17 November 2010

'Live' information architecture

My most recent project (for 'LCP Automotive Components - the old site will be current for a short while yet) had an unusual set of requirements. I needed to present something other than wireframes, IA sitemaps, user journeys and the usual stuff. The client to whom the design would be communicated for a go-ahead (i.e., agree to spend the cash on roll-out) wants to see the system actually working.

This is a tall order - I have to prepare a 'working' but dummy system as the normal UX documentation will not be sufficient. This meant making something that actually worked.

I choose the open source route a) because the docs are actually quite good, b) customisation is easier, c) there are a range of platforms and d) it's zero cost. My choice was Joomla.

Before any of this, I went through the normal IA process of looking at the current IA, devolving the information therein, trying to anticipate future needs, and construct a new IA built around what information will go in there. This was summarised in a site-map and an information board (a spreadsheet detailing what information and interactions go where - quite a useful that I will illustrate later).

With an IA in place, I began to fill out the sections and categories (Joomla is limited in this aspect as it only has these 2 levels - plus the top level - of hierarchy, but for this site, it's fine). In each section, I've put down the bare minimum of information required on each page. Not proper content, but rather something like lines of text saying, "Link to product PDF information sheet here", "Tell user how to get information on this product recall" and so on. Almost like abstracted information, all ready for a copy writer to get their teeth into.

And it's working quite well. I've used the default design which we can settle on later - Joomla has a nice separation between content and style, so the main task for now is to prepare the IA on the live system to show what goes where. This is used with my client liaison who corrects my mistakes. Once all is ready, we can begin on content and detailed interaction design to be followed with the visual design.

It takes much longer to set up than a sitemap and the other IA documents, but once the content system is mastered, it's not too slow bearing in mind that the content is just abstracted summaries of what is supposed to be there.

The main thing to watch out for (as always) is the interaction design. Quite often, in top-down models of design (in which the IA is done first and then the IxD), I find the IxD presents problems which require the IA to be revised. My own work process is that I do a little IxD early on in the process to see what problems will arise and these are incorporated into the IA as early in the design as possible. This helps avoid a lot of problems.

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