Flexible Fuel: Educating the Client on IA

by Keith LaFerriere

34 Reader Comments

Back to the Article
  1. I thought this article was easy to understand and very thorough. It was complete and made it easy to help me explain this to a client. Thank you for providing this resource.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  2. Throughout my schooling wire frames, site maps, use cases and the like were part of the projects. I really value this type of planning.

    But after school I found myself working at a small company building sites for small clients. Planning for these projects involved gathering requirements from the client, creating a mockup and then building the site.

    Just because our clients were small didn’t mean their sites were small. Instead, the budget was the most limiting factor. These clients didn’t see a lot of value in planning ahead and the larger the project was the more difficult it became to build.

    I’m still searching for the best balance between IA and time/cost but this article is going to help. Thank you.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  3. Thank you for this discussion on the benefits of IA for clients.  The suggested talking points are perfect.

    I wonder if some other aspects should also be considered in your Phase One, if not before.  These are the dynamic information (data) flows and trust boundaries, and thus consideration of the sensitivity of the data being handled and who can access what.  Without doing this, ad-hoc security controls need to be added later in the project’s life cycle which will be more costly and probably less effective.

    Also, in creating use cases, it’s also worth trying to think about misuse cases, but this can be a harder concept for people to grasp.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  4. This article, in my opinion, can easily turn into a book if you elaborate on some of the points, and provide templates.

    This is a concise and comprehensive discussion of Information Architecture. Thanks…

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  5. Kevin did a fantastic job with the illustration for this idea; it’s brilliant!

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  6. Dana: Thank you for pointing something out that I should have mentioned / done a table for in the article. Even small projects have, or should have, elements of the IA process. UX firms should be willing to use their own methods and processes even when they do their own website. It’s important to plan it all, even the small stuff.

    Clerkendweller: I believe you are correct that if the team can maintain a larger IA compliment, then user flows should be included in Phase 1. As you’ve pointed out, even before this if possible. I agree! The IA, business analyst, project manager, and creative lead / manager should map out the user flows ASAP so that the rest of the IA process can enjoy a natural cadence from both the user flows and the high-level use cases.

    PM Hut: Is that an offer? If you have connections, speak now! ;) Thanks. (I am not, however, available for weddings or Bat/Bar mitzvahs.)

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  7. I think that information architecture is the most important part of web development. The approach I use is the pry as much information from the client as I can about what their site’s purpose is, and get as much content as possible from them, and then design the site around that. From an interaction standpoint, information architecture is nothing more than a series of links, where they appear, and where they are on the page. That’s the way I approach is to the client, rather than showing them some idiotic diagram.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  8. If this article would be a video, I’d out it on IA Television every day :-)…

    thx

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  9. I’ve been doing this kind of IA planning with clients since 1995, and one thing I’ve learned is your planning documents have to make sense to the client. Keeping it simple is a good way to do that. IA doesn’t have to be complex, but it is essential to even the smallest website project. Heck, even the odd client who needed just a temporary one page placeholder site, we still sat down and outlined what content would need to be on that page and how it would be presented, and I still wrote up a simple document to get sign off on that.

    But I find IA most valuable in helping to discover what it is the client actually needs/wants, because clients often don’t know what they need or want.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  10. I run a relatively young web design business and at the moment we are trying to find the best way to manage our projects and clients. I found this article really helpful as I do the site as a whole.

    The article raises a lot of very interesting points, from a novice point of view its very difficult to know where to start! How have other users of this site learnt how to apply these principles? Can anyone recommend a resource which examines the subject in greater detail, or where we can see detailed examples of each stage to use as a starting point?

    Any pointers would be greatly appreciated.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  11. This is totally a wrong approach. It assumes that the client knows what he/she wants to present (in the real world there are no clients that say: “Hey this is my content, please make a website of it!) and assumes also that this can be defined by a survey. This approach would be very boring too, I would for my self wouldn’t want to work for these kind of clients, because they already decided which and how the information should be presented.

    This approach would cost to much. Just spending a lot of hours to come up with design deliverables and billing them will be a business killer. The competitors will build a working site for the same budget!

    I agree that for example use cases are very important. But writing complete and accurate use cases is a hell of a job and most of the time useless because the developer needs to read them for hours and research again what the use cases try to explain. Most of the time the developer will find out that these are incomplete, not detailed enough or make bad assumptions.

    If this is the wrong approach, what is the right approach?
    – It depends of the team, the client and the assignment.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  12. Fantastic article.  I can see myself using the spirit of the piece in my next sales call to help explain the value of a well developed Information Architecture. The 1/10/100 rule from my programming days applies to IA as well: it’ll cost you a dollar to put the time into thorough discovery up front, 10 dollars if you uncover a key content area/goal/functionality during development, and 100 dollars to engineer that in after the site/system/design is built.

    Yes, there are certain projects (small sites or standard cookie-cutters) that don’t require an extensive IA phase/process, but I don’t think that’s what the author was focusing on.  Even for those smaller projects, while we don’t spec or bill for an IA phase, we do adhere to the general principles of sound IA while working through discovery.

    And I don’t think anyone can understate the value of hammering out the content requirements and shepherding the client through the content gathering/writing. Having been in the web arena for over ten years and speaking with dozens of colleague firms along the way, a recurring theme of missed launch dates is the failure of well-intentioned clients to provide their content. This goes for small firms and Fortune 500 alike. I like how the author weaves content and IA related accountability through his process.  We’ll certainly be doing more of this on our end.  Cheers!

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  13. CAT EYE: Thank you for your input. I do, however, disagree. I’ve read your post over and over and it comes through (to me) as though you’re not used to working on very large or complex problems. Please correct me by explaining an example so that I can better understand your approach.

    In Web application (read: web applications that people are selling online), IA is huge and it takes a while. I’m not actually only referring to content when I discuss IA, but, rather, a very exhaustive process up front to uncover as many workflows and functional requirements as possible so that you’re not retrofitting critical pieces later on (which as Robert Simmons rightly points out is quite expensive).

    Re: use cases, the idea that you wouldn’t want to have them because an engineer wouldn’t properly use them or wouldn’t care to is actually pretty surprising and slightly defeatist. Here’s a thought: How about the IA and the designer do an incredible job laying out the entire system in both visual and black and white deliverables so that the engineers’ job is easier. That way, the use cases become a reference, not something to which you fall asleep or misunderstand. (By the way, there are some engineers who have read this and may also disagree and feel somewhat slighted.)

    Here is where the truth hurts: BIG design up front saves BIG money down the road when working on BIG projects.

    If you’re on a smaller gig, then that’s fine as well; IA still has an important role. In the article I mentioned that you don’t need to use all the outlined deliverables.

    Re: how boring a process it is…

    If you go into any situation with the mentality that it is boring, then boring it will be. Make it fun. It’s a challenge to get some clients to focus, but that doesn’t mean, especially in the creative field, that you can’t find a pleasant way to execute a task.

    Re: costing too much…

    Again, don’t try to sell the whole thing if the client doesn’t need the whole thing. Use the pieces that fit the project. Try adjusting the deliverables to be at a higher level. That way you don’t give up the quality while saving costs.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  14. @Keith LaFerriere
    I know that the method you described is a good practice and i wrote the comment just to let people think about the arguments that you will encounter from colleagues and or clients that does not want a structured way of working.

    Nevertheless it is not complete nonsense. The reasons i summed up are in some circumstances fact very valid. But that is why software development is an craft and not art or a job. It is finding the perfect balance between the demanded requirements and realizing also non required functionality (like performance, security or usability).

    The approach you mention can be very dangerous in wrong hands. Software development is not following a template and filling in the variables. It doesn’t also make a difference if it is a big project. (How can one determine big? Amount of functionalities (google search is 1 functionality and is big) or the lines of code?)

    Think about the process you want to follow and don’t use silver bullets.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  15. I take a view somewhere in between Cat Eye and Keith.

    The 1/10/100 argument about getting all the IA sorted before design (and especially before development) is very strong; I work in a mid-sized web agency and our biggest problem is change control and clients saying “I didn’t realise it would be like this.” Of course, establishing a detailed, signed-off scope early on is crucial.

    However, there’s two problems:

    #1. Many of our projects, including big ones, are on a very tight timescale. Drawing up all of these documents and getting them signed off (often by multiple stakeholders who need to feedback etc) will simply take too long, even if it saves us some time downstream. We merge some of your separeate documents together, particularly the first stages: (content survey / map / audit / scheme / map / nav schema is all in one “Content Outline and Site Map” doc)

    #2. Most of our clients simply don’t know what they want. Cat Eye’s point about them just giving over content or finding it in a survey is relevant here. If you imagine that there are no client SME’s.. how can we insist that they complete and sign off many of these documents? Together we might well be guessing about personas, so how useful does this process end up being? Depending on budget, we may do a simple design first so that they can discuss and decide around a visual thing rather than writing up a more abstract document.

    Really useful article and discussion, thanks all!
    James

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  16. Didn’t realise that pound signs did that to the formatting! Sorry, please edit if you can.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  17. JAMES BROWN: Thank you for your comments. A good point to mention: a lot of these deliverables can be worked on simultaneously and sign-off is made easier by having the client engaged in the process. Combining structure documents is a great idea if your client is willing to sign off on that much data at once. The only caveat being if you’re in a second phase and the designers/developers are waiting for the next batch of wireframes, but they’re being held up due to another document.

    Regarding content from SMEs / non-SMEs and surveying: I’m going to be an oak tree here. I believe it’s our job to teach them this process and to engage them in the value of GREAT IA. It’ll save them money in the long run and it will bring out content that they never knew existed (but need in order to help their cause).

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  18. Keith:

    There is no doubt you know your stuff. I love the idea of this process and your ability to clearly explain each deliverable is why I’ll bookmark this article for basically the rest of my career.

    I’ve gone through and read all three of your articles and I’m impressed with your breadth of knowledge.

    One thing that I think was mentioned before are examples. I’d love to see this article be expanded. Part II, perhaps? ALA, are you hearing what I’m throwing down?

    Anyway, thank you for the resource.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  19. As a former web developer who has also held the title of information architect, I enjoyed your article very much. However, I’m putting on my current hat of origami illustrator for my comment.

    While I appreciate the illustration by Kevin Cornell, I’m disappointed by his utter lack of knowledge of origami. The bird, which I can only assume is meant to portray the traditional origami crane, bears only superficial resemblance to the actual origami model. Worse, the crease pattern shown under the bird not only does not match the bird, it is impossible to fold.

    It is ironic, and a bit sad, that an article that talks about doing things properly features an illustration that says the opposite.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  20. This article touched on all the fundamentals that go into a proper IA. If you’re building sites properly, you should pretty much know this stuff already.

    This is totally a wrong approach. It assumes that the client knows what he/she wants to present (in the real world there are no clients that say: “Hey this is my content, please make a website of it!) and assumes also that this can be defined by a survey.

    I am assuming that Mr. LaFerriere didn’t imply that you should skip Discovery and go straight to IA. And for that matter, part of proper IA is Content Development.

    If you imagine that there are no client SME’s.. how can we insist that they complete and sign off many of these documents? Together we might well be guessing about personas, so how useful does this process end up being? Depending on budget, we may do a simple design first so that they can discuss and decide around a visual thing rather than writing up a more abstract document.

    There is nothing “abstract” about IA.  Jumping straight to “visual design” is just the wrong approach.  How are you suppose to understand the depth and complexity of the project and make proper decisions without blueprints?  Also, there is no “guessing” in proper web design.  You need an answer, you ask the right question to the right audience.


    You will find that most clients have not been through a proper web design process before (Discovery/Strategy, IA, UI Design, Production, and Launch and Post-Launch). Part of your job as a web designer is to help educate the client.

    Proper web design takes time.  And it takes money. Don’t cut corners.  After all, you wouldn’t build a house without blueprints?

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  21. This article seems to show the opposite of the agile approach featured in the first article of this ALA #273.

    I believe there is a middle land. I tend to define content types and applications to manage those types first, I would give the client a generic content management and generic admin interfaces for specific content types and let the SMEs enter the content in the Database, while designers work on the HTML/JS and Photoshop eyecandy and while the programmers work on the functionality.

    If some content is available for a start, I prefer to use generic content management system that handles tasks such as building site-maps and navigations from the content entered into the system allowing to organize and reorganize the content on the fly. It is definitely more client-friendly and more convenient than setting things in stone in unreal documents.

    It is good to work with unreal things to a certain extend, although certain aspects of the work you suggest to carry out, before a line of code is written, are too far.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  22. Hi, František:

    You mentioned that the documents may be unreal, but I wanted to point out that this is an iterative process. The content, the requirements, the strategy are all things we would like to have up front not only to properly plan the entire site (or application), but to give clear guides to the design and development team, help the client save costs, and keep things in scope.

    To wit: The IA would, for example, take the responsibility of conducting a nomenclature interview. The outcome of this interview would have a direct impact on the design (navigation, most certainly), but that doesn’t mean that the designer has to wait for their turn in the cycle. The designer (and creative lead / director) should be holding their own court to find out what the brand elements and design approach should be.

    It’s a small example, but there are literally hundreds of things that have to happen at the right time in order to make the project a success. It’s all happening in and around other events.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  23. Most designers n developers.. leva alone clients don’t understand the importance of Information Architecture. This article has thrown a lot of importance on the subject. I wish people become more aware about IA as a cruical aspect that dictates the website development project.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  24. Hi. Thanks for the great article. It was full of great reasons why IA is important, and how to present certain concepts to clients.

    It also reminds me of a lecture that I saw at Chicago’s “An Event Apart” last year. It talked about how IA is and should be part of everyone’s (who are working on a web project) considerations, and not solely left to the Information Architect. I wanted to pass this along, because developers, designers and content managers who work on a web project can also put an IA hat on to help keep a project on time/budget and minimize scope creep. Heck, even account managers!

    Thanks, ALA, for continually publishing helpful ideas…

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  25. It is always interesting to see the difference with a repeat client who you couldn’t talk into spending the time and budget on a good go at IA the first time. Without the proper IA at the beginning of a project I have never had a great experience getting to a finished site.
    However, despite the inevitable frustration that comes without the proper IA, when I get the chance to work with the same client again and am able to show them what could have been avoided if we had spent the time at the beginning in IA and they give it a chance with the second project, it has always proven to make both sides much happier in the end.
    Thanks for the great article laying it all out…hopefully, it will help me talk first-time clients into spending time in IA rather than learning the hard way!

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  26. Hi Jason:

    To give you a helpful selling point: Make sure the client is aware of not only what IA is, but how they can save money. It’s not bad saying to a client, “I know your budget is tight, but this will actually help us save you money and time on rework”.

    To illustrate this further, take a generic example to them. Use a previous project, wipe out the name and explain how much work was saved by the correct emphasis up front in IA.

    If you have a project that endured a lot of change, use that one. Good luck!

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  27. “If we want our customers to embrace IA, we must help them understand why we need it.”

    This is so often forgotten, I think it is crucial that we step outside of our environment and make sure that we are communicating effectively with our clients, and educating them is a big part of that process.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  28. I know this irony is partly due to juxtaposition with an article you didn’t create, but…

    This article reads a lot like the waterfall process reengineered for information architecture instead of software development. And in ALA, the two articles seemed to be:

    1: “IA needs a waterfall analogue”

    2: “Draw on Agile; current economic conditions sound the death knell to waterfall”

    Again, the irony doesn’t all belong to you… but the pair of articles current today left me thinking more about irony than I wanted…

    -Jonathan

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  29. As a prominent marketing agency, we always emphasize on the value of custom logo design since it will be the frontliner of any business. In the webpage, we further enhance it with flash design while still following SEO standard to properly index the page. We may not be an established web design agency should we not gain the secrets of making all website design be indexed.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  30. I’m intrigued that the discussion has veered into the differences between a Waterfall and an Agile approach. The thing I took away from reading this was another thoughtful reminder of how important it is for designers, engineers, and product owners to communicate in a shared language. The actual language used isn’t really the point—except when it is.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  31. For large scale projects, sure, I completely agree with this approach. I’d go as far as to say this kind of documentation is absolutely necessary to avoid scope creep and arguments along the way.

    But on a day to day level? On a day to day level it’s pointless, even counter productive, and unnecessary, especially if we’re working to a minimum budget spec. The client knows what they want, I know what they need and want, and it doesn’t come down to much more than a design job.
    Of course we could treble or quadruple the time we bill them for by going through the rigmarole of wireframing, employing UI “experts”, documenting everything, then going through multiple iterations of the process to reach an outcome.

    In my experience, on ‘most’jobs, clients view lengthy documentation as a pain in the ass. And I would tend to agree with them.

    On HUGE projects though, sure thing.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  32. Hi, Duncan:

    It’s only counterproductive if you make it more than it needs to be. Every project, large or small, deserves attention to detail. Even if this means you put in 2 hours of your own time to truly understand a problem and document it in rough draft for your own team. I do, in fact, spend some non-billed hours doing this on almost every project.

    This isn’t to say you should, mind you, but it’s what I believe.

    Thanks for the comment!

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  33. I have found continuous education of my employer a bigger part of my job than the actual job! Does anyone else have this experience?

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  34. If I didn’t run into so many poorly designed sites when trying to find out more about it. Links to PDFs without indication that you’re not linking to markup. 25 bullet point lists done in ul tags that reference other bullet points by number. Those two examples are from official-looking IA organizations on the front page of a Google search. I won’t even go into the blogs or words like “deliverables” or improper use of focus groups who have to tell you something even if they thought nothing.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.