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Jan 15, 2003: Questions Information Architects Ask (London, 11/02)

As promised, here are the burning questions about IA that our seminar attendees had at Nielsen Norman's London conference in November 2002. The NYC questions, also from November, were posted last week.

Content-related questions

  • Are Content Management Systems relevant for all sites? Even if implemented well, do they always give positive ROI? (I hate the CMS I have to implement. The user interfaces is slow and publishing is cumbersome, as is site management.)
  • How important are contextual links? How many users use them?
  • Would it be wise to rate the content item by capturing "usefulness" on a scale of 1-6 where 3 is neutral and then presenting these first in the UI display? (if article "A" is more useful that "B" then display "A" before "B")
  • What is a good way to deal with acronyms or abbreviations within an organization when they are well known for only 50% of the staff? If you label them it won't make sense for the people who are familiar with them.
  • What is the main difference between IA for content based and application based websites?
  • Is it desirable to sort content into multiple categories-for example "spring roll" into "appetizers" and "Chinese cuisine"?
  • How much is too much content and navigation? Is there such a thing as too much navigation?
  • How do you deal with historical breaks in your IA-how do you deal with major changes in your IA? Should we avoid it if possible?
  • Is it a good idea to include sibling sites in IA/navigation? Is there a recommended way to do this or will I just confuse users?
  • When you have a good hierarchical structure, does cross-linking between the lower levels confuse the user?
  • How can I link Lotus Notes navigation and structure with Intranet navigation?
  • Categorizing and searching different kinds of documents (PDF, text, Word, video, audio): is there any fast and easy to use solution? It takes a long time with a categorization process.
  • How do you treat explicit vs. tacit information?

User-related questions

  • How useful is it to offer alternative ways of finding content (navigation, search, hot links)? Should users learn our navigation or should we give them what they already know?
  • What are the trends seen for designing multilingual content?
  • Do you have any special notes on designing content for portals?
  • Please comment on the challenge of multi-lingual sites and searches for IA.
  • You have spoken about focusing on the key user groups. I work in local government and all users are equally important. A minority of users are one of our priority groups for accessing, as they might find it difficult to access info. How do we ensure all users have access? How do we focus our efforts?
  • Methods to find use information needs.

Context-related questions

  • ROI-how can it be measured?
  • If you develop sites in a niche sector is it a good idea or even possible to develop a "template" IA?
  • Where a site needs to have localized versions, is there a need to change the IA? Is consistency better?
  • For an intranet site within a large organization it can be difficult to set the full scope of the IA from the beginning. It may grow over time in an unbalanced way. What strategies can be applied here?
  • How can your business model influence your IA strategy?
  • How do you present a cohesive website when its content originates from an organization with several disparate cultures-inconsistent, non-standardized content but one single organization?
  • I have a very senior IA "terrorist." Compromise is not acceptable to them. Surrender to their wishes creates a precedent for others to follow. What do I do to protect the integrity of the current IA?
  • How to manage "control" of departmental intranet within one corporate intranet.
  • If the best design is invisible, how do I sell an IA design to my client?
  • What do I do about too many "owners" (sales team, marketing, etc) in the front page?
  • Too many users clam they know what they want about IA and challenge the team's findings.
  • Does the BBC actually have an IA department operating across the entire organization? If not, should there be one?
  • What tangibles can be shown to management to encourage investment in good IA?
  • If one IA person works full-time to architect a site, how much of that person's time will be spent on subsequent site maintenance?
  • We have a corporate intranet with lots of applications and text and we have over 100 local intranets also with lots of applications and text. How do we organize/structure/label all this on the one corporate intranet so that the user can access their apps./text with as few clicks as possible? (The technical platform allows for some customizations, approx 25,000 users, approx 150 countries, approx 450 locations/offices, 10-20 corporate service centers-only one headquarters, 7-15 profit centers with their won departments/sections, profit centers are not interested in a corporate-shared-intranet.)
  • Should there be site wide navigation on every page?
  • Can you present some arguments to persuade my manager that IA is fundamental to website/business success (with evidence, please!)

Methodology-related questions

  • Do you find it useful to do card sorting internally (with decision makers, marketing types, etc.) as well as with users if only to show them they may be thinking wrong?
  • What methods can be used to bring a top-down and a bottom-up approach to IA together?
  • How can you bring structure and unstructured content together into a single model?
  • During the interesting phase (card sorting, task analyses, interviews) how many users will you test to ensure that you get useable results?
  • What are the benefits of designing a site using only task based navigation? Do you need to support both task-based and browsing users?
  • Can IA methodologies be transferred to the organization of IVR systems?
  • What percent is art and what percent is science in IA?
  • Where and when in the process do you feel the "creative concept" should come?
  • When you do the bottom-up process, at which level in the organization do you interview people?
  • [writer includes a list of IA topics to comment on]: IA research methods, empirical studies, classification/clustering of information structuring, measure of interrather reliability, multidimensional scaling/factor analysis, LCJ scaling/cluster analysis, deciding amount of categories before deciding percentage, dimension importance, power analysis.
  • What would be the steps of defining IA for new intranet for a smaller organization (max 500 users)? What can you simplify, which methodologies would you use?
  • How do you defy labels-names on "cards" in card sorting tech?

Questions about IA and other fields/practices

  • Where does editorial expertise/authority/decision fit in? How does the IA work with content editor/writers/journalists? Should IA learn these skills?
  • What is the difference between: Usability, IA and Common Sense?
  • How does IA relate to journalism? Editorial teams tend to have their own ways of structuring information. How do you deal with that?
  • What can IA teach me that UI/usability can't?
  • What is the impact of XML on IA?
  • What is the difference between IA and content management?
  • What are the organizational dimensions of IA (what is the information architect's profile, how many are needed, etc)?
  • What are the main issues faced by organizations (especially large messy ones) in the IA space?
  • What are the analogies between IA and traditional building architecture?
  • A common criticism of "usable" sites is that they all look the same. A designer friend declared yesterday that IA's all want sites to look like Yahoo. Many of the good sites do appear to look quite similar. How can IA's reconcile good architecture with attractive design without the designers quitting out of sheer boredom?
  • How much does/should IA consider the Brand-not visual but what the brad stands for. For example: BBC vs. Virgin Radio, Harrods vs. Top Shop, Barclaycard vs. Egg.
  • Do you have any best-known methods for architecting university web sites?
  • How should the architecture of sub-page navigation best relate to navigation on the homepage (designing deep navigation)?
  • I am a developer and IA and partial designer, so I have lots to do and everyone wants the site yesterday-how can I best encourage the organization to allow for IA and the delay it puts on development?
  • In your experience, would you share any strategies that will help manage the drive of other (non-IT) departments to control/manage/deliver the whole IA process?

Questions on interface and visual design

  • How can color be used effectively to help IA?
  • Are users more likely to look at top navigation or left?
  • Where is the best place for the navigation bar/menu? How many?
  • Do you think there should be a maximum number of links that appear on each page (including navigation)? If so, how many?

Questions on other fields and media

  • How to integrate IA in a software development project?
  • Three big arguments to sell IA to Managing Directors and Software Engineering
  • The big steps to introduce IA in an intranet project in a 16,000 person bank. The project will start soon.
  • How to show to a communication manager that the intranet is not only about communication but about productivity as well.
  • How can the integration of the website IA be adapted to the mobile (cell phone, PDA, pocket PC) to optimize the system/front end logic?
  • How do you see IA affecting interactive television as a discipline? Does it have vastly different issues from online?
  • What do you think of the IA of interactive television at the moment?

Unclassified questions

  • Can you give us a few websites that are really good examples of successful IA?
  • Is it possible to get the material in Electronic form?
  • What magazines/newsletters would you recommend for IA professionals?
  • What will change IA in the next five years?

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Comment: Andrew (Jan 16, 2003)

Here's a question: has anyone worked on an IA that they think was implemented well, with genuine positive benefits for users and the business?

These questions read like a litany of failure and insecurity. What's the best place for navigation? How can color be used effectively to help IA? What percent is art and what percent science? Come on, either have an opinion or figure out who you can work with to form one.

Comment: Lou (Jan 16, 2003)

Well, keep in mind that these were mostly fairly new IAs coming to an intro seminar. And we asked about challenges, not what had gone well.

But heck, many of these issues are unknowns even for experienced IAs. It'd be nice to have answers and opinions for all of them, but given the newness of the field, that might be optimistic...

Comment: Paul Nattress (Jan 20, 2003)

Lots of questions but very few answers... so here's a few answers to some of the questions above, based on my own experience and opinion. Hope you all find them useful:

Content-related questions
* What is a good way to deal with acronyms or abbreviations within an organization when they are well known for only 50% of the staff? If you label them it won't make sense for the people who are familiar with them. PN – Take a look at how evolt.org uses the abbrev tag to provide a contextual explanation of the acronym/abbreviation when the user hovers over it. This would work in body text but doesn’t help if the abbreviation is part of the navigation. A glossary may be useful for this case but make sure the users know that it’s there.

* Is it desirable to sort content into multiple categories-for example "spring roll" into "appetizers" and "Chinese cuisine"? PN – if users perceive the content to be part of more than one category, or if different users have different ideas of what categories they should go under then yes. As an alternative, place an entry under “appetizers” for spring rolls that says “see also: Chines cuisine”.

User-related questions

* How useful is it to offer alternative ways of finding content (navigation, search, hot links)? Should users learn our navigation or should we give them what they already know? PN – Give them the choice of your navigation (which should be designed with established guidelines anyway) and a search at least.

Context-related questions

* Where a site needs to have localized versions, is there a need to change the IA? Is consistency better? PN - If users commonly switch between two or more localised versions then consistency is desirable and recommended. However, if one site is for the UK and another for Bolivia and the chances of a UK user wanting to use the Bolivian site is slim to none then it makes sense to use the most appropriate IA for each localisation.
 If the best design is invisible, how do I sell an IA design to my client? PN – Bad design is VERY visible. Use this to your advantage, ask them to go through the design and do a critique. If they find it hard to pick out any faults, then the design is good.

* If one IA person works full-time to architect a site, how much of that person's time will be spent on subsequent site maintenance? PN – In my personal experience, around 90% but that will vary from team to team. I imagine that in-house IAs spend a lot more time on maintenance. See http://www.boxesandarrows.com/archives/tackling_maintenance_projects.php

* Should there be site wide navigation on every page? PN – This obviously differs from site to site but my personal opinion is yes.

Questions about IA and other fields/practices

* Where does editorial expertise/authority/decision fit in? How does the IA work with content editor/writers/journalists? Should IA learn these skills? PN – Speaking as a Content Editor and ex-IA I’d say yes! But I’m biased…

* What is the difference between: Usability, IA and Common Sense? PN – Ha! I love this question and I really want to say “nothing” but I feel this is very open to debate!

* A common criticism of "usable" sites is that they all look the same. A designer friend declared yesterday that IA's all want sites to look like Yahoo. Many of the good sites do appear to look quite similar. How can IA's reconcile good architecture with attractive design without the designers quitting out of sheer boredom? PN – For a start, get the designers to be creative within the confines of the architecture. If they can’t design when a challenge faces them then they can’t design at all. I studied graphic design for five years and wouldn’t flinch at the thought of designing within a constrictive architecture. I find that most designers who take this view can’t be bothered to read up about IA/usability and merely reiterate what they read about in the design press.

Unclassified questions

* What magazines/newsletters would you recommend for IA professionals? PN – http://www.boxesandarrows.com, http://www.eleganthack.com and go from there. Look at the sites belonging to the authors on B&A and look at Christina’s links on EH.

I'd love to see some more answers on here...

Comment: Paul Nattress (Jan 20, 2003)

sorry - messed up the B&A link:

http://www.boxesandarrows.com/

Comment: Andrew (Jan 22, 2003)

First, let me apologize for that little rant at the top of these comments. Bad day for me. Sorry. Probably out of line.

Here's something constructive instead: in response to the criticism that all IAs want everything to look like Yahoo or Ebay or Amazon, I usually respond by saying that the design of those sites fits perfectly with their brands. It's a little hard to argue with site design that seems to contribute to the sucess of those companies, it doesn't mean it should be carbon-copied.

Ebay in particular is an amazingly well-designed site *from a graphic design point of view*, because it carries out the Ebay brand so thoroughly through the site, and even through print ads they do. (BTW, eBay is the first place I've heard that does usability testing on print ads, is that common?)

If your brand is just like eBay's, then sure, I'd expect your site would have a lot in common with eBay's. Luckily, brands are different, and that means that visual and interaction design needs to be too.

Comment: Lou (Jan 22, 2003)

Amen Andrew.

Paul, you're amazing. Feel free to keep on contributing answers. :-)

Comment: Paul Nattress (Jan 24, 2003)

Thanks!

What we need however, is a forum where we can ask each other these questions and see what answers are brought forward. Through this, we can develop and share IA best practice.

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