You don't have to be a technical designer to understand the management of design. Let's talk about websites. When approaching a web design project, it's important to begin with a discovery phase that involves a deep dive into strategy, content, and user needs. From there we move into the fundamental challenge of building the structure of information that will ultimately serve as the map for the design team.
In design terminology, we call this information architecture or IA. Before deciding on colors, icons, and layout, we should know what the user is hoping to achieve, and how we can make it easy for them to find the information they seek, and help them understand it. Similar to the design of a book or magazine, starting with the table of content and an outline of what the content will be can help inform how it will be presented in the subsequent design phases.
IA has two primary goals:
- Helping users find information
- Helping users understand the information
Understanding What Users Seek
Design thinking always begins with people. Complemented by web analytics which studies behavior, understanding a users needs is done by creating personas. At verynice, we collaborate with our clients using fun and engaging methods to identify who these stakeholders are and what their journey to the end goal looks like. Take a local library for example. What types of people are visiting the website? What do they hope to achieve? For Jaime, student, age 13, it may be how to get a library card; for Marta, retired teacher, age 66, it may be whether they take book donations; and for Jerome, 20, student, it may be about finding a book before he makes the drive. These are just a few general examples of user needs within the context of information architecture on a website. Can you think of others?
Organizing the Information Your Already Have
In many cases, we work with an already existing website that needs to be improved. In this case we use a method called card sorting that enables us to think collaboratively with our client in order to keep, consolidate, or discard particular pages and content. Think of it as cleaning or reorganizing your bedroom. At a certain point it makes sense to toss things out while organizing items in a way that makes them easy to find later on.
Site maps are a useful way of looking at the structure of the information, how it is labeled, and what the relationship is between content. While easy to confuse for a layout, the sitemap is meant to be a lean and functional blueprint, not an abstract rendering of the website. This is important to keep in mind as you begin a web design project so that expectations are clear.
With the increase of information comes a reduction of attention span. Futurist Alvin Toffler talked about this phenomenon within the context of increasing speed and scope of technological innovation in his book 'Future Shock' back in the 1970's. And here we are today – living in a world of search engines and e-commerce. As more and more information is created, designers become the custodians of information. Taking it a step further, great information architecture can lend itself to benefitting better systems and artificial intelligence as structured information is required to produce the complex networks for automation. That said, it's important for all organizations to take this phase of web design seriously. The world is a card catalog.
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