A major concern of information architecture is defining and using taxonomies—for example, information hierarchies—and classifying data within these taxonomies. So, defining menu and navigational structures is an IA issue. Doing this work successfully often requires eliciting information from users and domain experts, using techniques such as structured interviews and various types of card-sorting exercises.
Information architecture also concerns applying existing taxonomies when doing new development. Taxonomies may be proprietary—such as how to classify products a particular retailer offers—or standards such as the UK’s Local Government Category List (LGCL). So, ensuring that a navigation bar at the left of a page is wide enough to contain all of the terms a particular taxonomy uses is also an IA issue.
This means that specialists in information architecture often come from an information management or library studies background. My experience is that some technical data modelers such as those who are excellent at Entity-Relation modelling with relational data bases—for example, with Oracle—or defining class hierarchies—for example, using the Unified Modelling Language (UML)—can also make superb information architects. This is not just because they understand how an information architecture maps to a technical implementation. Rather, it is because they have excellent generic skills in eliciting data relationships from users and domain experts, logically organizing data according to defined rules and principles, and abstracting key patterns in the data they’re working with.
Interaction design concerns the controls, mechanisms, and processes that users require to perform their tasks on systems and so meet their goals. For example, an interaction designer determines whether to use a menu rather than a set of tabs, whether to use a drop-down list rather than set of radio buttons, and the process, or steps, for setting up a new email account using a wizard. This inevitably means that interaction design is about creating affordances—including defining what controls do and how to communicate what they do to users—that is, designing affordances.
Visual design focuses on the aesthetics of a user interface, ensuring that it looks good, communicates the right image to users, and conforms to any brand guidelines. This means that good visual designers often come from a graphic design background—whether print or online—and often have excellent related skills—for example, illustration, animation, or photography—that they can integrate into their interface design work.
It is interesting to note here that the ability to design good layouts is a prerequisite for good visual design, good interaction design, and good information architecture, but each of these specialties uses the term layout in ways that are qualitatively different. This is because their rationale and goals for a layout are very different—visual design seeks good aesthetics; interaction design, good workflows; and information architecture, good groupings of information. Sometimes these things are synergistic, sometimes they’re in competition with one another, and sometimes they’re a bit of both.
Usability engineering is primarily about planning and executing various types of usability studies that test how well people can use a user interface, then making recommendations for how to correct the problems that these studies identify. These recommendations may be very specific—like “make the OK button a stronger shade of red”—or very general like—“the IA needs revisiting.”
To conduct usability studies, usability engineers must have skills in questionnaire design, interviewing, test facilitation, and the use of usability testing software such as Morae. The best usability engineers also have a good grounding in statistics, so they can apply the correct statistical methods and tests to quantitative study results. They may also be familiar with relevant standards such as ISO 9241 and the Common Industry Format for Usability Testing (ANSI/NCITS 354-2001).
Having skills in secondary research methods is also important for usability engineers, enabling them to avoid the time and expense of executing a new, or primary, study when a similar study has already been published. Usability engineers need to be able to identify relevant studies, assess their credibility, and determine the degree to which their findings are relevant to a system they’re evaluating.
All of this is more difficult than it may sound, which is why the best usability engineers often have a very strong academic background or may still work mainly in academia.
User Experience Design
So what is user experience design (UXD)?
Circa 2000, Melisa Cooper published an article that unfortunately no longer seems to be available online. It drew an analogy between a User Experience Architect—a more common term than UX Designer in the 1990s—and that of a conventional architect who designs houses. I have adapted and extended her analogy to make it more comprehensive and contemporary, as well as to put my own spin on things. When designing a new house:
- An information architect would ensure that the master bedroom could accommodate a double bed, two bedside tables, and a large wardrobe; that the kitchen is next to the dining room; and that the only bathroom is not in the garage!
- An interaction designer would ensure that the cold water tap is always on the right, the stairs have banisters, and the light switches are on the correct side of doors.
- A visual designer would have a role that is similar to that of an interior designer—choosing the carpets, curtains, and furniture, so they coordinate well, are in keeping with the character of the house, and satisfy the home owners’ personal taste.
- A usability engineer would inspect the house after each of the key stages in the building project—that is, after conceptual design, using the architect’s visuals and models; after the planning stage, referring to the technical schematics; once the building shell is completed; and once the entire building is completed.
- A UX architect conceives the whole experience of the home owner. This means having overall responsibility for the design, leading and briefing all of the people in specialist roles, and representing the home owner—not the builders—throughout the design process.