Information Archtecture: more than just label making

It kind of feels like information architecture is a grandiose title to make sure that the position gets the respect it deserves.  Basically, the IA organizes the information on a website.  It seems pretty basic when you think of a simple site that has main page, a contact us and a directions page.  Yet, it is difficult to think of a page these days that is that simple.  It is also difficult to remember a time when anything was as simple as it first seemed. 

First the basics

An information architect must first understand the focus of the site.  Who uses the site?  Who is building the site?  What is the site goal?  She must build a structure to organize the information to support this focus.   This makes sense.  Don’t create a site that is supposed to sell products and then make the user click 5 times to find a product to buy.  But beyond trying not to make bad design decisions, make good ones. 

Scope of information

The amount of content that is on an average site these days is impressive.  How does one take the amount of information that more than fills the pages of a set of encyclopedias and put in a web friendly format?   Well, there is a lot of organizing, grouping, and shopping down to the most essential components.  It has to be in short short short with good headings and broken into small digestible navigable chunks that pull you from one chunk to the next.  Needless to say, it is a little more involved than stating a phone number and e-mail address under the Contact Us menu item.  The site map provides a visual hierarchy that allows the AI to visualize how the information is laid out. 

But here is what fascinates me…..

Organizing is not just a practice of grouping and labeling and putting things away.  Done well, it involves an understanding of human behavior.  It involves understanding our tendencies when we are navigating a site and using this to the website’s advantage.  It is an assortment of things such as knowing:

  • Web readers are always on the lookout for a click!  So, redundant links to the website’s more important sections may help direct flow.
  • Users are more likely to scan text than read it.  So, content must be arranged with the most important information at the top and stuff into headlines.
  • Familiar navigation keeps users from scanning, giving up and moving to the next site.

I always hear references to the many studies devoted to our behavior on websites.  There a so many things that I would like to know….that I suspect are just the tools of the trade for the Info Architect.

  • How likely are we to accept a call to action versus just being given the opportunity to act?  For instance, ending a blog with “So, what are your thoughts on the subject?” rather than just having a comments area available.
  • What do the studies of eye tracking reveal about our tendencies and attention spans?  Do those studies break those tendencies down into age groups, sex, education levels, income levels, spending tendencies? 
  • How many seconds you have to get someone’s attention before they navigate away?
  • How likely is someone to listen to audio?  Or watch a video?
  • What portion of the screen that the person will look to first?
  • How much text are they are willing to read (either in headings or in actual content)?

As our own behaviors with our use of the internet and how we access it (mobile devices, anyone?) evolve, so will the way we organize and display it.  As it stands, information architecture seems like a field that will continue to be even more relevant and more complex in the years to come.

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Writing for the Web

Even the contents of a simple website can be, well, complicated.  Consequently, like most projects, it is important to attack with a plan.

Team

Assemble a content team.  There are many aspects to web content and to have content that is well rounded requires a team that is well rounded.  Erin Anderson of Brain Traffic suggests the following team roles: content strategist, a designer, a developer, an editor, a subject matter expert, an information architect, a writer, and reviewers.  This sounds overwhelming, but individuals may take on multiple roles. 

Purpose

Before diving into ideas and text and pictures and color and all of the fun stuff, it is important to understand the purpose of the website.  Is it to teach?  To sell?  Both?  What does the client want site visitors to leave with?  What did the visitor come to the site in search of?

Style Guide

Determine the tone of the site.  Maybe it is chic with a touch of humor.  Maybe it is serious and informative.  Once the style is determined, all content should support this fashion.

Search Words

In the world of web business, everyone wants to be searchable.  It is like having the restaurant location right next to the Fox Theatre, except that instead of getting just the traffic to the latest concert, you have traffic from all over the world looking for the exact thing you are selling.  So, this is pretty important.  Picking search words prior to writing content will allow you to consistently and appropriately litter them throughout your site.

Site Map & Wireframe

Once you have this flood of visitors, they need to know where to go without effort.  Two pieces are important for planning this well, the site map and the wireframe.  The site map breaks down the page arrangement into a hierarchy that lists the pages and subpages.  It allows the web team to have a map of the content on the site.  The wireframe is a visual map of the content within a page.  

Dumbing it down….but with finesse

So, it is time to start writing.   But writing for the web is a little different than writing a novel or a letter or an article. Here are some tips, again provided by Anderson via Interact with Web Standards, on web writing that will reach your audience:

  1. Lead with the big stuff.  Write your conclusion first and then following with the explanation and details.
  2. Think less.  Fewer words are better.  Condense your content.
  3. Write like a person talking to another person (and not a sales person talking to a person).  Be simple and straight forward. 
  4. If it can’t be scanned, it won’t be read.  Typically, web content is only skimmed and not read.  So, follow these scan-able tips:
    • Keep is short and keep these numbers in mind
      • 60 or less words per paragraph
      • 8 words or less for a headline
      • 14 words of less for a subheading
    • Bullets
    • Use headings as guideposts to map the user path and experience
  5. Provide clear headings.  Put time into this.  They should grab the reader’s attention but not be so clever that they can be misinterpreted or slow down the infamous scan.  
  6. Action words can actually inspire action.  So, lead your headings with verbs.  Maybe instead of a link on Jittery Joe’s called “Coffee” it should say “Buy Coffee”.  
  7. Simplicity.  Get your point across in a compact, straightforward way.  
  8. Be true to your word.  Nobody likes it when they get off the interstate because the sign said there was gas at this exit only to find out that it is 4 miles down the road.  If your signs are misleading, people get back on the interstate and now they have animosity riding in the passenger seat.  There are plenty of competitors ready to take your place.  
  9. Remember the reviewers?  Use those team members.  You have been looking at this way too long to catch your own mistakes.
  10. Goof off.  Spend time roaming around the internet.  What sites draw you in?  What sites only kept your attention for seconds?  What sites bring you back and have your credit card on file?  This can also be called research.  Learn from what works and what doesn’t.  

ITIL Explored

ITIL is a broad set of guidelines covering best practice for IT services management as well as an accompanying certification and training organization.  The accompanying image shows their focus on continuing process improvement throughout the lifecycle of a service. 

Service Desk

The service desk of ITIL covers incidents and requests.  Basically, it’s a help desk.  The key feature of the service desk is the consistency of streamlined communication via single point of contact, entrance, and exit. 

Consulting

 

Evergreen is an example of a consulting company that boasts “a reputation for combining highly skilled ITIL expertise with ‘real-world’ experience in process improvement transformation.” Their ITIL focusing consulting page prominently displays figures pertaining to the potential savings and efficiencies gained with their assistance.  While this is eye catching, I think that my favorite portion of their pitch is that this page has an article that focuses on Return on Investment and has a link that promises to help you “Build your case!”  It addresses the fact that if you are the IT person looking at this, you likely already see potential value but that you are not the person with the control over the purse strings.

As I work in the insurance industry, I reviewed an example of a client success in an undisclosed insurance company.  The insurance industry is not one that is on the cusp of technological innovation.  Yet, the case illustrated that it is being pushed into the new age via customer expectations, regulatory requirements and cost efficiency needs. Upon initiating an assessment of the company’s existing IT services, the findings revealed that service level management was a primary concern.  End users needed one place to go to deal with all of their questions, concerns, or problems.  The recommendation was a Service Catalog that allowed the end user to review and request IT services in an organized fashion that made sense to the end user. The implementation included clear definitions of services, establishment of operational and service level agreements, procedures and process recommendations on completion of services, change information and dependencies and much more.   As a result of adopting the new processes, the insurance company is said to now be aware of their various clients needs and have the ability to meet them in a reliable repeatable way. 

Tools

Naturally, software is being created to help users comply to the guidelines created by ITIL.  The software is created by outside companies and then submitted to ITIL for varying levels of certification.  For example, the company Intasoft Limited created change management software called IntaChange Enterprise Software Version 3.0 that has a Bronze level certification from ITIL.  There are three levels of certification starting with the Bronze, then Silver and finally the highest level of Gold.  IntaChange Enterprise Software Version 3.0 is a web based change management system that is said to enhance workflow while recording a full history of changes and maintaining cross references.  Its MS Office integration additionally allows it to facilitate and track team input and in general improve communication of the changes overall.

Software Design Patterns

What is a design pattern?

I have read that it is an instruction, a three part rule, a relationship and a thing while at the same time a process.  To understand it, I appreciate the multiple views.  Knowing that an elephant is a large herbivorous mammal is more informative when you also know that it is a thick skinned animal which a trunk and tusks as well.  The 3 definitions that comprise my understanding of this reusable problem solving element are:

  • A pattern is a named nugget of insight that conveys the essence of a proven solution to a recurring problem within a certain context amidst competing concerns.
  • Each pattern is a three-part rule, which expresses a relation between a certain context, a problem, and a solution.
  • As an element of language, a pattern is an instruction, which shows how this spatial configuration can be used, over and over again, to resolve the given system of forces, wherever the context makes it relevant.

These design patterns join forces to create the design language.  Ideally they are gathered together in a reference book, like words in a dictionary, to act as a reference.  Have this problem?  Here is the solution name, a description, some cross references and, of course an explanation of why this is a fabulous solution to the problem. 

Where did all this come from anyway?

Notice that all of this language is pretty generic?  It seems that it can be applied to just about anything.  Well, it is.  Christopher Alexander originally wrote his 1977 book A Pattern Language to address the design issues in his field of archictecture…the architecture of buildings that is.  Yet, Alexander saw this as applicable across fields.  It was particularily compatible with the feild of software design.  In 1994, the Gang of Four (Gamma, Helm, Johnson & Vlissides) addressed this in Design Patterns in which they provide sollutions to commonly occuring software problems. 

An example of a behavioral pattern addressed by the Gang of Four is the Observer pattern.  An observer pattern is a one to many relationship in which a change in one of object effects each of the other objects in the relationship.  For instance, in the practice final for our programming class which takes in bids for an online auction, the winning bid effects the status of all of the other bids to make them losing bids.  Each new bid is observed and then affects the status of the other bids.  The notification of the winning bid is then announced along with the status of all of the losing bids.

The Artist Formerly Known as Oslo


The Formerlys, Oslo and Prince

Now known as SQL Server Modeling, this is a modeling platform created by Microsoft.  Initially, it was intended to be the answer to cross platform modeling, but that is back when it was called Oslo.  With its new name came a focus on SQL and the .NET framework.

There is a lot of information out there about Oslo (I can’t stop calling Prince “Prince” either).  So much that one could drown in it….or at least wile away hours in tech articles or presentations (hours, I tell you) by the Oslo team themselves.  But wherever you go to learn about this modeling platform, you will be drilled with these three Oslo components:

  • The Tool, called Quadrant, is a visual editor used to interact with information.  With a typical MS window layout, the user can graphically interact with the database via a familiar environment.
  • The Language, M, is a declarative language for creating and manipulating information.  It allows the user to write models in a text format and then generate SQL code that creates storage for the models in the database or puts data into the database.
  • The Repository is an SQL database to store models.

This is not the first model driven software.  Yet, part of what Microsoft believes makes Oslo stand out and all the more appealing is its text based language.  They see developers as more verbal than visual.  M, broken into M-schema which describes the structure and M-grammar which describes the syntax, provides a textual base for developers map out their model.  A user can develop the model in M schema (IE the textual format), deploy this into a database, create grammar for the database, and then execute that on a data file.

I admit, not being a developer myself, I lean more toward the visual modelers.  But that is why there are always new tools being developed; it is nice that we can migrate to something that works for each of us.

Google Adwords and an attempt at BPM

Google Adwords is a marketing tool that helps website owners to direct specific Google searches to their site.  As we covered in our midterm last semester, a Google search (or a Yahoo or Bing search) creates a page with two types of results: search results based on the search utility’s algorithm of what is most relevant to the user and the paid advertisements that relate to the search.  Google Adwords allows the user to set up campaigns in which the ads are designed by the user and then associated with keywords.  The user designated a budget for the month as well as an amount they are willing to pay per click on the ad.  When a search user types in one of the keywords, the ad is in the mix of ads available to be displayed.  Based on the budget and per click numbers, the ad is displayed at a varying frequency.

Adwords can be most effectively used in conjunction with their Keywords tool.  Keywords are, well, key.  Who cares if you are top rated in the search for peanut sculptures if no one actually searches for peanut sculptures?  This tool helps the user find both quality and quantity in their keyword base.  While no data may be available for peanut sculptures, there might be a significant amount of people looking for quirky art and unique sculpture and pop art.

Here you can see my first attempt at BPM….

another way of looking at technology

What I like about the iPhone is all of the preposterous things that are promoted through its apps.  I like that they crack me up, I think “that’s preposterous” and then, it actually does work….sometimes.  Can we say ocarina?  But we all saw the wonders of an electronic wind instrument.  So I won’t repeat that.

Cry TranslatorToday, I saw the Cry Translator.  It is an iPhone app that is supposed to listen to a baby’s cry, interpret it and then provide you with some resolution suggestions.  The website says that scientific tests have shown that it is 96% effective.  It is priced at $9.99 for a limited time and will soon be $29.99.  The news story that is linked above on the other hand has a mom and her baby to test the capabilities.  If you don’t have time to listen to it, here is the gist: the baby cries, the translator give a verdict, and the mom laughs and provides the real translation.  So, maybe it isn’t a hit.  But, hey, dare to dream.

This dare-to-dream, think-out-of-the-box theme isn’t just limited to the iPhone, it is a concept that is to be applied to www business in general.  Today, I saw a lower cost option for having an interior designer decorate a room of your house.  For a percentage of the cost of having an interior designer come revamp a room, you can e-decorate.  This is done by e-mailing the designer a picture of your room along with an idea of the feel you want.  They can then send you pictures of the concepts they recommend with pictures, prices and links to your new couch and lamps along with the outline of where to place them.
Clever.