My design career started in bricks-and-mortar architecture, then quickly moved into desktop application development, focusing on CAD databases. Over the years, the substantial body of work of human/computer interaction (HCI) researchers and leading design practitioners has informed my user-centered design process.
Recently, I have had the opportunity to turn my user-centered practice toward the development of Web sites that provide online information resources. My introduction to designing for the online environment was through the practice of information architecture (IA), a broad area of practice that encompasses systems design, information sciences—within the context of library science—graphic design, information design, informatics, and user interface design. In my experience, information architects focus on Web-based user experiences or, more broadly, information-rich environments in which users seek specific pieces of information. The very name of the practice attempts to capture the essence of its purpose—providing information with some sort of aesthetic and structure, or architecture, that helps users navigate through information-intensive spaces.
In learning the—new to me—language of information architecture, I’ve discovered that the vocabulary and grammar of IA doesn’t directly map to the grammar and vocabulary of rich desktop application design. Jesse James Garret’s pancake diagram has gone a long way in providing a common way of visualizing both domains, yet that perspective doesn’t address the designer’s internal experience of creating a user experience in one domain or another.
Application or Information: What’s the Difference?
About six months into my new life as an information architect, I had a profound insight: much of my user-centered design training from my application design background was inapplicable to the needs of the Web design work in which I was now engaged. I experienced, first hand, something akin to Gertrude Stein’s remark about her childhood home of Oakland, California: “There’s no there, there.”
Much of my user-centered practice in rich application design relies on task analysis for its basis. Task analysis is a key part of the early research that usability specialists perform when determining what an application ought to do. How do users accomplish their tasks without the proposed application? What tasks would be best handled by a computer? How can we optimize the overall experience of performing a job through the introduction of specific computer-based tasks? What other tasks does a user engage in simultaneously that would complement or distract from the primary task? And so forth.
Information architecture—and much Web design and development effort—has focused on content. What information does a business want to present to its visitors? How does its Web site promote its brand message? What are visitors seeking when they come to the site? What piece of information do visitors need most—or most immediately? How are different pieces of information related to one another? What are the inherent information structures that best represent the goals of the business in a visitor’s mind? And so forth.
Application designers and developers who are concerned about user experience focus their attention on the fundamental tasks that should be part of an application and those that belong somewhere else. How can we present the various intertwining tasks within an application environment in such a way that users can easily distinguish among them?
Information architects, who are concerned about user experience, focus considerable attention on the inherent structure of information spaces. What nomenclature and relationships exist among the various pieces of content that are natural and obvious to information seekers?
For many application designers and developers—certainly for me—applying principles of application design to Web design was like scooping up clouds with an open hand. Trying to use task analysis as the basis for information space design was an exercise in frustration: “There is no there, there.” In Web design, the task is trivial: visitors seek information. Until I realized that was the only task for Web visitors, I kept struggling to find other things users would try to do. I had been asking the wrong questions.
Similarly, when I watch Web designers and developers approaching the design of task-rich applications, I see them struggling to capture information that is probably irrelevant. For application users, the information space may be inherently uninteresting, because an application is simply a tool with which users can accomplish their work. Within this context, Web designers and developers are asking the wrong questions.