" pays a lot of us for our expertise. I have a short list of additional benefits derived from quality IA:

Improves the efficiency of business practices
Improves the efficacy (effectiveness) of business practices
Improves the return on investment for content development
Improves the return on investment for technical development

Comment: Jeff Stuit (Jan 23, 2002)

I think Samantha (Hi Samantha!!!) hit it on the head: context is a critical element to making this list meaningful.

I do think that IA needs to define a set of core values on its own, outside of the context of "business" or "projects", or "fun" or "seriousness" for that matter. Those values might not be easily communicated to folks from other fields, but they can serve as a good foundation, which is necessary before exploration of other disciplines can occur.

Comment: Gene (Jan 23, 2002)

Once, when I was trying to sell a particularly crusty "client" on investing in IA/user research, I told them that they weren't just building a web app, they were trying to *change people's behaviour*. That helped re-frame the project and change its goals.

Also, I think an important part of good IA is doing all the un-sexy meticulous work (content inventories, anyone?) that no one else thinks about but that help make a project successful.

Comment: Dell (Jan 24, 2002)

Here's one I always use:

*Reduces the number of phone calls to the customer service department.

Comment: mantruc (Jan 25, 2002)

I like the shift in apporach that Jeff presents, and I agree Samantha that we have to be careful in considering the appropirate context.

One of the subjects of IA that most gets me started is navigation. I belive that when people visit a site with a solid and clear nagivation
they actually feel like, eh, 'navigating'. The experience of navigation, of percieving the pass from page to page as 'movement' requires a supression of reality. Good Information Architecture is fundametal for this immersion to occur in the user's mind, if it fails the person will only be battling against a machine, not moving within an information space.

It's very shocking for me to see this subject at this particular moment. (I don't want this to be seen as a personal rant, I think it's relevant
to the discussion, and it's important that you know about my testimony. I'm sorry if my words sound somehow bitter, I hope you can understand
the situation)

This week my company has closed the 'Conluting' department where I wore the hat of Information Architect. I've been moved back to the production
team as one more of the Web Developers. I'll keep on doing the IA stuff, but I'm also doing the 'less-fun' stuff, Including Graphic Desing and HTML - XSL Production. I love designing, (colors, fotns, shapes and lines) and building HTML, but now that i'm here, I recognize it is true that actually producing these stuff is a less fun than exclusively designing the 'conceptual' part of things, and then letting the other boys build it up :)


I can imagine some of you are thinking that I failed at 'making a case' for IA within my own company, but belive me I tried. I actually built the need for this position two years ago, but then the company was sold and the new man in charge has a radically different approach to things:

How can you persuade a person who, when you talk to him about Interaction Design he thinks of Microsoft Office as his landmark for good interface?

What can you do with a man who after your proposal of (me) in behalf of the comany giving a speech about Information Artchitecture and Usability to students answers "Good idea, let's make a speech about XML technology"?

Cheers

javier

Comment: Paul Nattress (Jan 28, 2002)

Javier,
Exactly the same thing happened to me. The bosses didn't understand IA and thought it was something that could be passed onto the HTML developers and the content providers (i.e. marketing people).

It seems that in many companies, IA has been relegated to the level of "writing clean code", that is, it's something that the one-person-does-all web designer should learn and become an expert in.

A huge part of IA is actually making a case for it but, like you mentioned, some people will simply not listen. I particluarly liked Dell's comment: "Reduces the number of phone calls to the customer service department." Managing Director's know how much a person on the end of a customer service line can cost. We have to talk their language, which in most cases involves dollar, pound, euro, yen signs etc.

Lou - can we have a resource of arguments in favour of spending money on IA please?!

Comment: Cathy (Jan 29, 2002)

I'm with Dell on this one -

*Reduces the number of phone calls to the customer service department.

To continue with Paul's comments too - in the Library world, we are taught to perform a "reference interview" with a user - find out what he or she REALLY wants from your information resource (not just what they initally say or think they want).

This process works in two ways - one is a relief version of the other.

First, by interviewing a seeker of information, we help them refine their search needs and more accurately define the desired search result, thus making their information access activity more satisfying (which enhances the reputation of the information resource).

This is a natural part of the information seeking process, and almost all information seekers need assistance with it at least part of the time. (How many times have you "thrown an idea against the wall" with a friend or colleague in order to get a handle on its important aspects or decide how to proceed?)

Second, by directly speaking the language of a decision maker who does not understand the information resource (and/or its architecture, associated funding or other issues), we provide a means of gaining their attention with something meaningful to them (i.e., within their context). Dell's suggestion is direct, easy to understand and easy to convert to dollars, frustration, inconvenience or best use of resources.

Having done that and (hopefully) gained some level of trust in your argument, you can then try to guide them in a search for more knowledge about the real nature of your information resource, and then hope to make your argument truly convincing with some of the other very good suggestions that have been presented here (and others that may also apply to the context at hand).

On either side of this activity then, we must start with the meaningful context of the user (or decision maker) and make the architecture of our argument as intuitively navigatible as possible, so that the desired search result and knowledge gain is obtained by the user / decision maker as often as possible.

In other words, the IA justification argument should be tackled in the same way as other information resource requests - only through the "back door".

I realize that this is often a "best case scenario", but as Dan has said - one can dream.

Just sign me - an "Information Pathfinder"

Comment: Mark Hines (Jan 30, 2002)

>> Facilitates growth

A well architected system anticipates and facilitates growth. An architecture should not be so precise and form fitting that it has to be reworked when new content and functionality are introduced.

This is a point that I frequently have to make when selling through IA. Coming from the agency side of things, this is an especially important point to make as it reassures the client that the system will remain vialble once my engagement has ended.

From a business point of view this makes sense because when new functionality is added to a flexible system it does not require a full-on engagement (time+$$$) but rather an "update".

>> Reduces/manages impact of organizational politics

"Reduces organizational politicking" addresses an important issue but in terms that are, prehaps, too broad. As someone pointed out, IA does not necessarily prevent people from jockeying for, and often succeeding at attaining better representation on the front end. Where I see IA as being useful as it relates to internal politics is not in reducing its occurence but rather managing its impact on the system. Unless you're in a position to affect internal corporate structures, the goal of an IA should be to minimize or control the exposure of these often meaningless divisions to the user.

>> Reduces user/customer turnover
>> Reduces user/customer upheaval

Play on words really. Simply changing the context of the two original points from internal to external.

>> Increases the value of a system to a user/customer

Value is a critical intangible that revolves around things like utility and meaning (i.e., does this thing work for me? or is it relevant to me?). Could be a corallary to "brand loyalty", since value is an attribute of a system that in the end can both overcome and foster brand loyalty.

>Supports business strategy

Nitpicking: "Supports" as opposed to "Solidifies". "Solidifies" seem so final. IA "supports" a business strategy by understanding the goals of that business and tempering them with an understanding of the goals, limitaions, and expectaions of the user. IA is not, in my opinion, the defining activity in executing a business strategy as "solidifies" might imply. Maybe another, more expansive point is required:

>> Bridges gap between business goals and customer needs

------

In defense of LR's comments being "phrased in economic and/or business terms", I'd have to say that when "making a case for IA" I'm typically trying to convince people who are firmly grounded in both economics and business. "Truth", I'm afraid, would be lost on them.

Comment: Andrew (Feb 6, 2002)

"How can you persuade a person who, when you talk to him about Interaction Design he thinks of Microsoft Office as his landmark for good interface?"

Well, you could tell him that MS spends about a zillion dollars a year on usability and user-centered design methods. Not that any of us think it's working....

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