A Failure to Communicate

It’s ironic that, as professionals dedicated to clear communication, information architects and user interface designers are having such trouble communicating with each other.

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Whether or not you agree that information design is a curse, it’s clear that the backlash has begun; and I’m not sure it’s all bad. To add another irony, many of the complaints aren’t about information architecture or user interface design, as much as they are about usability experts laying claim to the whole of “experience.”

Three aspects of web design#section2

While usability is obviously important, it’s far from the only consideration in designing a user experience. There are at least three aspects to sites: information, experience, and interaction – fact (or fiction), form, and function, if you will. The most appropriate design for a site depends on the relative importance of each of these.

Back when I was doing movie promo sites, the focus was on providing visitors with a taste of the movie (experience) in an effort to entice them into the theater. A site like A List Apart is focused on providing information (facts). It’s nice if it looks good, but not essential. And the primary concern in a shopping cart is that it works efficiently, both for the system and the user (function).

The problem right now, to oversimplify a bit, is that the user interface gurus tend to focus only on interaction, and the information architecture gurus tend to focus on information – and each tends to overlook the other two areas.

There are two striking examples of this:

  1. Jared Spool came out of software user interface design. In Spool’s first report on web usability back in the ’90s, he talked about how there was all this stuff called “content,” and how no one had any idea about how to present it effectively. Apparently, he’d never talked with a graphic designer, writer, or filmmaker.
  2. The second example is usability consultant Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox, which contains good information but fails miserably in its attempts to reach one of its intended audiences (graphic designers), because the site is ugly. (Compare Alertbox to Nathan.com [screenshot 03/01] which also is almost all text but has a simple, pleasant look and feel.)

Layers of design#section3

And so graphic designers are pushing back on the experience side of the equation. Graphics designers can also bring an understanding of things like corporate branding, marketplace differentiation. and appropriate images – which just may be important for your site/product – and which user interface designers and information architects often overlook, or dismiss outright.

Part of the tension results from people on all sides failing to understand the layers of design that are involved, which include:

  • Aesthetics-The surface “look and feel“ aspects of appearance.
  • Form-The “functional“ aspects of appearance; in other words, visual design used to aid usability, such as using color coding to differentiate sections, or shading to help make clear that something is a button.
  • Behavior- How interfaces and information components act.
  • Function-The capabilities of the system. Innovations here are much sought after by marketing, but since functions are easy to create, it’s also easy to create functions that aren’t useful, leading to creeping featuritis.
  • Architecture-How user interface elements are organized at a deep level. Innovating here is probably the biggest challenge for developers, but may offer the greatest gains in usability.

(Note: As you might’ve guessed, some of these layers are more “application focused” than “content focused.”)

Graphic designers are definitely involved in “aesthetics” – and unfortunately, techies and all too many user interface designers and information architects seem to think that’s the only role for designers. Complaints from designers about being handed “paint-by-numbers” page specs center around this predicament.

This demotion of the designer’s role ignores the contributions that can be made by good graphic designers, who are definitely knowledgeable about “form” issues, and potentially about “behavior issues” as well (less so for graphic designers, but more likely for interactive multimedia designers).

Oh! you pretty things#section4

Another source of irritation for graphic designers stems from user interface designers and information architects hammering knowledgeable designers about points that are obvious. “Don’t clutter the layout with too many items,” they thunder. Really, I never would’ve guessed….

Part of this goes back to the issue of mutual lack of respect among different disciplines. Be honest, how many of you have viewed designers simply as the ones who “make it pretty?”

Now I agree that there are plenty of designers who do simply want to “make it pretty.” This is where the distinction between “graphic designers” and “graphic artists” is critical. Just as the user interface and information architect fields aren’t monolithic, neither is the graphic design, which contains many sub-fields, and appeals to people with widely differing temperaments.

“Graphic artists” tend to be more artsy and to think exclusively in terms of aesthetics. “Graphic designers” tend to broaden their view to include form, and in fact may be more focused on that than on aesthetics. It’s important to remember which type of designer you’re dealing with.

Background matters#section5

It’s also important to know the background of the artist/designer you’re working with. People with a background in publication design have had to solve problems that are similar to those involved in information architecture. (In fact, “information architecture” as a title for the field can be traced back to Richard Saul Wurman’s attempts to organize information for publications.) Those from an advertising background tend to be more aesthetics-focused (though advertising art directors are concept-driven).

Within the graphic design field, there’s also a decades-long argument between “art” and “functionality,” most notably among typographers, about how type should reflect its content. Should it do so in a way that’s not consciously noticed by the reader, or should it be used overtly and expressively? In reality there’s no One True Answer; each case hangs on the interplay between information, experience and interaction.

Yeah, but is it art?#section6

Another contributing factor is the lack of respect for “applied arts,” such as graphic design, and journalistic and technical writing. So another issue to contend with is that the graphic design field tends to have an unstated – and often unconscious – view that “artsy” design is superior (since it’s closer to “art.”)

Writing shares a similar hidden viewpoint: that “real” writers are working on novels or screenplays instead of articles, manuals or ad copy. A look at the design magazine winners shows they’re generally flashy and artsy designs. And in part, that reflects the sensibilities of graphic designers, who, by definition, are more visually sophisticated than the general population. It’s the equivalent of programmers designing interfaces that make sense to other programmers.

However, the good designers do tend to be user-focused, which makes it terribly annoying when user interface designers and information architects act like they’re the only ones who care about this.

But it’s important to understand that graphic design as a discipline is a fairly intuitive one. Few designers will have statistics to support a particular design decision. But they do have five centuries of beta-testing experience to guide them. The “interface” elements of publication design (for example, how we “interact” with a book or magazine) have evolved through years of trial and error – and they’re so successful we don’t even think about them.

We’re all newbies on this bus#section7

Compounding things is the all-too-frequent, relative lack of experience of everyone involved. Internet development is a new field and people in it are often inexperienced – period.

Recently, the dearly departed Argus Associates surveyed information architects and found that of those who responded, 30 percent of them had worked as information architects for a year or less and 27 percent for one to two years.

Unfortunately the survey didn’t ask about prior related experience – for example designers, systems analysts, etc. who’d been solving similar types of problems before moving into information architecture – that might be relevant. However, it’s probable that most people only have a few years of experience, which tends to fit with the finding that 44 percent of respondents were aged 21–30, and 43 percent were aged 31–40. (This isn’t intended to pick on information architects – it’s likely similar for other fields within web development).

Now when people learn, they tend to go through several stages. At the beginning, people aren’t even aware of “The Rules” (or required steps) to accomplish something. As they develop their skills, they learn the rules, but tend to remain consciously aware of them and to stick to these rules. Finally, they reach expert status; they know the rules well enough that they don’t consciously think about them – and have the confidence to bend or break the rules if needed.

Rules and their relationship to the unconscious#section8

Based on the Argus findings, it seems likely that there are a lot of information architects at the advanced beginner/intermediate stages, who are unconsciously a bit anxious about their skills.  Quoting the guru of your choice eases that anxiety – it’s not just me saying so, it’s this big, powerful expert.

Since these advanced beginners/intermediates are still probably extremely conscious of The Rules, grabbing hold of them also is a good way to ease this unconscious anxiety – unfortunately it can also make them appear to be rigidly following The Rules. This is all the more of a problem because interface design and information architecture are crafts, not sciences (or arts for that matter). We have rules of thumb (heuristics) rather than rules.

Likewise, it’s easier for less skilled user interface designers and information architects to quote the rules laid down by their expert of choice than to do the difficult task of balancing competing interests. And, as mentioned earlier, less sophisticated user interface designers and information architects tend to focus somewhat exclusively on one side of the information-experience-interaction equation.

The blind leading the sighted#section9

Compounding all this, in a very real sense, there are people who are “design-blind” (as in colorblind) – who really don’t see a difference between good visual design and bad. This is where I think we need to be careful that we’re not designing user interfaces and information architecture for our colleagues.

You can’t design by heuristics alone. Doing so risks a user interface or information architecture that’s “technically correct” but fails in the real world because it’s out of touch with the needs of the site and the site’s intended users.

Who’s on first?#section10

A final factor is that because information architecture, and to a lesser extent user interface design, are relatively young fields (as least when it comes to web development), the fields are still somewhat undefined and do have overlaps with other fields.

As mentioned earlier, there’s definitely an overlap with the “form” aspects of visual design.

When information architects organize content, is it similar to the work that can be done by writers, editors or content strategists? Yes.

Business analysts and systems analysts do work that’s similar but not identical. A business analyst’s focus is on the business needs of a system, while a system analyst focuses on the flow of data through a system.

The work of information architects and user interface designers looks superficially similar, but it’s user-focused in a way that business analysis and systems analysis isn’t. Still, good business analysts and systems analysts should – and do – think about their users, so the waters get muddied.

Toes and backs#section11

No the lines aren’t always clear. But instead of seeing this as stepping on each other’s toes, we should view it as having someone to watch our backs.

Ideally, user interface designers and information architects are part of a team, along with graphic artists/designers, content strategists, as well as (potentially) brand strategists, business analysts and systems analysts among others.

There is, and should be, overlap among these roles where different people are able to provide a wider perspective to the particular areas of focus. User interface designers and information architects should know enough about each other’s jobs to understand where these overlaps occur, and to show mutual respect about the differences in perspectives.

Meanwhile, back in the real world#section12

Mutual respect is the ideal. Unfortunately, a lot of places don’t function as a team as well as they could. In such shops, the overlapping areas can be divisive.

Part of this is reality – I don’t think enough user interface designers and information architects fully understand the value others bring – but part of it is how we communicate to others.

For example, it’s all too easy for a “page spec” to be interpreted as The Layout, and all that’s left for the designer to do is to paint-by-numbers to complete the design. However, the designer who accepts this unquestioningly is equally at fault. Many inexperienced designers have accepted page specs as gospel, despite being told that they are merely a visual representation of the elements that must be on the page, along with their relative importance.

Can’t we all just get along?#section13

User interface designers and information architecture can take any number of steps to improve their communication problems.

For example, with the problem of The Layout, one easy step is to abstract the “page spec” down to its essence and represent it as a cluster map rather than a thumbnail sketch. Such a cluster map still explains what elements need to be on the page and how they should be organized, but it gives the graphic designer more room to be creative.

At a higher level, resolving communication problems means educating other people about what we do – among them tasks that designers might run away from screaming (such as creating taxonomies or flowcharting processes) – as well as a frank discussion of where there are overlaps with other members of the team.

And finally it means actually collaborating with a mutual respect, and understanding there are competing needs, and the art of good design is making the appropriate tradeoffs.

About the Author

George Olsen

George Olsen is the principal of Interaction By Design, an editor of Boxes and Arrows, and a co-founder and group leader emeritus of The Web Standards Project. He’s taught at UCLA Extension, and written and spoken at numerous conferences about user experience design.

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