In IA Thought
Summary: Daniel O'Neil shares why information architecture is consistently the difference maker, in TUG's experience, when it comes to successful web projects.

In this two-part series, Daniel O’Neil and Jessica DuVerneay share their perspectives on why information architecture is a good investment for your digital project. Part 1 is below.

Although information architecture (IA) has been around for over twenty years, many people still wonder how it can be used to help them develop effective websites. Do you really need an information architect? After all, the information architect doesn’t build your website. That’s the job of your digital agency or in-house coding team. Yet in our experience, information architecture is consistently the difference maker when it comes to successful web projects.

We know this is a strong assertion, but think about the web projects you have worked on for the last five years.

Were the stakeholders happy?

Did the site do what it was expected to do?

How long was it up before you were itching to fix it or change it completely?

It all started so wonderfully, with a dream of a unicorn. We wanted a unicorn. We described a unicorn. WE CREATED TEMPLATE DESIGNS AND TESTABLE REQUIREMENTS FOR DELIVERING A FREAKING UNICORN.

Seems pretty obvious. It's a freaking Unicorn.

By Tomais Ashdene at Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

The reality is that, even in a high-output world of agile projects, unicorn specifications can return something rather more, well, gnarly.

Here's your freaking unicorn. What's the problem?

“Elasm062” by DiBgd at the English language Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

But I Wanted a Unicorn

This state of things is mind boggling, if you think about it. Web development has been around now for a generation. We have better computers. We have better software. Our coders are more experienced and trained. We actually understand what requirements ARE and how they are used in a project.

…and yet website redesigns still give back less than promised.

One of the cores of this mystery is that a post-mortem of a project can be a review of all the things that went right in a project, but not address why the overall dissatisfaction remains.

Something is missing. Why aren’t websites, with all this maturity, talent, and thought, simply AWESOME all the time?

Understand, Then Make

The information architect argues that this happens because we live in a world of effective creation, of “making.” The activities of requirements management, project management, and development described here are those of the designer, the maker. They drive accountability, construction, development, and planning. These are the work of making, which is essential.

But making is not the same as understanding.

To understand is to get broad clarity across multiple models that have persistence and relevance at every stage of the project, not just in a particular sprint or for a particular feature. In the physical world, these tools of understanding are “blueprints.” We argue that your site needs blueprints as well as requirements. The difference is pretty simple to understand:

Requirements manage the process of building, but a poorly understood digital space can still generate fully formed, testable requirements.

Blueprints, in contrast, manage the understanding of what is to be built. Blueprints do not tell you how to make a thing; they are the enduring vision of the place that should emerge from all your hard work.

Going back to our unicorn problem, here are things we might glean from typical requirements for a unicorn:

  • The viable outcome of a single element (a leg).
  • A description of the basic type of the creature (a mammal).
  • The functional purpose (a creature with a single horn).

This is a traceable, testable set of user stories or specifications. Each builds a single unit of the unicorn.

These are examples of what we might get from a Unicorn Blueprint:

  • Now that we have all talked about this idea of a unicorn, we all agree that a unicorn is “this” and not “that.”
  • These are the words people will use when they describe seeing a unicorn.
  • This is the way a unicorn is used in a fairy tale.
  • We have many models of what a unicorn might be that are shared widely in the act of unicorn making.

Our approach revolves around these core distinctions. The makers of your organization are brilliant, productive, accountable, mature. But their scope and effort is specific and focused on the immediate tasks at hand.

IA helps you UNDERSTAND what your website IS. IA gives you the tools to “make it be good” and to remember what those things are throughout the length of a project. This is the critical thing that any IA will bring to your team. You have your makers. Let us help them as your architect, and together we can make the website be the awesome freaking unicorn you’ve always dreamed of making.

See Jessica’s Part 2: De-Myth-ified IA: Product Managers’ Top 3 Misconceptions.

Want to Learn More?

We would be happy to talk more with you about how information architecture can help create understanding and make your next site redesign a success. Give us a call—we’d love to explore the possibilities with you.

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