Best Practice Information Architecture


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This presentation will examine the purpose and application of information architecture for the so-called ‘next generation’ of information tools, including blogs and wikis. We will introduce ‘needs based’ information architecture, the methodology used for organising and designing information-rich environments in a way that allows people to use them more easily. We will then look at how the best practice principles behind this approach apply equally well to emerging technologies.

Presented at Open Publish 2007, by Patrick Kennedy of Step Two Designs.

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  • Best Practice Information Architecture

    1. 1. Best practice Information Architecture Open Publish, Sydney 2 nd August 2007 Patrick Kennedy, Step Two Designs
    2. 2. A short agenda <ul><li>‘Needs based’ information architecture </li></ul><ul><li>Whatever 2.0 </li></ul><ul><li>(All in roughly 30 minutes!) </li></ul>
    3. 3. An introduction to needs based IA
    4. 4. What is information architecture? <ul><li>A partial definition: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>“ The art and science of organizing and labelling web sites, intranets, online communities and software to support usability and findability” ( </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Structuring content and system so people can find information </li></ul><ul><li>It involves designing: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Navigation </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Labelling </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Taxonomies, thesauri, indexes </li></ul></ul>
    5. 5. Tools and techniques <ul><li>Site maps </li></ul><ul><li>Wireframes </li></ul><ul><li>Card sorting </li></ul><ul><li>Usability testing for validation </li></ul>
    6. 6. But how do you get it right?
    7. 7. [notes] <ul><li>Designing anything based on your own preferences and biases is not the best approach </li></ul><ul><li>Getting it right means understanding the problem at hand as well as knowing your audience </li></ul><ul><li>This goes beyond usability, it’s about delivering useful solutions </li></ul><ul><li>We often don’t fully understand the problem… </li></ul>
    8. 8. For example, we’re given a job to implement a call centre intranet…
    9. 9. [notes] <ul><li>Call centres are fascinating places to practice IA </li></ul><ul><li>We’ve done much of this kind of work </li></ul>
    10. 10. This is actually one of the main sources of information for staff…
    11. 11. [notes] <ul><li>The core information they need is what allows them to handle the call </li></ul><ul><li>Much of the knowledge is already known </li></ul><ul><li>But rapidly changing or crucially important information need to be on hand, such as: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>interest rates </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>stock prices </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Product specifications </li></ul></ul><ul><li>A variety of methods are used for this stuff </li></ul>
    12. 12. … as are these documents, sitting on every desk
    13. 13. [notes] <ul><li>Insurance policies </li></ul><ul><li>Terms and conditions of a loan </li></ul><ul><li>Quite detailed </li></ul><ul><li>Not frequently referred to </li></ul><ul><li>But hold the answers to the really challenging calls </li></ul>
    14. 14. These documents were actually the big problem for staff
    15. 15. [notes] <ul><li>Especially old versions going back in time </li></ul><ul><li>Not usually handled by current system </li></ul><ul><li>May pre-date electronic production </li></ul><ul><li>So perhaps not easily put on the intranet </li></ul><ul><li>And who’s to say that would even be the best solution? </li></ul>
    16. 16. Email was the other big source of pain…
    17. 17. [notes] <ul><li>To compensate for inadequacies in other systems </li></ul><ul><li>Email was used to store notes, memos, revisions, updated versions, tips and knowledge from others </li></ul><ul><li>Email is not well designed to handle this content </li></ul><ul><li>Locked away, not shared or consistently organised </li></ul><ul><li>The thing is, to effectively handle calls, operators need to bring to bear all the information and knowledge </li></ul><ul><li>If they can’t find it, they either can’t help or make up </li></ul>
    18. 18. The key is researching user needs.
    19. 19. [notes] <ul><li>In this case, the issues were not well understood by the organisations management </li></ul><ul><li>The stated problem was that the intranet needed to be redesigned </li></ul><ul><li>Didn’t know </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Information was hard to find </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Staff weren’t happy </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Our research uncovered the underlying issues and allowed the problem to be better defined </li></ul><ul><li>So what process was used? </li></ul>
    20. 20. Needs analysis
    21. 21. What is needs analysis? <ul><li>Researching what users really need </li></ul><ul><li>Stop, look and listen </li></ul><ul><li>Talking to your colleagues! </li></ul><ul><li>A holistic approach </li></ul><ul><li>Taking the broader context into account </li></ul><ul><li>Thinking outside the box </li></ul><ul><li>Asking a ‘bigger’ question </li></ul><ul><li>AKA: design research, user research, ethnography </li></ul>
    22. 22. Typical IA methodology
    23. 23. Needs based IA methodology
    24. 24. [notes] <ul><li>So a typical project might look like this </li></ul><ul><li>But what we’ve found is that doing some work before this produces better results </li></ul><ul><li>So the needs analysis can inform the strategy and user research </li></ul>
    25. 25. Key principles
    26. 26. Is the identified problem the symptom or the cause?
    27. 27. [notes] <ul><li>For example, in the call centre scenario from earlier, the stated problem was the intranet needed to be redesigned </li></ul><ul><li>But this was a symptom not the cause </li></ul>
    28. 28. Our methodologies often assume that organisations work like this…
    29. 29. … whereas they are much more like this in reality
    30. 30. Needs analysis is ethnographic, focusing on activities and environments
    31. 31. [notes] <ul><li>It involves people </li></ul><ul><li>People will be using the solution you design, so they need to be included in defining the problem </li></ul><ul><li>As well as assessing potential solutions </li></ul>
    32. 32. You can’t deliver effective solutions to people you haven’t personally met
    33. 33. [notes] <ul><li>Compiling a huge requirements specification is not enough </li></ul><ul><li>If you haven’t met with and talked to people who are at the heart of the problem and whom will use the solution you deliver </li></ul>
    34. 34. There are no shortage of problems to be solved…
    35. 35. [notes] <ul><li>What often happens is people attempt to “boil the ocean” </li></ul><ul><li>This can be a major problem, as projects become so big and resource-intensive that nothing ever gets delivered </li></ul><ul><li>A good example is the redesign of large websites </li></ul><ul><li>It’s better to focus on small but effective solutions, the cumulative effect is a much improved situation for users of the system </li></ul>
    36. 36. … but the real challenge is knowing where to start
    37. 37. [notes] <ul><li>The answer is you start with needs analysis </li></ul>
    38. 38. How to do needs analysis
    39. 39. In the trenches, you will learn many things…
    40. 40. What you will learn <ul><li>Goals – what are they trying to achieve? </li></ul><ul><li>Behaviours – how do they go about it? </li></ul><ul><li>Attitudes – what do they think and how do they react? </li></ul><ul><li>Tasks – what is it they need to get done? </li></ul><ul><li>Official and unofficial processes </li></ul><ul><li>Unmet needs – potential goals for your solution </li></ul><ul><li>Relationships – how are they affected by others? </li></ul><ul><li>Corporate culture – what is the norm? </li></ul><ul><li>Environment – in what context will they use your solution? </li></ul>
    41. 41. … but not everything will be directly relevant
    42. 42. [notes] <ul><li>Not everything will be relevant to a project </li></ul><ul><li>Don’t worry ! </li></ul><ul><li>All goes towards a better understanding of the people involved </li></ul><ul><li>The context in which they use a system can be vitally important, if not translated into a design </li></ul>
    43. 43. Some needs analysis tips and tricks
    44. 44. Technique <ul><li>Employ ethnographic methods </li></ul><ul><li>Use one-on-one interviews as a basis </li></ul><ul><li>Plain old observation can be very enlightening </li></ul><ul><li>Personas can be useful in illustrating your users </li></ul><ul><li>Make use of narrative to elicit real-life scenarios </li></ul><ul><li>Capture quotes and sound-bites </li></ul><ul><li>Use a ‘blended’ approach </li></ul><ul><li>Get richer: ride-along, interrupt observation </li></ul>
    45. 45. Things to avoid <ul><li>‘Design by committee’ – don’t ask what they want </li></ul><ul><li>They aren’t designers, but you are </li></ul><ul><li>Don’t focus on technology or the ‘product’ </li></ul><ul><li>Focus on actual end-users, not intermediaries </li></ul><ul><li>Keep it positive – avoid ‘whinge sessions’ </li></ul>
    46. 46. Related techniques <ul><li>Card sorting </li></ul><ul><li>Usability testing </li></ul><ul><li>Log analysis, statistics </li></ul><ul><li>Time and motion studies </li></ul><ul><li>Role playing </li></ul>
    47. 47. What about…? <ul><li>Questionnaires </li></ul><ul><li>Surveys </li></ul><ul><li>Focus groups </li></ul><ul><li>Market research </li></ul><ul><li>Time and motion studies </li></ul><ul><li>Cultural probes </li></ul><ul><li>They’re all related and do tend to overlap </li></ul><ul><li>Use whatever combination works best for you </li></ul>
    48. 48. How much research? <ul><li>As with usability testing, ethnographic research tends to obey the law of diminishing returns </li></ul><ul><li>We’re not after all the issues, just the key issues </li></ul><ul><li>A good rule of thumb is 15 people per audience segment </li></ul><ul><li>We typically do 5 days of interviews, some contextual inquiry, plus data analysis </li></ul>
    49. 49. How much research? <ul><li>We’re not trying to get statistically significant data </li></ul><ul><li>We want to learn about people; how they do their job, how they get things done, how they use the product in question </li></ul><ul><li>Use successive layers of research for big projects </li></ul><ul><li>Go into more detail with each round of research </li></ul><ul><li>But, more research equals more analysis ! </li></ul>
    50. 50. Cross pollinate skills between disciplines
    51. 51. Cross pollination of skills <ul><li>“Two heads are better than one” </li></ul><ul><li>Learn from each other, collaborate </li></ul><ul><li>Multidisciplinary teams work better </li></ul><ul><li>Expertise might be found where you least expect it (similar to the ‘long tail’ effect) </li></ul><ul><li>Mentoring or a partnership may be effective </li></ul>
    52. 52. Whatever 2.0
    53. 53. The bells and whistles of Web 2.0
    54. 54. A very short blurb on Web 2.0 <ul><li>Web 2.0 is the latest round of innovation on the internet </li></ul><ul><li>This is fundamentally changing the nature of how the web works </li></ul><ul><li>From publishing content to the ‘read-write web’ </li></ul><ul><li>Ajax provides a framework for interaction </li></ul><ul><li>Web services and API form the basis for ‘small pieces loosely joined’, mash-ups </li></ul><ul><li>A lot of activity, a lot of money being invested </li></ul>
    55. 55. There seem to be two types of 2.0; there’s the ‘social web’ phenomenon…
    56. 56. The ‘social web’ <ul><li>Blogs </li></ul><ul><li>Wikis </li></ul><ul><li>Photo sharing </li></ul><ul><li>Social bookmarking </li></ul><ul><li>Folksonomies </li></ul>
    57. 57. … and the Rich Internet Application (RIA)
    58. 58. The ‘Rich Internet Applications’ <ul><li>Flash and Ajax powered </li></ul><ul><li>Real-time (asynchronous) interaction </li></ul><ul><li>Replacing the page model of the web </li></ul><ul><li>Can hide some rough edges from users </li></ul><ul><li>And of course, you can combine social web and RIA </li></ul>
    59. 59. Exemplars <ul><li>Flickr </li></ul><ul><li> </li></ul><ul><li>Google Maps (and the rest of Google) </li></ul><ul><li>37 signals </li></ul>
    60. 60. What about this new breed of business tools?
    61. 61. A very short blurb on Enterprise 2.0 <ul><li>Enterprise 2.0 is about bringing the spirit of Web 2.0 to the corporate space </li></ul><ul><li>The same technologies can be used to create radically new ways of working and collaborating </li></ul><ul><li>Staff will be finally given the opportunity to directly contribute, rather than being just passive consumers </li></ul><ul><li>Lots of exciting technologies: wikis, blogs, folksonomies (tag clouds), mash-ups, portals </li></ul><ul><li>‘ Software as a service’ is also a key element </li></ul>
    62. 62. Exemplars <ul><li>3,000 internal blogs at IBM </li></ul><ul><li>Dogear at IBM </li></ul><ul><li>Peers at AvenueA|Razorfish </li></ul><ul><li>Corporate wiki and blogging software </li></ul>
    63. 63. The danger with Whatever 2.0 <ul><li>Much experimentation is going on </li></ul><ul><li>Some real benefits are being delivered </li></ul><ul><li>The social web typically follows fads </li></ul><ul><li>Most RIA focus on superficial interface changes </li></ul><ul><li>Many gimmicks being added “because we can” </li></ul><ul><li>Are we returning to the bad old days ? </li></ul><ul><li>Agile methodologies multiply the problem </li></ul><ul><li>Constant state of beta may make us more reactive </li></ul><ul><li>It’s difficult to tell if true needs are being met </li></ul>
    64. 64. As featured in Bit Literacy by Mark Hurst
    65. 65. <ul><li>A simple yet effective to-do list application </li></ul><ul><li>Crafted around well researched user needs </li></ul><ul><li>Only those features that are useful have been built </li></ul><ul><li>Very clean and simple use of web 2.0 </li></ul>
    66. 66. Caltex HR Service Centre
    67. 67. Caltex HR Service Centre <ul><li>From Cairo Walker’s case study this morning </li></ul><ul><li>Goal: how to provide current payroll officers with the tools to answer a broad range of HR queries? </li></ul><ul><li>Extensive needs analysis was undertaken </li></ul><ul><li>HRSC staff, other HR team members, general staff </li></ul><ul><li>How did they go about doing their jobs? What did they do? What information did they use to do it? Where was it meant to be? Where did they really get it from? </li></ul>
    68. 68. Caltex: starting position <ul><li>>58,000 documents stored in >6,200 folders </li></ul><ul><li>Duplicate copies, inconsistency, incorrect decisions and advice </li></ul><ul><li>Staff don’t know where to find information… even the experts don’t know where to look </li></ul><ul><li>Intranet, central content management, Dreamweaver </li></ul>
    69. 69. Caltex: the cunning plan <ul><li>Everyone contributes, a ‘wiki’ approach is defined </li></ul><ul><li>Appoint knowledge custodians for all HRSC supported business processes (knowledge clusters are owned) </li></ul><ul><li>Knowledge custodians work with the business owner to ensure clusters are 100% correct </li></ul>
    70. 70. Courtesy:
    71. 71. LinkedIn Answers <ul><li>A way for the community of LinkedIn users to ask questions and receive answers and feedback </li></ul><ul><li>Great concept as it fosters user collaboration </li></ul><ul><li>However, it’s misused , principally because they were no business rules put in place at the outset for the community to ‘limit’ or ‘govern’ the types of questions asked </li></ul><ul><li>The result? As opposed to the feature becoming a fascinating knowledge base and platform that benefits from the inherent internet ‘long tail’ - it has descended into a free-for-all for wannabes hawking their services and offerings at the expense of the original idea </li></ul>
    72. 73. YouTube <ul><li>Wildly popular </li></ul><ul><li>But heavily criticised for user experience </li></ul><ul><li>In particular navigation and browsing </li></ul>
    73. 74. Needs analysis is a universal tool, to be used for any type of project, including Web 2.0
    74. 75. The fundamental principles still apply <ul><li>Find out what your users need and deliver it </li></ul><ul><li>The same techniques apply equally well to Web 2.0 </li></ul><ul><li>Often hear: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>If I add Web 2.0 will it make my site better? </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>If I add Web 2.0 does it make my site bad? </li></ul></ul><ul><li>The right solution is technology agnostic </li></ul><ul><li>“Web 2.0 don’t kill sites, people kill sites” </li></ul>
    75. 76. The wrap-up
    76. 77. Rather than a fairly hit and miss approach…
    77. 78. In summary… <ul><li>Often, people try to create a solution on their own </li></ul><ul><li>‘ Cookie cutter’ solutions won’t work (all the time) </li></ul><ul><li>Heuristics and conventions work for usability </li></ul><ul><li>But not for the useful side of things </li></ul><ul><li>Don’t just take a website that worked for someone else and build your site the same </li></ul>
    78. 79. … good needs analysis allows you to hit the mark
    79. 80. In summary… <ul><li>A more informed decision is a better decision </li></ul><ul><li>One size does not fit all </li></ul><ul><li>There is no one solution for an information-rich site </li></ul><ul><li>Needs analysis is vital for effective design </li></ul><ul><li>Find out what will work for ‘you and yours’ </li></ul><ul><li>Talk to people and come to terms with the whole problem space </li></ul><ul><li>Needs based IA applies equally well to new tech </li></ul>
    80. 81. Yes I know it’s past 5:00pm :-)
    81. 82. IA and UCD at Open Publish 2007 <ul><li>Understanding the user experience Russ Weakley – 11:15 tomorrow (Track A) </li></ul><ul><li>Information Architecture Ash Donaldson – 12:00 tomorrow (Track A) </li></ul>
    82. 83. Web 2.0 at Open Publish 2007 <ul><li>Enterprise 2.0 in practice Cairo Walker – 11:15 this morning (Track A) </li></ul><ul><li>Knowledge Management and Web 2.0 Matthew Moore – 10:15 tomorrow (Track A) </li></ul><ul><li>Web 2.0 the next generation platform Bahram Boutorabi – 10:15 tomorrow (Track B) </li></ul><ul><li>Marketing and Web 2.0 Cheryl Lead – 15:00 tomorrow (Track A) </li></ul>
    83. 84. Further reading (1 of 3) <ul><li>Information Architecture for the World Wide Web Louis Rosenfeld & Peter Morville ISBN: 0596000359 </li></ul><ul><li>The Field Study Handbook Kate Gomoll, Ellen Story Church & Eric Bond (Available from </li></ul><ul><li>Observing The User Experience Mike Kuniavsky ISBN: 1558609237 </li></ul>
    84. 85. Further reading (2 of 3) <ul><li>The User Is Always Right Steve Mulder & Ziv Yaar ISBN: 0321434536 </li></ul><ul><li>Don’t Make Me Think Steve Krug ISBN: 0789723107 </li></ul><ul><li>Information Anxiety 2 Richard Saul Wurman, David Sume, Loring Leifer ISBN: 0789724103 </li></ul>
    85. 86. Further reading (3 of 3) <ul><li>Boxes and Arrows </li></ul><ul><li>User Interface Engineering (UIE) </li></ul><ul><li>Information architecture wiki </li></ul><ul><li>Step Two Designs </li></ul>
    86. 87. Questions? <ul><li>Your feedback is most welcome </li></ul><ul><li>Patrick Kennedy [email_address] </li></ul><ul><li>Blog: </li></ul><ul><li>Website: </li></ul>
    87. 88. So why are they so unpopular?