IA and Other Roles in the Website Development Process
Information Architecture, or IA, directly affects all aspects of your website. It is an integral part of the development process. Clients benefit from having an information architect interact with members of their team.
The term "Usability" often refers to usability testing (heuristic evaluations, usage analysis, scenario-based testing) or usability research (interviews, questionnaires, demographic research, market segmentation). It is measured by the efficiency with which a user can perform required tasks with an information product (i.e. your website).
Though both IA and Usability are concerned with creating successful interfaces, they are two different disciplines.
Alison J. Head, published author and founder of her own usability consulting firm, has been quoted as saying, "Both fields (IA and usability) have some important mutual concerns - users, context, and tasks - but each field uses different tools, produces different deliverables, and makes its own contributions toward building more usable sites". I agree with her. Though the lines between IA and Usability are often blurred, the two roles are not synonymous.
Some people are more comfortable with strictly using research as a basis for how their website is designed. Jesse James Garrett, author and public speaker in the realm of IA/development, makes a great comment pertaining to the relationship between usability and information architecture: "Research benefits architecture most when it seeks to define the problem we must solve. Research benefits architecture least - and can actually produce bad results - when it seeks to define the solution itself."
It is definitely helpful when an information architect has a basic understanding of current usability research and testing strategies. It means the person is aware of trends and possible pitfalls where website structure is concerned based on studies. It is important to point out that research alone is no substitute for the knowledge and skills associated with IA experience: even armed with facts and figures, there is still a need for creative solutions designed for individual projects, each one with its own unique set of needs.
It is equally important to acknowledge (unless a person has training or pertinent experience) that usability is not part of an information architect's expertise. Nor should a client expect that it will be. Hiring a usability consultant is a fantastic idea because they will provide constructive criticism and feedback for you to consider. Might I suggest you involve the consultant during the development process, and not make the mistake of having usability testing done just before it is time to launch.
Of all the people on a development team, it is usually the project manager who understands and appreciates the importance of IA. It is fair to say that the project manager addresses a number of tasks usually allocated to an information architect. So if there is a project manager, why do you need an information architect?
For one, a project manager is busy overlooking the entire project and generally does not have time to investigate the finer details overlooked at the initial project meetings. Many unanticipated issues or concerns are discovered during the development process itself, despite the best planning. An information architect can brainstorm solutions, adapt the website plan, and communicate what changes need to take place.
In the case where a client decides to hire a project manager internally (though it is always recommended that you utilize the project manager of a development company), the person often does not have the skills associated with IA. You also can run into problems when someone directly linked to the website from within your organization is making IA decisions: they lack the perspective of an outsider who can distance themselves from the project and offer insight on how users may react to certain elements.
Don't put the cart before the horse.
Clients are most excited by the graphic design of their website. It's the part of the process they can easily imagine even before they've sorted out what their site is going to have on it. Seeing a mockup of the site gives a sense of accomplishment because you can physically see it, especially if it seems there has just been a lot of discussion taking place in the development process. And let's face it, it's much more fun than figuring out how to display and categorize a collection of related content.
The problem is that major decisions concerning the design are dependent upon the IA. Think about it like this: if a website is a house, the Graphic Designer is perhaps the landscaper and the interior decorator. If there are specific things you need to have incorporated or accommodated for in the space, the designer needs to be told what those are before design begins.
Here are 3 examples for the homepage:
- You know you want your navigation menu displayed in tabs across the top of the page. Approximately how many menus (usually referred to as top level, first level or primary menu items) will you have? How long are the menu names? Will they fit neatly across the top of the screen? Will they interfere with other items on the homepage? How many submenus will each of them have? 2? 4? 7? Depending on how many you have per main menu item, it will affect how the tabs will look and function. If it's 2-4, you could easily have the submenus appear below the main menus if you like. If it's more, it might interfere with other items on the homepage or look cluttered.
- You contemplate putting the navigation menu on the left side of the screen. Ok. What happens if (and this applies more to sites with large amounts of content) you discover partway through development - due to poor content inventory - there is a section that doesn't match the flow of the other menu items? Or does it need to be highlighted somewhere else? How much importance should it be given? Does it demand a tab at the top? A whole block that highlights what people will find in this section? An image? If you add these elements, how will it effect the symmetry of the design?
- You decide you want news items on the front page. Great! What will be displayed? You can't just answer "the news item". Title? Author? Published date? Teaser? Pictures? Will it have links to the full story? Will all news items have the same information presented? How many stories will be on the front page at one time?
We haven't even discussed the footer, the logo, the icons, the search field or the banner yet.
The point is that you need these answers - along with other design variables - before you have a graphic designer create mockups for you. The more information you can provide your graphic designer, the better he or she can make suggestions on a) how it should look on the page and b) layout choices you may not have considered. It will save you time, money and frustration.
Let's continue with our house analogy. You have a team of builders (carpenter, electrician, plumber, etc) who will build the structure based on the blueprints you submit. If you point out a second storey, they will build you a staircase to that second story. But don't be disappointed when you walk into the house and find a standard staircase to the left of the entrance (which made logical sense and works perfectly). If you want that staircase to be in a spiral shape with railings that are child-friendly, you need to communicate that to the builders. They will make arrangements in regard to the bones of the structure to accommodate these changes.
Website developers are your builders. Like designers, they need to have a good idea what data will be displayed (e.g. title, date, body, publishing information, sorting order) and if there are other elements of customization to consider - especially customization that affects how other elements/functional requirements on the site behave. An IA should be talking to the developer (and vice-versa) while these decisions are being made. The developer can suggest ways to meet the needs of the client when he knows what those specific needs are.