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Feb 20, 2007: The No-Knead Approach to Information Architecture (#2 of 5)

Remember that no-knead bread I was working on a couple blog posts ago? Here's the finished product:

photo of Lou's first no-knead bread

Not bad for a first effort. Tasted damned good too. Bread machine, get thee to a basement.

Speaking of banning things, we're ready for the first step of no-knead IA...

Step #1: Ban the word "redesign" from your meetings. Redesign is a really, really dirty word, and your design discussions—and outcomes—will be far more successful if you avoid it. Here's why:

  • Most of your content is stale and useless. Yet redesigns often to try to touch all content, when most of that content is better left alone or eliminated all together. Why spend all that effort on crappy content rather than focusing on just the best stuff?
  • Redesigns apply software design thinking (versioning, for example) to something that is not a discrete, perfectible application. I'm not taking a shot at software development—it's just that a web site is more environment than tool. You don't just design it and then step away; it's a living, breathing entity. There are too many moving parts among your users, content, and context to lock the thing down long enough to make substantive changes.
  • Redesigns create false expectations among both decision-makers and key audiences that the new site will serve all of those audiences. Impossible in the context of large organizations, and even most small ones. You can please all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but...
  • Redesigns are often performed by outside agencies or consultants who come in with a large mandate, fail, and fall back to making simple, cosmetic adjustments. Then they leave. A year or two later, the process is repeated at great expense after the redesigned site has spun out of control yet again. The only thing predictable here is entropy. Why not acknowledge this and focus on continual tweaks and adjustments that respond to changing conditions, rather than seeking the unattainable paradise of perfection?
  • Large organizations repeat their mistaken redesign thinking because they their tendency toward short-term decision-making eliminates the opportunity to acquire and bake in longer-term institutional knowledge (see also: US House of Representatives). This knowledge is required not only to continually improve the site's design, but to build up internal resources, governance abilities, funding, and other critical infrastructure needed to manage its information. Really, the problem isn't so much redesigns as the short-term thinking that produces them.

I'm sure there are other reasons that redesigns are a recipe for failure. (Feel free to pile on more below.) So my advice is kneadlessly (sorry) simple: have a conversation about your site's future development without using the term. Use alternative forms of leavening (sorry again), like "improve," "tweak," "focus", and "refine". You'll be surprised at the difference it makes.

Next up is Step #2: Determine who your most important audiences are.

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Comment: Andrew (Feb 20, 2007)

Was that the New York Times' no-knead bread? I made it for the first time recently, too. Came out really very very fine. The trick is timing something that you start 20 hours before your meal...

Comment: Lou (Feb 20, 2007)

Yes, the one and the same. But we've done it many times now, and you can get away with 12 hours.

Comment: Eduardo Ortiz (Feb 21, 2007)

While I agree with the 'redesign' stigma - it is not always driven by the proposing party, sometimes your client and decision-makers place that name burden on the project itself.

While making no-knead bread might be a 'straight forward' process, not all breads have the same approach, yet the same base for it being create. Consumption.

*And now to go find the recipe and make some no-knead bread!

Comment: lois (Feb 25, 2007)

I'm involved in a large site "redesign," actually an integration of dozens of poorly designed sites [the design design and the info design]. I'm dealing with building up "internal resources, governance abilities, funding, and other critical infrastructure needed to manage its information." I'm hoping we can eliminate lots of crap, make it all more professional, and follow some common basic reasoning [such as user-centered design, identifying and meeting the main tasks of site visitors]. So wha would you call my project? When I don't call it a redesign, I've been calling it an octopus. What do you think?

Comment: Lou (Feb 26, 2007)

I realize that the term is often suggested by clients. But I think it's our responsibility to pause and get our clients to step back and examine what they mean by "redesign," and what it really is they intend to accomplish. (BTW, I've done this and lots of light bulbs go off.)

Lois, I actually like "octopus" a lot! How about calling it "web site professionalization"? After all, isn't that what you're trying to do? And once something is professionalized, it can't regress and "unprofessionalize" (as redesigns might regress).

Comment: Paula Thornton (Mar 9, 2007)

I like to liberally refer to this one piece of Jared's (have handed it to more than one technology officer): "The Quiet Death of the Major Relaunch" [http://www.uie.com/events/uiconf/2006/articles/death_of_relaunch/]

Sadly, I've had to cry 'malpractice' (and took flack for it) when watching as a marketing-based design firm was redesigning a perfectly good Fortune 500 site, which clearly needed new strategic thinking, but not a total redesign. There are clearly a LOT of misguided executives out there waiting to be lead by the nose by anyone with the most compelling story (or who just happen to show up at the right time).

We've got a lot of work to do...

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