Collaborative Information Architecture


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A case study describing one team's efforts to redesign a large information-rich website with the help of a mentor.

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Collaborative Information Architecture

  1. 1. “ There’s no I in team” A case study in collaborative information architecture OZ-IA, Sydney September 2007 Patrick Kennedy, Step Two Designs
  2. 2. Information architecture can be hard enough, but what if you and your team have no experience?
  3. 3. Collaborative information architecture <ul><li>Information architecture can be hard enough </li></ul><ul><li>But what if… </li></ul><ul><ul><li>you and your team have no experience? </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>that team is new and still bonding? </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>your organisation expects prompt solutions? </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>hiring a team of experts is out of the question? </li></ul></ul><ul><li>What if all of these were the case? </li></ul>
  4. 4. A quick agenda <ul><li>Collaborative information architecture </li></ul><ul><li>Mentoring in a teamwork situation </li></ul><ul><li>Case study for the redesign of a large website </li></ul><ul><li>Some discussion around your experiences </li></ul>
  5. 5. Introducing ESA, a government agency with many departments and a lot of information to share!
  6. 6. The organisation <ul><li>ESA is an Australian Commonwealth government agency that deals with scientific data </li></ul><ul><li>Many divisions or departments, fairly independent </li></ul><ul><li>Coordination is improving but website reflects silos </li></ul><ul><li>They knew there was probably a better way of doing it </li></ul><ul><li>Ownership and responsibility for website are being resolved </li></ul><ul><li>There was no formal team for the website redesign </li></ul><ul><li>They recognised there was little knowledge of the audience </li></ul>
  7. 7. The website reflected ESA, and had grown out of control, and the skills to fix it didn’t exist
  8. 8. The website <ul><li>Large information-rich website </li></ul><ul><ul><li>approximately 20,000 pages </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>many tools and applications </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Been through several design iterations in the past </li></ul><ul><li>The website has grown out of control </li></ul><ul><li>Technical side of website taken care of </li></ul><ul><li>But few skills in UCD and IA </li></ul><ul><li>Major redevelopment initiated, including the IA </li></ul>
  9. 9. The team assembled for the project was newly formed and relatively inexperienced
  10. 10. The team <ul><li>Newly formed </li></ul><ul><li>Little experience in working together </li></ul><ul><li>Staff from different parts of ESA </li></ul><ul><li>Multidisciplinary </li></ul><ul><li>Varying levels of experience in web design and IA </li></ul><ul><li>First coordinated effort at website redesign </li></ul><ul><li>Limited resources available </li></ul><ul><li>Reasonable pressure to complete work quickly </li></ul>
  11. 11. A mentoring arrangement <ul><li>There was a limited budget for project </li></ul><ul><li>Recognition of the need for ongoing development </li></ul><ul><li>Desire to build up skills of team </li></ul><ul><li>Thus hesitation to rely on outsourcing </li></ul><ul><li>But needed to make progress, with best results </li></ul><ul><li>Mentoring was the chosen solution </li></ul>
  12. 12. Project outline
  13. 13. Methodology <ul><li>IA was part of a much larger web project </li></ul><ul><li>Two distinct phases existed: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>research </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>design </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Still a work in progress </li></ul>
  14. 14. User research was a key part of the process…
  15. 15. Research <ul><li>Many different sources of ‘data’ were used </li></ul><ul><li>But there was a focus on direct user research </li></ul><ul><li>Understanding audience needs was our goal: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Who are they? </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>What do they do? </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>How do they interact with ESA? </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>What do they use the website for? </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Interviews were our primary research mechanism and revealed a great deal of information </li></ul>
  16. 16. … and a new audience model was developed
  17. 17. Research activities <ul><li>Activities included: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>stakeholder interviews </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>end-user interviews </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>log analysis </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>audience segmentation </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>follow-up survey </li></ul></ul><ul><li>After a bit of hesitation the ESA team quickly picked up these techniques </li></ul>
  18. 18. Then the design process began in earnest…
  19. 19. Design <ul><li>Focus on findability in the resulting website </li></ul><ul><li>Attempt to handle diverse audience needs </li></ul><ul><li>Activities included: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>content inventory </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>card sorting </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>design sessions </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>usability testing </li></ul></ul><ul><li>The audience model was used to guide the process </li></ul><ul><li>For a novice, this is the hardest bit </li></ul>
  20. 20. Work in progress <ul><li>The project is still ongoing </li></ul><ul><li>Next steps include: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>refinement of IA design </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>visual design </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>electronic prototyping </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>further usability testing </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Then the project moves beyond the IA </li></ul>
  21. 21. Collaboration and mentoring
  22. 22. Collaboration can get messy but is essential for good analysis and design
  23. 23. Collaboration <ul><li>As much as possible was done collaboratively </li></ul><ul><li>Collaboration made use of: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>whiteboards </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>post-it notes </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>flipcharts </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>sheets of paper </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>many emails </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>scribbling and sketching </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Activities were conducted by pairs, small groups, and in some cases the full team </li></ul><ul><li>Where necessary, sub-groups reported back to the whole team to keep everyone informed </li></ul>
  24. 24. Mentoring philosophy <ul><li>The mentoring included… </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Starting with the broad concepts and then narrowing in </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Providing some instruction but quickly putting the team into action, practicing what they had learnt </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Instilling confidence, such that they could do the IA work but also gain traction within the rest of the organisation </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Encouraging discussion amongst team members </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>A gradual shift from training sessions to workshops </li></ul></ul>
  25. 25. Source of inspiration <ul><li>Principles from The Tao of Coaching by Max Landsberg were used to guide mentoring </li></ul><ul><li>For example: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Resist the temptation to tell, instead asking questions to prompt further thought </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Coaching and mentoring are not just beneficial for recipient </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Assessing the skill and will of team members </li></ul></ul>
  26. 26. Training workshops <ul><li>Project and personal goal-setting </li></ul><ul><li>Overall web design process </li></ul><ul><li>Qualitative methods for user research </li></ul><ul><li>Qualitative analysis techniques </li></ul><ul><li>Survey design and implementation </li></ul><ul><li>Audience segmentation and persona development </li></ul><ul><li>Card sorting and usability testing </li></ul>
  27. 27. Teaching aids <ul><li>The team was provided with instructional material </li></ul><ul><li>They were also directed to a few key books: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>The User is Always Right – Steve Mulder </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Don’t Make Me Think – Steve Krug </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Communicating Design – Dan Brown </li></ul></ul><ul><li>The IA methodology was based on their content </li></ul><ul><li>This allowed team to ‘read along’ as they learnt </li></ul><ul><li>And it gave them more ammunition for later </li></ul><ul><li>Additionally, there were a number of blogs and sites </li></ul>
  28. 28. Challenges
  29. 29. Challenges and issues <ul><li>Coordinating a new team </li></ul><ul><li>Inexperienced practitioners </li></ul><ul><li>Wider organisational issues </li></ul><ul><li>Virtual mentoring </li></ul>
  30. 30. Trying to assemble and a coordinate a new team was difficult at times…
  31. 31. Coordinating a new team <ul><li>The team had little experience in working together </li></ul><ul><li>Multidisciplinary team brought together from all over ESA </li></ul><ul><li>Much time spent discussing and clarifying, beneficial within collaborative design projects </li></ul><ul><li>It took time to bed the team down and begin working effectively </li></ul><ul><li>Few team members were on the project 100%, struggle for time </li></ul><ul><li>Team members came and went, reducing continuity and momentum </li></ul><ul><li>Attempts were made to record discussions to share with absentees </li></ul><ul><li>Eventually, the team was whittled down to a core group of keen individuals </li></ul>
  32. 32. … especially with inexperienced practitioners trying to find their way…
  33. 33. Inexperienced practitioners <ul><li>Team members had little or no experience in IA and UCD </li></ul><ul><li>Understanding a large and diverse audience is not easy </li></ul><ul><li>And the organisation has little experience in this area </li></ul><ul><li>There is little coordination of the collective knowledge regarding their clients </li></ul><ul><li>Similarly, designing a large and complex website is not trivial </li></ul><ul><li>Hence the last few ‘failed’ attempts to redesign the website </li></ul><ul><li>Thus, the time taken for the project surpassed expectations </li></ul>
  34. 34. … and wider organisational issues put more pressure on the team…
  35. 35. Wider organisational issues <ul><li>There was pressure from other parts of ESA </li></ul><ul><li>Keeping to the larger project plan proved difficult </li></ul><ul><li>This highlighted the unrealistic expectations of time required </li></ul><ul><li>Was also a tendency to bite off more than they could chew </li></ul><ul><li>Neither of these are uncommon situations </li></ul><ul><li>Additionally the team needed to be able to explain themselves </li></ul><ul><li>Part of the solution was instilling confidence in the team </li></ul><ul><li>Another aspect was providing them with useful deliverables (eg creating different documentation for different circumstances; conceptual wireframe for management vs high-detail wireframe for implementation) </li></ul>
  36. 36. … and adding to the pressure was the fact that the mentor was inter-state
  37. 37. Virtual mentoring <ul><li>Limited face-to-face contact between mentor and team </li></ul><ul><li>ESA is located in Canberra and Step Two Designs in Sydney </li></ul><ul><li>Trips were reserved for training sessions and workshops </li></ul><ul><li>Additional discussion made use of phone and email </li></ul><ul><li>Less than ideal, ultimately it proved successful </li></ul><ul><li>ESA team were all geographically close </li></ul>
  38. 38. Benefits and limitations
  39. 39. Benefits and limitations <ul><li>User-centred design </li></ul><ul><li>Collaborative teamwork </li></ul><ul><li>Mentoring </li></ul>
  40. 40. User-centred design will improve the website, making it more useful to the audience…
  41. 41. User-centred design <ul><li>A clear understanding of who will be using the website allows it to be designed more effectively </li></ul><ul><li>Few people argued with taking a UCD approach </li></ul><ul><li>In addition to improving the website, this work is likely to increase the level of knowledge about clients throughout ESA </li></ul><ul><li>Personas have already been earmarked for use beyond web design, communicating ESA’s audience and their goals etc </li></ul><ul><li>But UCD does take more time up front than ‘expert design’ </li></ul>
  42. 42. … and working as a team is much better than working on your own…
  43. 43. Collaborative teamwork <ul><li>“Two heads are better than one” </li></ul><ul><li>Intellectual teamwork compensates for the limitations and biases of any one individual </li></ul><ul><li>Better discussions result and the design is improved </li></ul><ul><li>‘Vigorous’ and circular discussions seem counterproductive but contribute to the problem solving by helping participants develop their ideas </li></ul><ul><li>The team forged bonds across departmental boundaries </li></ul><ul><li>But collaboration also takes longer than working solo </li></ul>
  44. 44. … particularly when you have someone to turn to for assistance
  45. 45. Mentoring <ul><li>Mentoring builds the skills of the team whilst allowing progress </li></ul><ul><li>Practical skills and team confidence are developed earlier than </li></ul><ul><li>Contractors and consultants are expensive and leave the team without the skills to maintain and further develop the website </li></ul><ul><li>Trying to ‘learn then do’ takes much longer and risks quality </li></ul><ul><li>But mentoring requires a good relationship to form </li></ul><ul><li>And it is up to the mentorees to do the bulk of the work, seen as a risk by other parts of the organisation </li></ul><ul><li>Additionally, mentoring requires mentor availability </li></ul>
  46. 46. Conclusion
  47. 47. Conclusions <ul><li>A new team can successfully collaborate on complex design activities in which they have little expertise, with the help of a mentor </li></ul><ul><li>Collaboration results in better thinking and better design </li></ul><ul><li>Organisational pressures need to be addressed early </li></ul><ul><li>Expectations must be suitably set; UCD takes considerable time, and learning as you go increases the time even further </li></ul><ul><li>In terms of collaboration and UCD, this was ESA’s first time and there is little doubt they will get better at both </li></ul><ul><li>Mentoring is not necessarily the same as training </li></ul><ul><li>Mentors end up talking a lot; but being able to ask questions is possibly the most valuable part from the team’s perspective </li></ul><ul><li>An ‘in house’ mentor would have been much more effective </li></ul>
  48. 48. So why are they so unpopular?
  49. 49. 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>
  50. 50. References <ul><li>Brown, D., Communicating Design : Developing Web Site Documentation for Design and Planning , New Riders, 2007 </li></ul><ul><li>Kennedy, P., Squiggles help find personas , 2007. Online at: </li></ul><ul><li>Krug, S., Don’t Make Me Think : A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability (2nd ed), Macmillan, 2006 </li></ul><ul><li>Landsberg, M., The Tao of Coaching : Boost your effectiveness at work by inspiring and developing those around you , Profile, 2003 </li></ul><ul><li>Maurer, D., Card Based Classification Evaluation , Step Two Designs, 2003. Online at: </li></ul><ul><li>Maurer, D., Card sorting analysis spreadsheet , Maadmob Interaction Design, 2007. Online at: </li></ul><ul><li>Mulder, S., Yaar, Z., The User Is Always Right : A Practical Guide to Creating and Using Personas for the Web , New Riders, 2007 </li></ul>