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Apr 04, 2007: The No-Knead Approach to Information Architecture (#3 of 5)

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Step #2: Determine who your most important audiences are. Many organizations—academic institutions, for example—already have an excellent grasp of who their primary audiences are, but you'd be surprised at how many don't. Ask yourself right now: do you know who they are?

It's unlikely that there are more than five that you should concern yourself with. And it's unlikely that they map to your org chart. If you're grappling with audience determination, you might consider segments that apply to your entire organization, rather than mapping to your content silos. For intranets, these might be functional roles that occur in all departments. For commerce sites, consider segmenting users by where they are in the customer lifecycle (e.g., leads, prospects, customers), rather than tying segments to specific product groups. This approach could create new opportunities to cross-sell products.

Of course, the issue of audience importance begs a follow-up question: what do we mean by "important"? After all, your importance isn't necessarily a function of size. As much as a college administrator might deny it, he'll see a few dozen major donors as equally important—if not moreso—than hordes of undergraduates. So how do you define "important"?

This is one of those murky areas where information architecture and management responsibilities blur. Decision-makers might already have clear metrics in place for guiding such decisions. The university administrator, for example, may be more focused on increasing revenue rather than recovering sunk costs. So those donors may really be more important than cost-cutting through eliminating administrative assistants whose time is dedicated to answering the same ten undergraduate questions again and again.

Conversely, the business may not have a good set of metrics and goals in place, complicating the definition of importance. In these situations, information architects and other UX people are playing a greater role in driving this discussion forward. We have no choice here, because we need the answers to do our work. If you find yourself grasping for a sense of who among your users are important, you might start arming yourself with quantitative data derived from analyzing server and search data. Audience definitions, and degrees of segment importance can emerge from basic reviews of popular content and popular search queries. And because you're working from statistical data, you may benefit from the "numbers don't lie effect": arm yourself to the teeth with data, and decision-makers will take you more seriously.

So, to recap:

  • Do you know who your site's primary audiences are?
  • If not, does your business have metrics in place that will help you answer this question?
  • If not, can you start assembling data—and make recommendations—that will help your business's decision-makers answer the question in an informed way?

Next time, we'll tackle the third of the four steps in the No-Knead Approach (and my favorite): Determine each primary audience's 3-5 major needs.

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Comment: Prentiss Riddle (Apr 4, 2007)

[Ooh, good, I get to make another curmudgeonly contrarian response to a Bloug post! :-) ]

Having been specifically in that role, responsible for the IA of a university's top-level web presence, I bristle at the "most important audience" approach.

That approach is rarely carried out in a user-centered fashion because, as you point out, "important" is commonly interpreted in an exploitive way. I've dealt with university administrators who wouldn't even bother to deny that donors are more important than students, and furthermore that *prospective* students are more important than *current* students. Even corporations have started to figure out that their sites should serve customers as well after the sale as before; why is that idea hard for a university to understand?

Focusing on most important audiences is anti-diversity. In keeping with the "universal" aspirations of their name, universities should be champions of the long tail: even if the sole Nobel biologist on the faculty is 1000 times as popular as the up-and-comer in Medieval Studies, it doesn't mean that your IA should make their info 1000 times as accessible.

What's more, in a system as complex and interrelated as a university, segmenting by audience doesn't even buy you much. I once constructed a matrix of content and roles in order to see what we'd gain by creating views that eliminated unnecessary portions of our content for different audiences. I couldn't find enough empty cells in the matrix to justify the cost (either in maintenance or in site complexity) of the segmentation. True, not many prospective students care about (say) travel policies; but is there any segment which is sufficiently uninterested in the broad categories of research, education and student life to want them removed from their view? Nope. (Not until you get into content silos like sports, which most places have spun off into separate .com sites anyway.)

I'm quite aware that I'm swimmming upstream with all of these assertions. By now most university websites reflect their institutional politics in that development, PR and admissions rule the roost. Perhaps the segmentation that should have happened was what a few universities stumbled into early on (although I don't know of any that still do this): a public-facing site which is entirely the domain of the PR folks, and an inward-facing (but still publicly visible) site which serves the actual needs of the university commmunity.

Ironically, if I were a prospective donor or applicant, I can tell you which one I'd rather see.

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