Even the culturally literate find themselves lost in some neighborhoods. It can be a district that’s been popular for decades and yet, because things keep shifting around, it has the disorienting effect of a bazaar. How often has your favorite website changed its arrangement?

Even professional User Experience (UX) designers find themselves in the dark when it comes to the origin story of their mutant-for-hire identity. Did you know Information Architecture (IA) is a term coined by TED founder Richard Saul Wurman? A lot of people in the business of Information Design (ID) have run past the sign offering deeper reading about how their now predominantly digital craft began in physical space; directions to the parking lot; mnemonics for the section where you parked; elevator indicators; exits; etc.

I feel like I could give a grandiloquently unifying and hilarious history of the field right up to the present moment the way Paul Ford did for programing in last Spring’s Bloomberg article What Is Code? but I don’t want this to be a pitch. I want to tell a personal story of transformation but I don’t want to exceed five hundred words.

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My first job for a big advertising agency is where I learned Visio, a Microsoft product that is far better than Powerpoint for connecting geometric shapes to each other with lines and arrows. Before that, I had done some systems design for companies making computer games and for computer games themselves, but now I was doing it for a Web site offering small business resources; computer hardware and software-as-a-service. I approached the site just as if I were a customer and put together a report on it. Then I went through other reports showing data compilations of site visitor journeys leading in positive loops and negative spirals. I went through reports showing what search queries visitors were making, what results they were getting, and which results they were picking. Then I reorganized eighty pages of content.

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Since that job was successful by all accounts, I figured I knew something about IA. Since that job, however, every time I have taken on a similar task, big or small, I have learned something new.

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It goes deeper than the obvious fact that  different kinds of visitors come with different kinds of interests and interpretations. What is sometimes surprising is how dramatically the site they are visiting is evolving, shifting with seasons, growing with the times. Say it’s a fashion site. Of course the content will want to be refreshed constantly, but one doesn’t necessarily consider the framework to be subject to whimsical updates.

It goes deeper than iconography, color and typeface. These are significant signifiers, important tools of ID, as in Information Design. But the biggest conversations are about Primary Navigation and Secondary Navigation.

It goes deeper than making the same material display properly across a variety of platforms. It goes back to the administrators being able to monitor visitor behavior and make adjustments to content without changing everything.

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To better illustrate what I am getting at, I might have taken pictures of benches put in to block hikers from decommissioned paths when I was out on a walk yesterday. I get work as a Project Manager / Producer type person because it’s impossible for everyone to be talking directly with everyone else all the time (even in open plan offices). Similarly, I get work as a UX / IA type person because no one quite knows where they are going. The biggest mistakes I have made over the years are when I have fallen into the trap of “expert communicator.” Whenever I have approached with the same sort of curiosity I brought in the first place, I have found the way to the treasure. It still counts as transformation if you find your way back to the beginning, right?

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