Zen and the Art of IA

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New Web 2.0 interaction design can offer a lot of new suggestions for easier interactions, good use of white space and other glaring design solutions to the typically very busy space of information architecture. But, if you practice IA well, including some new Web 2.0 techniques, you can begin to create mental space as well as white space. Designing the Obvious: A Common Sense Approach to Web Application Design, a new New Riders book by Robert Hoekman, Jr., is a great place to find out how much mental space can be offered by your systems.

We, the people, as users of these architectures, experience the downside of not having enough peace in the process of interacting with a poorly designed system. With almost a billion computers on earth and millions of unsatisfying interactions every minute, we are looking at massive amount of unintuitive interactions. Continue reading Zen and the Art of IA

Everything and the Kitchen Sink:

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I’ve used personas for years (though some might regard my process as a slightly heretical perversion of the method). I always think about the big picture, and I was just thinking BIG about personas at work when The Persona Lifecycle landed on my desk.

I’d recently redone the standard review of persona articles on the web. I breezed back over the chapters in About Face 2.0 and Christina Wodtke’s Blueprints for the Web. A colleague even loaned me Steve Mulder’s new book, The User is Always Right, which I kind of thumbed through.

Given my review of what’s out there, The Persona Lifecycle is the most comprehensive book on personas I’ve come across. If you’re so inclined, it can taking you from novice to expert. The authors, Jonathan Pruit and Tamara Adlin, take advantage of extensive teaching experience and punctuate their discussion with lots of real-world examples, case studies, anecdotes, bright ideas and handy guidelines.

That being said, it’s not an easy read, and it’s not for everybody.

Persona school

Pruit and Adlin use the lifecycle as a metaphor to frame the different stages personas go through, from birth to retirement. To highlight their process, a fictional case study runs throughout the book tying everything together. Because design doesn’t happen in a vacuum, the authors talk about how to ease the adoption and communication of personas at different levels of your organization. In fact, the book covers the two most important facets of personas: making them and getting them used.

Overall, the book is very rigorous and thorough. Chapter one is the best overview and history of, introduction to, and case for personas I’ve ever seen; it should be required reading for everyone.

Though the writing aims at being straightforward, the authors tend towards the academic. That is, they use big words to make things clear. Pruit and Adlin developed the lifecycle as a way to teach personas, and at some point in chapter two, my hazy school days came flooding back to me: The Persona Lifecycle is a textbook.

Information overload

Todd Warfel was disappointed with the book. Todd’s a smart guy: passionate, extremely knowledgeable, creative and driven to perfect his UX game. Like a kid waiting for Christmas, he eagerly awaited for his copy to arrive. When someone like Warfel says they didn’t like the book, it should make you wonder.

In Warfel’s words, the authors included everything but the kitchen sink. Don Norman’s cover blurb hints in a similar fashion: “–it truly is for everyone: the practitioner, the researcher, and the teacher.” Warfel and Norman are right. The book has everything. It’s like reading an encyclopedia, and after a short while, the stories, guidelines and examples start to blur together.

Doesn’t work as a reference

I was torn between reading the book cover-to-cover and flipping to the sections where I needed some perspective for my current project.

As a flip-through reference, the PLC is hit and miss. There’s no comprehensive table of contents, and it’d be great if there was some sort of index for the numerous stories from the field. I’d like to reference a couple, but I can’t remember where I read them or who wrote them. Similarly, many of their useful broad guidelines are lost to time and the pages of the book, because I can’t find them on a second pass.

Creating personas

There are two ways of creating personas: a short way, and a long way. The book mentions the short way, but mostly, Pruit and Adlin focus on creating personas the long way with lots and lots of research and lots and lots of analysis.

They present all the steps so you have them in your toolbox, not so you’ll use all of them on every project. Still, I found myself breezing through or skipping over sections on topics I was already familiar with. Even though the authors may intend the book to present the entirety of the toolbox, they end up presenting the toolbox as a temple of rigor.

Using personas

There were a couple of sections I liked. In chapter two, they digress for a moment to look at how the persona lifecycle might fit in to your current design process, and in chapter three, “Family Planning (Planning a Persona Effort),” they spend a lot of time helping you position your persona effort for maximum acceptance throughout your company. I don’t agree with everything they recommend, but the perspective is interesting and educational.

“Birth and Maturation” (chapter five) focuses on communicating personas to the different levels of the organization and getting personas used. The fact that they even use a phrase like “communication strategy” when talking about deliverables wins them big points, but I found myself having to strip the good bits out of the background noise of the super-bureaucratic enterprise for which we’re apparently working.

Recommended, but with caveats

Despite all this bitching, I do recommend the book.

Some readers will appreciate how the authors painstakingly dissect and analyze every part of the persona process. If you’re one of those people–and you know who you are–you’ll love this book. It’s a bible, a handbook, an encyclopedia of wisdom about personas. And you like reading textbooks and encyclopedias.

If you’re a guru looking to become a “superhero,” reading The Performance Lifecycle, front-to-back is probably like adding two to three years solid experience under your belt. You’re guaranteed to level up. Maybe twice.

However, if you’re like me, a busy practitioner balancing the need to learn with the need for help with current projects, The Persona Lifecycle is less than useful. In the end, though the lifecycle is a great way to teach personas it may not be the best way to present them in book form. Had the authors written two books–one on creating personas and another on using personas–I think the added focus would have been fantastic.

If it sounds like just the book for you, buy “The Persona Life Cycle”:http://www.amazon.com/Persona-Lifecycle-Throughout-Interactive-Technologies/dp/0125662513/ref=sr_1_1/104-5610083-7341514?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1178609076&sr=8-1/boxesandarrows-20 now.

*About the book*
“The Persona Lifecycle : Keeping People in Mind Throughout Product Design (Paperback)”:http://www.amazon.com/Persona-Lifecycle-Throughout-Interactive-Technologies/dp/0125662513/ref=sr_1_1/104-5610083-7341514?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1178609076&sr=8-1/boxesandarrows-20
by John Pruitt and Tamara Adlin
Paperback, 744 pages
Publisher: Morgan Kaufmann (April 24, 2006)
ISBN: 0125662513

March Conference Showdown

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“It’s spring break for designers!” Chris Fahey yelled in my ear. I couldn’t yell back, so I merely nodded. Day three of conversation over music and roaring crowds had left me with a voice that would make Billie Holiday jealous. I was now saving myself for concepts that couldn’t be effectively mimed or twittered.

This year was my first SXSW, a hoary old institution from the days of Web 1.0. My experiences of it until now were observing glassy-eyed but glowing back-to-back conference attendees wandering around the IA Summit in a happy daze of over-stimulation.

SXSW and the Summit are often only a week apart. Justification for attending both is a difficult sell to employer or significant other. This year I’d managed to both justify both. After the Summit, I would retreat to the Mohave with my husband and daughter to recover and make amends.

To those of you trying to choose for next year who haven’t done the IA Summit, let me say this: it is far better exercise for your brain. The Summit is an extraordinary 3-5 day thinker’s boot camp if you are a web professional of any sort (IA or not.) You will learn, grow, and be challenged intellectually. But its older cousin might be the choice if you have other skills to exercise. SXSW is a joyous networkathon blended with an insider’s glimpse into what will be cool and innovative next year.

In the Austin Conference Center halls, it’s telling that the floors outside the rooms are almost as thickly populated as the panel rooms themselves. In fact, it’s telling that panels comprise the entirety of SXSW. Panels are often thought to be the single worst form for disseminating information. Panels allow for moderators to coast with a list of questions, and panelists to show up unprepared, secure in their place as experts. Panels rely on improv; and these are web professionals not actors. Rarely do you get a scene out of “Who’s Line is it Anyway.”

SXSW, hindered with this structure, does a remarkably decent job of surrounding topics with insights. But the title on the program guarantees nothing about whether the panelists will fulfill a given promise; a brilliant set of panelists failed to deliver on the theme of “what to do when the next crash comes,” but did do a wonderful job of discussing the role of the audience in publishing. An early morning panel on the future of the book spoke more to failed promising technologies (and sadly, shilled for a 2nd tier P.O.D. service) than what the book will become next. An audience member who stepped up to the microphone worked for Google books—the man who knew where books were going was sitting in the front row of the audience, not at the table.

These anecdotes hint at the reality of SXSW. It’s a BarCamp with the brains to pose panels on “practical” topics as a front so you can justify the expense to your boss. The accidental or informal meetings create the real value of attending.

I sat down on the floor to catch my breath and found myself next to Annalee Newitz, intelligently speaking to microformat innovation. The publisher of SmithMag asked to me to help him carry a huge handful of margaritas to his group–and we delivered beverages to the publishers of Salon and The Onion, who then expounded on the challenges of integrating video content.

We on the web often don’t show our faces. At SXSW, we get to meet as people first, as icons second. I chatted with Joan Walsh for a good ten minutes before realizing who she was. She said “But you were at my panel!” I said “You were a high powered executive then! Now you look like a chick!” (Not my first margarita, obviously.) Once off the panels, everyone looks like a dude or a chick. Austin is hot, and even hotter in the clubs and bars we pack to the gills. A crowd never much inclined to suits dons jeans and slogan t-shirts grabbed free from the expo halls, then goes out and treats each other like people rather than vendors and buyers.

If you want to do business, Austin is the place to do your footwork. You can make those friendships that turn into grownup conversations when you get home. If you want to meet your heroes, it’s not hard. And do you want to ask people who have done it how to integrate video, do live broadcasting, hire journalists, engage bloggers, write an API, get funding or kill and I.E. 6 bug? They are there and happy to tell you over a beer exactly what they figured out.

This year what might have been private planning via IM become public twittering on the hall monitors: What’s tonight’s hot party? Where are you going next? Need to bag this panel–get a beer across the street? Saw (Jeff) Veen, (Robert) Scoble, Tantek (Celik) in the bbq line… you get the picture.

Three days at the IA Summit was like three months at Oxford. But I did my business far more good in three days at SXSW (though my liver will never be the same). If you can do both, do so. They complement each other. If I had to pick, well… spring break comes but once a year. This girl’s gone wild.

Keeping Pace with Change

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“Documentation is a little bit like broccoli; we all know it’s good for us, but many of us avoid it.”

Documentation is a little bit like broccoli; we all know it’s good for us, but many of us avoid it. It would be one thing if it was just a matter of getting things documented once, but the web is a never-finished medium and producing “living” documentation that evolves alongside projects and sites can require a heroic level of time and energy. Unfortunately this documentation void is a major contributor to bad information architecture design, especially as a site evolves over time. Blueprints and sitemaps let us look at complex information spaces from a bird’s-eye view, which helps us think more holistically and systematically about the design. But in order to do that, we have to have tools that support our work within the framework of our realities. And for the foreseeable future, this reality is likely to include projects that will never have time for documentation built into the resource allocation plan.

Intuitect is the most recent entrant into the emerging market for software that supports design and documentation of websites and information products from conception to prototyping. As such, it supports the creation of sitemaps to show hierarchical relationships, wireframes to show page-level components, and flow diagrams to document state and interactive components. Its features compete most closely with iRise and Axure; iRise being the first-to-market product focused on rapid prototyping and geared at the enterprise level, and Axure being the lighter, faster, cheaper entrant with a virtually identical feature set and more user friendly user interface (UI).

I have been leading user experience (UX) design teams for several years, which involves staying abreast of software tools that my team may find useful, evaluating software requests from my team, and making a business case for purchasing software. Because none of these tasks require me to have the level of proficiency possessed by the active practitioner, this review will focus more on my assessment of the strengths and weaknesses from a conceptual perspective, leaving the detailed evaluation of specific controls to a competent practitioner. While no longer in a practitioner role, I’ve had a significant amount of exposure to many of the products in this marketplace; in previous workplaces we used both Visio and iRise and in my current situation Visio, Axure, Illustrator, and Dreamweaver are all used in information design documentation.

From my perspective, there are three rather unique differentiators to Intuitect:

  • It is a licensed Visio add-on rather than an independent software program.
  • It is specifically catering to user experience professionals and works from a baseline assumption that users will be conversant in principles of information architecture and interaction design.
  • It has a fairly sophisticated approach to indexing structural components that acknowledges the dynamic nature web design projects, which, by their very nature, are continuously undergoing revision.

The good, the bad, and the compatible

Specifically catering to UX professionals is an aspect of Intuitect that I find particularly compelling because the software intrinsically acknowledges the relationship between page components, pages, and organizational groupings—something that is not fully realized in either iRise or Axure. As an information architect by training, having a product with specific affordances for documenting navigation is long overdue. bailey toggle The ability to move (in this case by tabs at the bottom of the screen) among sitemaps, wireframes, and flow diagrams supports thinking about information spaces more organically. It is the ability to see our design work through several lenses (sitemap/blueprint, page-level wireframe, interaction flow) toggle that I find most compelling. This multi-view approach has potential to be a powerful training and teaching tool while simultaneously supporting experienced practitioners in doing more complex design work. While experimenting with the tool I had the sensation that I was thinking less linearly and was able to visualize the interaction of components and pages in a more multi-dimensional way than was previously feasible with Visio or the other products I’ve used.

Pros and cons assert themselves the most baldly with Intuitect’s status as a Visio add-on. As someone who has used Visio extensively, I appreciate this integration, which allows Intuitect to rely on Visio’s existing strengths and extend and improve upon a mature software product’s formidable feature set. Anyone who has been using Visio regularly will likely be enthusiastic about the extended capabilities, as well as appreciative of the UI commonalities and the comparatively low barrier to entry in terms of pricing. Additionally, people who work in large organizations will likely experience few compatibility problems and may find it easier to have Intuitect accepted as a new software addition due to its association with Microsoft and the Office Suite’s level of penetration in large companies.

Of course, therein lies the rub—Intuitect is not available to Mac users (who typically use Omnigraffle) and may be overlooked by shops where Visio isn’t used regularly. In addition, it may have a higher learning curve for those who are unfamiliar with Visio since they’ll have to familiarize themselves with the peccadilloes of both components. Since Visio doesn’t have the same level of penetration as the other components of the Office suite, colleagues and clients who review UX deliverables may not have the software and will have to view deliverables as PDFs or an equivalent solution. Of course, anyone already using Visio is almost certainly already adept in responding to this limitation. (Because Intuitect currently only works with Visio 2003 Professional, folks who have not upgraded their Office suite recently will not be able to access the software without an upgrade.)

It may be my own professional bias at work, but I see few disadvantages to Intuitect’s UX-professional centric positioning; this is a niche that hasn’t been fully explored as other programs have tended to focus more on enabling the business segment to participate in the information design process. While it’s possible that some prospective users could be put off by the UX-specific positioning, I doubt that this would be likely to pose any greater barrier than the issues around Visio adoption described above. Most of the business analysts that I’ve worked with are Visio conversant and will readily grasp Intuitect’s design themes.

Indexing to the rescue

“I have long been frustrated by the clash that occurs between the realities of working in new media, where the only constant is change and the inherently static nature of documentation.”

It is Intuitect’s approach to indexing that I find most exciting about the product. Unlike traditional approaches to web design documentation where the “boxes and arrows” have static relationships, Intuitect captures the logical relationships between pages and data structures and is able to cascade changes and maintain relationships as the design expands and contracts and as hierarchical relationships change.

I have long been frustrated by the clash that occurs between the realities of working in new media, where the only constant is change and the inherently static nature of documentation. To date, I haven’t encountered a satisfactory solution to the problem of updating documentation in real-time—updating in a way that cascades throughout the design without requiring a manual update of numbering schemes. Because creating and maintaining documentation is so mind-numbingly labor intensive, most organizations end up with one of several (unsatisfactory) approaches:

  • Generate sitemaps lifted from the website via an automated process—from a content management system, for example—which to be disconnected from the organic site design and development in progress;
  • Settle for woefully out of date and incomplete documentation, or, most commonly;
  • Don’t maintain this kind of documentation outside of very specific redesign efforts.

Lack of or limits to documentation are a common lament in many industries. I suspect a primary cause of poor documentation in the web design world is the omnipresent change factor in that the next project is always underway before the current project is finished. If documentation were done for documentation’s sake, this would not be a concern. But it’s not: most information architectures are haphazard at best and impenetrable as the norm.

This product advances us another step down that road by introducing sophisticated indexing that can keep up with real-time design realities. With their approach to indexing, Intuitect offers the promise of painless evolution, and this strikes me as a feature that could become the product’s “secret” weapon in terms of developing customer loyalty.

Intuitect is currently still in beta and, as such, there are still bugs, inconsistencies, and gaps in help content and feature set limitations to content with, but this is definitely a product that information architects and interaction designers will want to familiarize themselves with and one that may become indispensable to many in the UX design community.

For more information:

Notes from the IA Retreat in Chile

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This year’s IA Retreat, New Horizons, was quite different from previous versions. First of all, the event was held in a small town typical of Chile’s countryside – yes, in South America! Santa Cruz is a town in the heart of the agricultural valley of Colchagua, which focuses mostly on wine production. We stayed at a very nice hotel, decorated in the colonial style, featuring comfortable rooms and great cooking.

The presentations addressed very well-developed projects and portrayed all sorts of IA implementations and stories from different contexts. The schedule was extensive and intense; you can find the final program and downloadable presentations on the site of the Center for Web Research, the event’s organizers.

294725028_f55f80edc0_t.jpg The retreat during a session. / Photo by Javier Velasco

As I was the event’s leading organizer, I’d rather leave more detailed commentary to the other participants. Here are some excerpts from comments that have been published online:

Peter Morville, on the IAI Members list:

One of my favorite things about the IA Institute is the international nature of the membership. Over the past few years, it has been great to meet up with IAs around the world at IAI-sponsored events. The IA Retreat in Chile was no exception. The people were warm, smart, interesting, fun, and very knowledgeable about IA and UX.

From Carolina Leslie’s blog:

The Retreat in Chile was really awesome. Javier managed to gather many great people in an amazing corner of Chile, and the outcome was unavoidably a grand weekend. And, despite the tower of babel formed by the diversity of languages, we were able to communicate very well.
The event had a strong international character, with participants from Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, Panama, Mexico, USA, Canada and Spain, yet it was odd not to find any other Latin American countries such as Argentina or Venezuela.
This sharing with [Information] Architects from other countries showed how the practice of IA is similar in different places. We have many features, problems and challenges in common, and not only with our Latin American colleagues….
(Free translation from Portuguese)

294725184_2d23e92c56_t.jpg Peterme blogging on site. / Photo by Javier Velasco

From Laura Lessa’s blog:

We found in Chile a community of User Experience professionals –
usability consultants, [information] architects, web producers, teachers
and evaluators – that is expressive, articulated and organized. Starting
with the initiator of the event, Javier Velasco,
to professor Juan Carlos Camus (yes,
he leads an IA course at the Economics School of Universidad de Chile), consultant
Nelson-Rodriguez-Peña and
Jorge Barahona, partner of the
coastal web producer AyerViernes (that’s the name), and grand knower of
wines.
(Free translation from Portuguese)

296390030_7b03b18827_t.jpg At the winery / Photo by Peter Merholz

From Gene Smith’s blog:

One of many highlights of the information architecture retreat in Santa Cruz, Chile this weekend was the presentations by Globo, a Brazilian media company.
My favourite was a case study on the design and development of 8P, a photo sharing site that looks like Flickr meets MySpace (but which they describe as Orkut meets Fotolog).
There were a couple of interesting ideas in the presentation. First, Flickr is unappealing to Brazilians because they want to customize the interface to express their individual identities (which partly explains the success of Fotolog in Latin America).
Second, Brazilians’ love of social networking (of the MySpace-Orkut variety) goes well beyond the MySpace generation – someone told a story about how grandmothers are getting online to use Orkut. Maybe it’s the high-context nature of the cultures. As Marcelo noted, Flickr is about the photos while 8P is about the people (and how they want to present their identity).


298293818_93b207d8bf_t.jpg
Viña Santa Cruz / Photo by Pilar Palacios

From Jorge Arango’s blog:

In previous IA retreats and summits, I felt like a tourist visiting the future from the past – the state of the profession in Panama is such that the stuff usually being discussed in these events is 5-10 years in the future for our market. Because this event was focused on the Latin American markets, the playing field was more even.
In conversations with colleagues from Chile, Brazil, and Uruguay (the three other Latin American countries represented), it became obvious that we face similar challenges – and opportunities. A shared concern seemed to be the way the common perception of IAs as “web designers” can place limits on our scope of action when dealing with business stakeholders.
It was also clear that the profession is in very different stages of development in our various countries. Of the countries represented, Chile is perhaps the most advanced – there is a vibrant community of IAs there, the profession is recognized in the business and academic fields, and, well, they can hold events like this one and get people to show up. I was also told that clients are starting to specifically ask for IA work as part of their web projects. A far cry from Panama!
Brazil doesn’t lag far behind; the Globo.com IA team, for example, seems to enjoy strong corporate support. It’s a relatively large group, and the value of their efforts seems to be recognized by their organization. What seems to be missing, perhaps, is a local sense identity for the profession (e.g. local gatherings). I suspect that this retreat will be the catalyst that will change this. (There is talk already of holding next year’s retreat in Rio!)

From Peterme’s blog:

… We stayed at the Hotel Santa Cruz, an extremely nice hotel, and enjoyed great meals and socializing. As part of the retreat we visited Viña Santa Cruz, a vineyard owned by the hotel, that was something of a wine-making Disneyland — it was clearly designed for tourists (with a restaurant, a gift shop, a funicular to take you up a hill to a plateau with an observatory, a Mapuche house, a Rapa Nui (Easter Island) house and moai, and two llamas for petting. …

retiro-group.jpg
New Horizons 2006 Information Architecture Retreat: Group Shot
Photo by Gloria Alcayaga

We hope this brings you a brief idea of what it was like. We’d like to thank
Chile’s Millenium Science Initiative,
Yahoo! Research and The
Information Architecture Institute
for help in sponsoring this event.

Multimedia:

Presentation Slides

Available at
the Center for Web Research.

Photos:

Some people said this was the most photographed retreat ever. You can
find many pictures on flickr under the tags iaretreat2006
and chileretreat2006.
Nelson also captured a plenitude of pictures which he was uploading on the fly,
but he doesn’t like flickr so he distributed them along with his
blog postings on the event
.

Video:

Sebastián made this
cute video
that captures the spirit of the event.