WHAT IS INFORMATION ARCHITECTURE?
Information architecture (IA) is a fancy word for the process of designing multiple end-user experiences or "environments" that are all intended to share or access a similar base of information. At its core it is the process of tackling a big complex problem (consisting of all the data, requirements, and features that a product or platform needs to support) and organizing a plan to distill it into smaller, more discrete, and more manageable chunks. Each of these chunks may be focused on the needs of multiple yet dissimilar end-users who all need access to the same source of information.
Sounds important, doesn’t it? It sure is! Truth be told, I dislike the term "IA" as good UX is about promoting clarity and reducing confusion, so it’s ironic that this term is less immediately obvious than others, but it's arguably the most complex part of UX. A helpful metaphor I picked up is that information architecture is the design of a holistic structure of a building, like a museum, including the public galleries as well as all the wiring, lighting, plumbing, security, and AC system. One user's experience may entail following one path through the front-door of this metaphorical museum where they see the latest public exhibits, but much of the underlying complexity remains hidden. Another user experience defines how an electrician or plumber accesses and interacts with the museum, which entails both more "under-the-hood" information and complexity that offers a completely different experience from what public users see.
Why is Information Architecture Important?
Coding is hard, mentally taxing work. Software projects don’t have unlimited funds, good programmers are expensive, and development almost always takes longer than you expect. If you have bad IA or are lacking in it, then like a house built with no plans, you risk building something that lacks durability, cohesion, or structure. As your startup operation grows and you add weight and pressure to this house beyond what it was designed to handle, it will start to strain under the pressure. This manifests itself as confusing UX, friction, or unmet end-user needs. It may lead your engineers to implement band-aid fixes or temporary work-arounds, when what is really needed is to start from scratch and architect a new, robust solution to handle more complex needs.
"If you have bad IA ... you risk building something that lacks durability, cohesion, or structure ... This manifests itself as confusing, poor UX, friction, and unmet end-user needs ...What is really needed is to start from scratch and architect a new, robust solution to handle more complex needs."
When Should I Use Information Architecture?
What is User Experience Design?
UX Design is the process of taking the all the requirements, features, and constraints informed by other UX practices and starting the official process of organizing information, and features into a form that defines the moment-to-moment experience of moving through your software. This can take the form of rudimentary sketches, flowcharts, screen mockups, and diagrams called wireframes. The purpose of these materials is to detail step-by-step how the software guides users to experience and interact with functions and information, and how all the pieces of the UX puzzle start to fit together. Sometimes these diagrams can be large and intricate, other times interactions are chopped up into smaller flows. Often it’s necessary to annotate UX Design materials with notes that may convey additional details or information for developers. This can be especially important if the team is distributed or the UX Designer may not be immediately accessible to relevant stakeholders. While there’s plenty of dedicated tools out there for creating UX Design materials, some also believe that good old-fashioned pencils and paper can be best.
WHY IS USER EXPERIENCE DESIGN IMPORTANT
"UX Design materials can outline a holistic, detailed, and comprehensive blueprint for a product, but it’s useless unless it’s used to spark conversation and to build consensus amongst stakeholders, so that other developers down the line ... can understand what it is that they are expected to create. "
However, this is not the case for the User Experience designer. The Designer has to take all of the findings from the User Research, think about the Information Architecture requirements (if the project is complex), how the Content Strategy will position the product, and start producing screen layouts and flows in an organized way that is intuitive and promotes usability. In my experience, UX Design materials can outline a holistic, detailed, and comprehensive blueprint for a product, but it’s useless unless it’s used to spark conversation and to build consensus amongst stakeholders. This helps other developers down the line, such as Visual/Interaction Designers and programmers, understand what they are expected to create. Thus, UX Design provides the foundation from which later phases of development stand upon.
When Should I Use User Experience Design?
For example, I love getting caught up in the creative momentum of clarifying a strategic and visual plan using wireframes, mockups, and flows as much as anybody, but I didn’t create any when building Amped-UX.com (maybe this is obvious...you tell me!) My goal was to revamp my online branding and presence as quickly as possible to learn as much as possible. I knew that if I chose to make wireframes, it could easily add weeks to the process. Weeks where my site would not be up and running. So in my case, there wasn’t any external pressure or deadlines, so it made sense to skip wireframes and "design in the browser" so to speak.
"You may encounter a school of UX thought that wireframes should be as quick as possible, or even something that you skip over... I think it's important to make the distinction that this doesn't mean that you skip over UX Design, it's just that it takes a different form."
To learn more about this debate within UX Design and some pros and cons (well, mostly pros) to the "No Wireframes" approach, check out this article from Zurb.com.
What is UX Prototyping?
UX Prototyping is a specialized user experience design practice where UX Designers take initial ideas for user experiences and implement them into an interactive form in a fast, efficient way. Wireframes, mockups, and flows can be great for clarifying the big picture, but to an untrained eye they can be difficult for assessing usability. While knowing how to program using HTML or CSS can be an effective prototyping method, the good news is that you don’t need to know how to program to create UX Prototypes. There are a variety of dedicated tools for interactive prototyping, like Pixate, Invision, or Sketch, that enable you to quickly create beautiful animated prototypes that replicate the superficial look and feel for real apps without writing a single line of code. Or you could get old-school simple and bust out the crayons, scissors, glue, and table, and make paper prototypes of screens or target sub-portions of your product.
WhY is UX Prototyping Important?
When Should I Use or Do UX Prototyping?
Prototyping is another practice that should occur in earlier phases of the project and it's important to consider doing it if you’ve decided to bypass some of the more traditional UX Design materials (like mockups and wireframes). Like information architecture, it should definitely precede the bulk of development and programming, but it has the most potential to be useful when it's done in conjunction with usability research.
Just be aware that UX prototyping is not the same as development! The purpose of a prototype is to learn things from your users as fast as possible, then be ready throw it away. Remember when we said that bad Information Architecture is like building an unstable house? If you are not using a dedicated prototyping tool and you are using an HTML framework or doing actual coding for prototyping, be wary of the temptation to continue to build on a the foundation of a hastily built prototype for actual development. I'm not saying this is always the case, but sometimes when making code prototypes, you'll cut corners just to get it done as quickly as possible, and this makes it risky or unstuitable for longer-term development. Once you’ve learned what you need to learn from a prototype, carefully consider the pros and cons of moving forward with it versus starting development from a clean slate.
"The purpose of a prototype is to learn things from your users as fast as possible, then be ready throw it away... Be wary of the temptation to continue to build on a the foundation of a hastily built prototype for actual development... "
LET'S TALK ABOUT YOUR USER EXPERIENCE CHALLENGES
And don't forget to come back for Part Three, where I'll go over Interaction Design, Visual Design, and Gamification.