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Sep 05, 2002: Your Mileage Will Always Vary

My pal Rich Wiggins writes:

"Can two or more entities have identical or nearly identical information architectures?

"Take Hertz and Avis, for instance. Obviously their labeling differs, but they are in the same business and serve the same kinds of customers. Could it not be said that their information architecture therefore overlaps greatly? ... What I'm driving at is this: Why should an entity need to do in-depth information architecture research if another similar entity has already been down that path?"

Geez, Rich, I'd thought that the answer was obvious: to keep all us high-priced information architecture consultants off the streets!

Yes, Avis and Hertz are basically in the same business, serving the same types of clients, providing similar content. I imagine if you asked the people who run those companies, they'd acknowledge being competitors. They'd probably claim to be very different too, and those differences could require their sites' architectures to vary substantially. The axes for these differences go back to the usual suspects: content, users, and business context.

I don't know enough about Hertz and Avis, but let's take Gateway and Dell. Assume pretty much the same users ("home/home office," "government," etc.) and same content (desktops, laptops, peripherals, etc.). But their business models vary quite a bit: Gateway has always relied on selling via retailers, while Dell relies exclusively on direct sales. Gateway has to invest more in explaining how, where and through whom it sells, thereby requiring more information and information architecture. Or put simply, the business contexts are vary enough to require different architectures.

Another example: L.L. Bean and Neiman Marcus are both merchandisers (context) of shirts, pants, shoes, and other household stuff (content). But they appear to have different clienteles (users). Bean's customers might be regular purchasers of "old standbys": khakis, duck boots, dog beds, and stuff that they know Bean sells and which they've probably purchased before. They'll find searching very helpful. While Bean might serve as something of a clothing "utility," Neiman Marcus may attract customers who are interested in cutting edge stuff, like Prada handbags and Charisma towels. They might be in an exploratory "window-shopping" mode, requiring high quality browsing features. Neiman Marcus' customers may also require more visuals to help them make purchasing decisions. So context and content may be similar, but differences in users or user behaviors might force variations in these sites' respective architectures.

An example of sites with fairly similar users and context, but different content, are Baseball Prospectus and Baseball-Reference.com. Both serve baseball fans and operate by the "labor of love" business model. The Baseball Prospectus site regularly publishes articles that analyze the game from a statistical perspective. Baseball-Reference.com contains the statistics themselves (in fact, the sites are a bit symbiotic). Designing an architecture for a changing collection of articles is different from providing access to a more static, though huge, collection of data.

None of this is to say that you can't learn quite a lot from studying sites that have users, content, or contexts similar to yours. Just keep these issues in mind:

  • Subtle differences in users, content, or context can and often do cause huge variations in a site's architecture.
  • The larger the site and its sponsoring organization, the more of these subtle differences you'll encounter.
  • As always, if you do encounter a convention, wonderful; there are precious few out there. They can be instructive and enlightening, but following conventions does not necessarily guarantee quality design.

Yep, your mileage will always vary. Which is why we information architects love to say "it depends." Love to say it, gotta say it, ought to say it.

Cha ching.

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Comment: Edward Vielmetti (Sep 5, 2002)

If you want to test the "all airport car rentals share the same information architecture" theory, do a retrospective on the web sites of National and Alamo. The two have merged operations, but have a bunch of differences in their sites, due to "strong brand identities" (so they claim).

Comment: Prentiss Riddle (Sep 5, 2002)

No disagreement with the above reasoning, but a couple of "yes, buts":

You say that "Subtle differences in users, content, or context can and often do cause huge variations in a site's architecture." What happens if your users, content or context change over time? Is it safe to assume that the subtleties which distinguish Avis and Hertz in 2002 will be the same ones that apply in 2003? Might it not sometimes be safer to follow the KISS principle and create a somewhat "generic" architecture which minimizes its sensitivity to idiosyncrasies du jour?

You remind your readers to keep an eye out for "conventions" but not to expect to find many of them. I recall Jakob Nielsen using much stronger language in his 1999 screed When Bad Design Elements Become the Standard. Is this just a case of the half-empty and the half-full glass, or have things changed since 1999, or is there a real difference of opinion on the nature of conventions and how important it is to follow them?

Enjoying "Bloug", as always.

Comment: Lou (Sep 6, 2002)

Geez, between Rich, Ed, and Prentiss, I feel like I'm at a Gopher conference from 1993... Where's Mark from Minnesota?

Comment: Rich Wiggins (Sep 6, 2002)

Aha Lou, a deft maneuver: answering the question you wanted to instead of the one I asked, by switching examples on me. Sorry, the attempt to reprogram the Kobayashi Maru will not succeed! :-)

Let's go back to Hertz and Avis, OK? From a consumer perspective, I claim that what they do is incredibly similar. You find out about the fleet categories, you find locations, you reserve cars, you rent cars, you join their clubs, you enter discount codes...

Now if we were examining their intranet view things might be quite different -- corporate ownership, policies, procedures, internal systems, etc.

Ed, I think you may have identified a distinction without a difference (a distinct without a diff?). Hal Varian would tell us that in commodity markets merchants still fall over themselves to differentiate their products. Remember Shell with Platformate? National and Alamo may have customers loyal to certain brands and marks. I might belong proudly to the National Emerald Aisle Club and they don't want to ruffle my feathers by making me have to join the Davy Crockett Club or whatever Alamo has. Isn't that all labeling, not a distinct architecture?

Take this example: if you did a "diff" on the French and English versions of Hertz Canada's presence on the Web, you'd find almost 100% differences. You're telling me that that means the one Hertz Canada organization has two distinct information architectures?

As for Gateway and Dell we can tackle that after we agree on Hertz and Avis. The really pressing example is HP and Compaq, which have merged product lines, logos, and Web presences in an incredibly clunky and confusing way. (And in the long run it's why National will have to figure out a way to merge things, or just pretend they are still two separate companies.)

Comment: Lou (Sep 10, 2002)

Rich, I think you're answering your own question. IA is structural *and* semantic. Labeling is part of IA. So the French and English Hertz architectures need to be different simply because it's hard to draw a clear line between the words in our heads and the words in the interface.

Prentiss, time is a huge reason why architectures diverge. Sure, you can try to get around the problem (if, indeed, there is one) with the risk of oversimplifying. But is that really solving anything? Users, content, and context *do* change over time, and I'd rather see Hertz and Avis's information architectures do the same, and not be forced to be like each other. And sure, there are aspects of their sites that probably do make sense to work the same way. Fine; but let's make sure that there is a balance between familiar convention and needs-driven innovation.

Comment: Lou (Sep 16, 2002)

Some interesting follow-up discussion on this topic at Peterme:

Comment: PeterV (Nov 21, 2002)

Here is a question I run into: what about intranet portals like, say, an HR portal that provides access HR services. Would the IA of that not be very similar for companies in the same country (thus the same rules) and of the same size?

Comment: Lou (Nov 24, 2002)

Sure, there will be similarities. But consider the needs of the employees: users of the Pfizer HR portal may be younger and more IT-aware than those who use the Merck HR portal. Or maybe the philosophy of Merck's management is to provide more benefits than Pfizer might provide. These sort of subtle difference add up and should impact the IA designed for these respective portals.

Comment: Eric Scheid (Feb 19, 2003)

related discussion at the IAwiki...


Comment: Eric Scheid (Feb 19, 2003)

related discussion at the IAwiki...


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