Misconceptions – Redesigns and Information Architecture

In the world of web site management and development, the term “redesign” may at first seem harmless, but can have far reaching implications as to what will be done to deliver a successful project. I recently worked with a customer who was interested in redesigning various internal and external web sites for their organization. It quickly became apparent by observing their discussion that they were asking for something much broader than an exclusively aesthetic redesign. The word “redesign” is often generically used to refer to an updated look of a public web site, intranet or extranet. Unfortunately the expression “redesign” can be misleading about the actual work that will be needed to deliver a finished project and should alert anyone involved in the project that a much deeper understanding of the project needs much be gathered. This dangerous vagueness can been seen as the equivalent of someone telling you that you must pack for a trip, without knowing anything about the duration or destination.

Most major update efforts to a web site generally involve substantial work around “information architecture” that is combined with a visual “redesign” to meet the overall project goals. To complicate matters further there is also the possibility that the overall business messaging of one of more portions of the site may change. For the purposes of this discussion, we will only focus on the differences with design and information architecture from an implementation standpoint. This will help us to introduce formal, industry standard terms that will specify what is required to deliver a project.

To explain the various disciplines that go into a “redesign” it helps to think of a visitor’s experience at an art museum. The following aspects of a museum will help to map the analogy to the industry specific terms of User Experience (UX), Information Architecture (IA) and User Interface (UI).

Attributes of an Art Museum

  • Wings – analogous to major, top-level navigation on the site
  • Exhibits – can represent minor navigation that is dependant on what site area a user is in
  • Pieces of Art – content / applications that a user may interact with
  • Visitors – users

User Experience (UX)
The Information Architecture and User Interface disciplines both fall under the umbrella of User Experience (UX). Think of UX as how a museum visitor has perceived, learned and used the museum – or more simply – their overall experience. Visitors may not remember specific exhibits within a museum, but may recall that it was a pleasant experience. Within that pleasant experience there were a series of objective elements created that perception. Those elements are Information Architecture and User Interface.

In the world of corporate web site UX this equates to a site that is at its most fundamental level easily navigable, aesthetically pleasing and allows a user to achieve their goal of their site visit with minimal interference. In order to achieve this a solid information architecture and user interface must exist. When the word “redesign” is used for a project it will almost certainly involve both of these elements.

Information Architecture (IA)
Information Architecture dictates how the various wings of the museum are laid out and where various pieces of art are displayed within the wings. IA helps visitors to arrive at various focal points throughout the museum by way of a logical paths. To create logic paths, many museums lay out their exhibits by geography or time period. This helps visitors to enjoy some level of continuity throughout their visit.

IA helps connect users to content and or applications that they require based on their needs. IA can be simple or complex in relation to the diversity of content and actions that a user will experience during their site visit. IA is by its very nature organic and will change over time to continue to try to meet the needs of an organization’s constituents.

IA is like a blueprint of the museum or an upside down tree diagram that attempts to group exhibits and their contents in some logical manner, helping people easily locate them. Somewhat unlike the physical world, sites can allow visitors to arrive at one particular content item or application from a variety of paths.

User Interface (UI)
As visitors locate their areas of interest within the museum and walk through various exhibits they will constantly interact with singange. Museum signs can come in a variety of styles, are potentially highlighted by lighting and can be placed at a wide variety of places throughout the rooms. Rooms can also be painted different colors and contain many types of molding and flooring. Perhaps some exhibits allow visitors to press levers or buttons to engage audio recordings about various works.

UI allows users to interact with and consume underlying content and applications (art / audio) that are grouped together based on the IA that was addressed in the prior section. The UI sets the visual tone for the site – colors, fonts, positioning of various content and or application on the page. A good UI supports maximizing the value from IA underneath it. A visitor to a museum is going to most likely want to visit a specific set of works and be exposed to reference materials around each one of them. The optimal UI will help the visitor to maneuver and consume this with ease.

To further elaborate on this – leaving our museum analogy for a moment – it helps to think of the variety of MP3 players on the market. The Apple iPod is arguably the premier device on the market for variety of reasons, one of the strongest being its very easy to use UI. The iPod lets music listeners quickly and elegantly access their music.

Closing Thoughts
The next time that someone talks about doing a site “redesign” stop to contemplate what is really being requested. Most often a redesign is not purely aesthetic. As organizations change and grow it is essential that they continue to make their online efforts as effective as possible in supporting their businesses. This means that the User Experience will need to be supported by great Information Architecture and User Interface implementations.

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