Information Architecture is a relatively new field. Because it is so new, people who are responsible for planning their organization’s website don’t always realize that Information Architecture can play a critical role, and make the difference between a site that succeeds or fails. The word architecture implies “sooner rather than later,” but when is it too soon, and when is it too late to use information architecture in your planning process?
It turns out that this is pretty straightforward: Information architecture rests comfortably between the effort to carve out identity and strategy for a company and the effort of makers to actually implement requirements.
Too Early: First, Know Thyself.
It’s probably too early to engage with an Information Architect (IA) if you haven’t initiated planning for your website. The Understanding Group’s mission—and the mission of IAs in general—is to make the complex clear. Our objective is to create structure and bring understanding to your efforts, but it’s critical that the raw material of that complexity already exists, no matter how it’s expressed, so that IAs can help organize the understanding of it.
So what are the signs that you might bring in an IA? Well, if you have started planning phase of a new website, but you are struggling to actually express what it is you intend to do with your strategic vision, and IA could help. We are tremendously effective in putting flesh to the initial strategic ideas that are driving your digital objectives. When it comes to digital places, IAs can help clarify the “Why” and “What” once they exist in at least some draft form.
Too Late: The Makers Unleashed!
It’s probably too late to work with an IA effectively if the project is already well underway. The challenge here is that if developers are already working on site deployment against a template, with stated requirements and goals (however that looks—user stories, use cases, etc.), then the structure of the site has already been established and you are working from it.
This, by the way, is how most websites are built today. The intentional act of saying that we will build blueprints for a structure in order to make the complex clear, is not done in any systematic way. As a result, the only real clarity that developers have about the site comes from a few design templates and the immediate focus of a user story that drives a short sprint.
It can be tricky to figure out the edges of the rhythm in the continuous development world we live in, but here are some signs that it’s probably too late to hire an Information Architect:
- You were hoping that the IA would confirm that you properly organized these pages that have been built and written.
- You are worried that you need to change the layout of the wireframes/resolve technical challenges in executing the current wireframe layout.
- You were hoping the IA would build completed wireframes against a marketing or design specification.
- Your Project Manager has a clear allocation/burndown schedule and has agreed on a delivery date for at least half of the requirements.
Just Right: Give Structure to Your Project
If you feel pretty good about the stated strategic vision of your organization, and you know you are going to redesign the site, you should probably contact an Information Architect. The time when IAs are often most effective is near the end of planning and during the discovery or prototype phases of a larger project. Usually these activities involve getting some broad statement from stakeholders and, if you’re lucky, include some kinds of organizational glue, like personas. But usually the architectural focus is technical, and this is the time when the decomposition of requirements begins.
STOP! Talk to an IA! We can help you discover the true intent of a project, and then model the vision to keep that intent coherent throughout a development effort.
Here are some signs that you should start working with an Information Architect:
- You have (or want to get) internal alignment on what your site is supposed to do.
- You want to understand your users and their journey better.
- You need to create blueprints for describing the project that will hold you true to a clear vision from planning to deployment.