Digital Experiences Are About People, Not Technology

Finding Our Way

Navigating the practice of Information Architecture

A column by Nathaniel Davis
May 4, 2015

Lately, I’ve been writing columns that are not specifically about information architecture (IA), but more about how the cultures of business and technology can challenge our ability to do good work. For example, my last column discusses how to make progress in agile team environments. And my column before that walks through three steps for putting bad ideas to rest before they get off the ground. This month’s column confronts another formidable challenge: buzzwords.

Buzzwords are double-edged swords that both validate successful practices and can become the bane of thoughtful UX professionals who must manage the unrealistic expectations that emerge along with the hype and misinformation. Buzzwords often become so popular that people co-opt them for distinctly different purposes—thus, disconnecting them from their original value proposition.

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Take mobile first, for example. Luke Wroblewski originally coined and advocated the concept. But by the time Luke’s advice had become buzz worthy, marketers and analysts were already blurring the lines between smartphones and the Web and predicting that mobile phones would be the preferred channel of Web consumption. And just a few years after the 2007 introduction of the Apple iPhone, the mobile phone market had become a gold rush for digitally native products and services that were molded for desktop Web browsers. Not surprisingly, people associated the buzz around mobile first with this market trend. This eventually culminated in a campaign for all companies to shift their strategy to designing for mobile first.

However, while designing for the mobile-phone viewport first is logical for many Web-native products and services, it becomes a questionable approach for information and UX architecture activities that must consider context as the guidepost for meaningful user interface design. Context encompasses the need to create a sustainable solution that spans disparate media channels, devices, modalities, physical contexts, user behaviors, and business objectives.

In this case, what Luke had originally promoted as a strategy for digital products was co-opted and positioned as a panacea for digital strategy. But, for an information architect or UX designer, context always trumps any preference for using the mobile phone as a design baseline.

All the Buzz

There’s no shortage of buzzwords in use in 2015: digital experience, user experience, customer experience, persona, design, big data, experience, innovation, digital transformation, and last, but not least, agile and Lean.

Many of these buzzwords have gained traction within companies, but often with little regard for their impact on culture, business models, and the general sanity of professionals who recognize over-promised hype and misinformation.

Some of the latest buzzwords have set the digital world ablaze with irrational exuberance. In economics, irrational exuberance describes the sustained optimism of participants in an unsustainable system—investing as if a highly valued market has little risk when, historically, the opposite is true. This is what led to the dot-com bubble’s bursting at the turn of the century, as well as the crash of the housing market in 2007.

Similarly, the buzzword exuberance and over-hyped optimism that analysts, certificate programs, and marketers have contributed to our current buzzwords is palpable. Businesses adopt buzzwords, then invest heavily in them based on their reputed claims and create company-wide initiatives without fully understanding their risks.

Some early adopters of trends will benefit from them—for valid reasons such as having the right culture, support from the C-suite, sound leadership, and a small, nimble organization that can quickly recover from mistakes. If your organization is not so nimble or has moved beyond its startup culture, success is not impossible, but it will come with far greater challenges. As a result, for many organizations, the value of the practices that are associated with these buzzwords may have merit, but their impact may be limited to that of a costly experiment because of premature commitment, limited knowledge, and troubled execution.

The Buzz About Digital Experience

Few things last forever, so I’m not concerned by the prospect that newer concepts might replace information architecture and UX design. But it’s way too early for them to get displaced today—let alone their ever being displaced by concepts like cloud (buzzword) software or a black box of big-data-crunching, artificial intelligence (more buzzwords). However, you might get the impression that these and other new terms are gaining ascendancy if you searched the Web.

A Google search on digital experience does not lead you to an explanation of how previous UI design paradigms have been improved by the practices of UX design. And it won’t tell you that the fields of information architecture and UX design are the reasons why we have the concept of digital experience in the first place. Instead, a search result will direct you to software and platform vendors that claim to deliver digital experience.

The Truth About Digital Experience

Digital experience is a fairly recent buzzword with which enterprise businesses have become enamored. It’s not at all new to information architects or UX designers. That’s because the digital experience movement is actually the byproduct, or legacy, of the many influential approaches that have shaped the way we design peoples’ interactions with computing interfaces. The history of approaches that predate the Web includes human factors, human-computer interaction (HCI), interaction design, user-centered design, user experience design, and information seeking and behavior research.

By the close of the twentieth century, the direct impact that the usability of user interfaces had already had on the success of entire business models had raised awareness of the user’s, or customer’s, interactive experience. As a result, creating effective user interfaces for the Web brought greater attention to user empathy—which had been espoused by each previous UI design approach—and gave rise to the practice of information architecture and broadened the adoption of interaction design and UX design approaches.

The graphical Web browser transformed the Internet, bringing computing to billions of people and empowering a new economy of publishing, product design, and commerce. The Web is a critical, multidimensional channel that enables businesses to extend their brand and strengthen customer engagement and loyalty. Today, in the digital-experience house that information architecture and UX design have helped to build, relevant content and usable user interfaces are critical drivers of customer engagement and loyalty. Businesses must not lose sight of this fact if they are to avoid preventable mistakes.

Be an Advocate in Your Organization

The principles and aspirations behind any digital-experience initiative must acknowledge information architecture and UX design as critical paths to success. While a digital experience can happen only through the use of technology, a product’s or service’s underlying technology is just an enabler, not the solution resulting from a digital-experience strategy. And while marketers tout strategies for digital customer engagement, the strategic and tactical disciplines through which they materialize do not involve marketing activities. As our digital ecosystems grow more complex, the need for information architecture and UX design will become more and more apparent.

For this reason, IA and UX professionals must take the initiative to align themselves closely with technologists and marketers in order to improve the digital experiences of users and customers.

10 Digital Experience Proverbs

If your organization is already in the throes of creating a digital experience strategy or caught up in other related, buzzword initiatives like digital transformation or customer experience, and you discover that these strategies overlook the roles of information architecture and UX design, I suggest that you find ways to initiate discussions about the ten digital experience proverbs that follow:

  1. Digital experience is not about technology. It’s about people.
  2. The user interface is not the user experience. The user experience is the user’s experience.
  3. The UX is not something you can point to. It’s embodied in our users’ minds.
  4. We don’t create the user experience. We participate in and influence someone’s experience by presenting them with meaningful content and a usable user interface.
  5. UX research is a quasi-scientific method of studying human behavior to understand users’ needs and inform business and design strategy. UX research is not optional. It’s a necessity.
  6. You cannot articulate someone’s user experience unless they first explain or demonstrate it to you. Gather primary and secondary research to support your UX design.
  7. Site analytics do not reveal the user experience. They demonstrate what users do.
  8. You are not doing UX design unless your team’s study of the behavior of targeted users informs your approach to designing a user interface.
  9. UX design is not a creative art. It’s not about self-expression. It’s about meeting users’ needs by articulating a design strategy for a user interface and executing that strategy through information architecture, interaction design, and visual design.
  10. As the UX design process reveals what users think, feel, see, and do, the information architecture must codify these inputs into navigation, organization, and relational information structures to inform a UX strategy, content, visual design, interaction design, or data model.

In Summary

Buzzwords signify the popularity of highly successful approaches that correspond to a professional discipline. However, in all the hype and over-promising, their original value can become distorted and even completely lost. Buzzwords increase the chances that an organization will invest with irrational exuberance.

The digital experience buzz that large companies have fortunately embraced, in recent years, is inextricably tied to the practice of UX design. If the buzz in your organization suggests otherwise, consider using my digital experience proverbs to spark constructive dialogue.

The buzzwords that enter the vocabulary of your organization can be a sign of good things to come, or they can be a breeding ground for misinformation. Be prepared to confront the latter tendency by communicating the importance of information architecture and UX design. The quality of your work and the success of your organization’s strategy may depend on your doing this.

Lastly, your organization cannot realize the full value of information architecture without making a diligent effort to gather and assess user insights.┬áSure, it may be possible to proceed by following best practices and making assumptions about users. But, when an organization requests an information architecture or UX design solution without allowing adequate time and resources for UX research and thoughtful analysis—especially as part of a digital-experience initiative—this greatly increases the project’s risk. To ensure a project’s success and a sustainable information architecture, try to get everyone to see beyond the buzz and invest in user experience! 

Founder at Methodbrain

Franklin Park, New Jersey, USA

Nathaniel DavisNathaniel has over 25 years of experience in human-computer interaction and is a leading advocate for the advancement of information architecture as an area of research and practice. He began practicing information architecture in the late ’90s, then focused on information architecture as his primary area of interest in 2006. He has made a study of information-architecture theory and how that theory translates into science, workable software, and methods that improve human interaction in complex information environments. Nathaniel was formerly director of information architecture at Prudential. His information-architecture consultancy Methodbrain specializes in UI structural engineering.  Read More

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