Good IA is when the real world and the digital world converge
For as long as we know humans have pondered how to create, display, preserve, organize and even manipulate information. This need only intensified as simple websites grew into large-scale, highly complex websites in the late 1990s. Really, this is when Information Architecture officially came on the scene.
Now IA is an intrinsic part of a website, mobile or software app design. Why? It’s pretty simple really — it all comes down to the overall end goal — improved user experience and performance. Information matters to everyone — end users, organization and society as a whole.
As information architecture pioneer Peter Morville states: “information architecture is about what’s not obvious.” It’s one of the many aspects of User Experience that no one even notices unless it’s not done right. There are indeed plenty of intangible elements that come with the creation and development of apps, portals and sites. Good IA describes a system in the right way so that users can easily access and move around in a given system.
And that’s where the MxD UX team certainly comes into play. We find those intangible elements and make sure they are fully considered and ironed out for every project. Intangible elements such as:
- Search — how do end users find the information?
- Navigation — how do they find the scent of what they are looking for?
- Labeling — is the system speaking the user’s language?
- Organization & hierarchy — does the information structure reflect the user’s needs?
Adding the right context at the right time and place is at the core of any good user experience.
The importance of IA & documentation
Always a hot topic in IA circles, documentation of UX findings is a must and requires a certain finesse and expertise. At MxD, we always have our eyes on new IA processes, documentation techniques and styles. For now, here are the ones our UX team delivers depending on the needs and the nature of a project.
- Personas — paint the picture of who the users are and substantiate focus on these target users. Think of it as a constant reminder or checkup of your users that can be applied throughout the entire project lifecycle. Typically, persona content describes the main attributes of different user types, but the level of detail added can vary on the complexity of the project as well as client and author preference.
- Mental or conceptual model — A mental model is a representation of what the end-user believes/envisions about a given system. Based on belief not facts, mental models are about what a user knows and the assumption that it allows us to predict behavior of how a user would interact with a system. Ultimately these models help point out potential usability issues.
- Content inventory — Often in the form of spreadsheet, a content inventory is an assessment list of all content and content types surfaced in a system. An integral part of the discovery phase, an inventory gives a handle of what is there, what the structure looks like and what could be enhanced or even removed.Ultimately, it allows the author to become the expert of what they are assessing.
- Task analysis — Maps how the user travels through a site or application and describes the sequence of steps the user goes through to reach their ultimate goal.
- User stories/cognitive walkthroughs — User stories determine the who, the what and the why of a business requirement. Generally, it’s a brief description of how a user experiences and uses an interactive system based on a single piece of functionality such as logging out. We rely on them to help inform features and functions, but they also stimulate and facilitate discussion and decision making with clients in the development of the UX strategy as a whole.
- User flows — At the core of UX design, user flows are state diagrams that identify the paths a user must or may take as they progress through a site or application.From the basics of identifying the entry and exit points, variations, and system responses to illustrating complex application processes, flows are not necessarily always an integral part of every project. If there’s doubt though, chances are it’s best to include them as they always add clarity and hopefully leave no stone unturned during discovery.
- Site maps — A site map is generally a list of pages or screens and illustrates the structure, hierarchy and connections of a website or app. It provides the bird’s eye view of an interactive system which allows us to pinpoint potential pitfalls early in the process and apply modifications based on our findings and client feedback..
- Wireframes — Basically a low-fidelity prototype of an app screen or a website page, a wireframe illustrates all the elements that will be surfaced on the page or screen. These content elements can include navigation, content sections, image/media content, form elements etc. At the core, wireframes are used to present to clients, developers and potentially users to garner validation of the overall design approach prior to the visual design and development phases begin.
- Wireframe annotations — Every wireframe is accompanied with annotations. Annotations describe each content element or interaction surfaced on the wireframe to remove any possible ambiguity during the visual design or development process.
The tools of the trade
We are all about adding new software to our UX toolbelt. These are the tools our user experience design team heavily relies on:
- Pencil & paper
- Adobe Creative Cloud