Version 1.5 1.27.001.0 Introduction: Keeping the Igloos Off the Beaches
Home is a recurring metaphor online from the house icons with pointy roofs on early home pages, to the numberless tech teams who have said to countless project managers that they can build any kind of house required, but they need a floor plan first.
The image below of an igloo on a beach is the Information Architects' particular extension of the "home" metaphor.
Image 1: The Igloo on the Beach
Everyone who sees this image laughs. It doesn't take people long to articulate why:
While Igloos are beautiful examples of form following function, and they brilliantly marshal available resources to create warm, dry, comfortable dwellings that use appropriate, environmentally friendly, low-impact technology in Alaska an igloo on the beach is nobody's idea of home sweet home.
As information architects, our goal is to keep the igloos off the beaches, by working on project teams to build the most appropriate site for a given task, balancing business goals against the needs and desires of users.
Of course, an igloo on a beach could be an interesting piece of conceptual art, and if that's a project's business goal, we're here to support it.
Everything that happens online ultimately comes down to the moment when a user is looking at a screen and deciding whether to click or go.
And every piece of offline marketing that drives a user to a site, from a publicity event to a Super Bowl TV ad still comes down to a person, a keyboard, a screen and a mouse. Click or go?
These variables shape the user experience, online and offline:
Branding Elements / Site Architecture Elements
Online Marketing Offline Media
This diagram presents the user experience as an event that is initiated by online and offline marketing elements, and is shaped online by creative and functional elements.
From the user's perspective, the central element that everything revolves around is this single question:
How do I work this?
Diagram 1: How Do I Work This
Marketing components drive the user to the site, branding components inform the experience, and site architecture components guide the experience.
Acting as interpreters of a project's business goals and as guides for the user, the information architecture group works with answers to strategic questions that are structured around this framework:
Who are the users webby kids, newbie adults, quick-search information seekers, luxury shoppers, commodity buyers , members of special interest communities who? Just as the branding elements will vary by a site's demographics and by its business goals, so will the functional elements.
The more sharply defined the audience, the better the functionality can be matched appropriately to the users.
What is the single most important thing a user is asked to do on a given page?
What is the business goal for each action a user is asked to take?
What happens when the user takes action?
And then? And then? And then?
Developing answers to the "what" questions defines the twists and turns of the paths a user can take through a site. The sharper the questions, the clearer the answers, and the better the match between a site's goals and its functionality.
When do you want a user to visit a site one time only, or often? Just as high service retail venues positively reinforce the behavior of frequent shoppers by greeting them personally and presenting them with fresh displays of new merchandise, so web visitors coming back to a site should experience friendly welcome back messages and new content. When visitor frequency requirements are built into a site's business goals, the necessary functionality can organically become part of the site's structure.
Where is the user coming from? Are they banner-driven users who have little pre-existing knowledge of the site? Are they intranet-driven users, who are familiar with the site's mission in advance? Welcoming users to a site in a manner appropriate to their experience is useful for everything from calming fears about e-commerce security, to clarifying a brand-new business model.
Why are the users coming to the page to satisfy what desires for information, entertainment, community or commerce? Why do you want them to come there to offer them information, products, or just plain fun?
How is the user experiencing the site with multiple, bleeding edge plug-ins required and installed, through AOL, on a fast or a slow connection?
When the project team communicates clearly across these perspectives, success will be defined in advance, and the site will provide a satisfying user experience that meets or exceeds the client's business goals.
When the process of asking and answering questions is incomplete, both the usefulness of the site to the user and the success for the client will be affected.
If one part of the team thinks that what's being built is a summer seaside cottage, while other team members thinks that the need being addressed is for a cold weather home, the risk of ending up with an igloo on the beach is high.
This document offers a framework for asking and answering questions in the site development process, and for building igloos where the snow is.