boxes and arrows (10 ways that packing up a house is like doing information architecture)

This Way Up

So, what exactly is it about packing and moving that is so entirely horrendous?

I’ve said to many people in the past week that it’s an exercise in ongoing under-estimation. Underestimating how much, how long, how expensive, how heavy, how tired.

It’s got a lot in common with working on an enormous project with not enough time and not enough budget, and the media booked for launch.

(This is why I’ve started encouraging my clients to work in increments now. I’m starting to think all enormous projects are doomed – not to mention rarely profitable… but that’s a whole other post).

I’m looking forward to only have two suitcases worth of gear. Must try to keep it to that for as long as possible. It will be good to not have possessions for a while!

I’ve noticed a few interesting behaviours in the last week of organising ‘stuff’ (see, packing up a house has a lot in common with information architecture… and I get to be the architect and the user at the same time! I am my own usability test!)

Some of these may be abundantly obvious, but I’m tired enough to find it interesting.

  1. It’s much easier to be diligent at the beginning of the exercise than it is at the end.
  2. This is because it’s natural to leave the trickiest things to last.
  3. Things are tricky when they don’t have a natural place. They don’t fit neatly into a box, or they’re hard to wrap, or no one wants to take them off your hand. They end up in a pile in the corner of the loungeroom. You enter the room with hand on hip, stare at the weird little pile, and sigh. Then walk out again.
  4. You will always argue over what can be thrown out and what cannot. The person with the best rationale wins. Except if the item was originally a present. (Although, I’m not sure how the present fits in the the IA metaphor… any ideas? While you’re thinking about it, read what Christopher Fahey has to say about throwing things out and web redesign.)
  5. Throughout the process you will group things together in different ways. Sometime because they are similar types of items. Sometimes because you will need to get to them at similar times, sometimes just because they’re the same shape or share a fragile nature. It doesn’t really matter. If there was a rational reason for the grouping, you’ll remember it and be able to refind the item quickly.
  6. You never group things logically at the end of the packing process. You throw things together randomly. This is when you lose things.
  7. Once you start throwing things together randomly, the entire system breaks down. Even those things that are grouped logically suffer because you lose faith in your system.
  8. The number of ‘special places’ you have to put important items is inversely proportional to the ‘specialness’ (read: useful/memorableness) of those special places.
  9. The only time you go through this process is when you move. There are some possessions you *only* see when you move house. You still don’t throw them out.
  10. The longer the time between moves, the more hellish the packing process.

We’re very close to hopping on a plane and heading off on our big adventure now, so posts might be a bit sporadic and possibly off topic for the next couple weeks. Promise I’ll brew up a few great posts for my return… (from a lounge chair in the shade on a beautiful Thai beach! Now that’s blogging!)

Image Credit: io2 @ Flickr

Whacky title explanation: Boxes & Arrows, a regular read for people who do stuff like me for a living. So, when I saw this picture on my blog I couldn’t resist. :)

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To content inventory or not to content inventory? (continuing conversations)

Late night at work

Recently I suggested that starting a project with a content audit was not necessarily the best approach.

There’s been a bit of discussion around that since then, most notably over at Donna Maurer’s blog, and also as a Question of the Week at the IA Institute.

The overview of responses from the IA Institute probably give the best idea of current concensus:

The responses to this question gave a nice blend of ideas, mainly that the initial runthrough of the content at the start of a project can be thorough, but likely should not be the final, detailed audit.

Also, there is a desire to clarify the terms at work here. One person’s “content survey” is another’s “content inventory.” Or, one person’s “content inventory” is another’s “content audit.”

The responses to this question suggest the following continuum for the level of detail:

(Least detail) Content survey > content inventory > content audit (More detail)

I have to say – I think that there are plenty of projects where a content audit/inventory *is* probably a good place (or sometimes the ONLY place to start a project). The reason for my post was to make the point that this should become a de facto ‘standard’ approach to all IA projects.

As it happens (and possibly via karmatic consequences from posting what I did) I’ve had to do two content inventories since I wrote that post. In one project I did it because the client specifically requested one at the outset of the project, and in the second case it was because the content was so extensive and so poorly structured that there was no way to get a good idea of what content was involved by taking a top level survey.

I hope to not see an excel spreadsheet for at least a few weeks….

Image credit: WorkIsPlayIsWork @ Flickr

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Why you shouldn’t start IA with a Content Inventory

Student Papers by Idiolector on Flickr
I get the feeling that there are some people out there who think that one of the first things you want to do, when starting an Information Architecture project, is a detailed Content Inventory. (Want to get into a discussion about what terms to use and what they mean, go to the IA Wiki – I’d give you a link to the exact page, but the site seems to be down at the minute).
Personally, I am of the opinion that starting your project with an inventory of this kind is probably one of the *worst* ways to go about developing a good IA.
Not only is it the fastest way to lose enthusiasm for a project (hey, you don’t do a Content Inventory for fun… they’re really the most tedious work that an IA has to do). It is also the best way to ensure that you’re *not* taking a fresh approach to how the content might be structured and related.
When you’re doing a content inventory, you’re unavoidably indoctrinating yourself into the way that things are currently done. The IA approach (or lack thereof) currently in use, the way things are named and grouped. The stuff you’re trying to fix. It is very hard, once you’ve been through that process, to divorce yourself from ‘the way it is’ in order to be able to work out ‘ways that it could be’ and ultimately ‘the best way forward’.
And, in the early design stages, you don’t *need* to know every single bit of content and where to find it. You just need to know, broadly, what the really important content is (speaking from a content perspective – there are lots of other things you need to know about your client, your users etc.)
So, rather than doing a content inventory, do a content survey. Have a run through the existing content. Work out what’s there, and find out what’s important. Learn about how much exists, how the content will grow (or not), what content is high priority, what are the different types of content.
Then, while you’re still excited and energised about the project, start designing. Pull out your paper and a pencil and get creative. Imagine all the different ways that you could possibly approach this content.
Design when you’re still fresh, then go do your content inventory and make sure your designs still hold.
I guarantee, not only will you enjoy your work much more, but your work will be more enjoyable for users.
And both of those things, I think, are what it’s all about.
What do you think?
Image Credit: Idiolector @ Flickr

UnFundaMental: Left, Right, Top, Bottom? Consider the context for navigation

Compass Collection
So, given recent events, I’ve decided to start a new little category on the blog (something I’ve been trying to resist). I’m calling it UnFundaMental. Yes, I know it is not really a word. This category is my attempt to encourage people to *think* about how they create their user experiences online (and elsewhere, I guess), and to discourage them from taking ‘rules’ and applying them unreflectively. So, it’s against ‘fundamentalism’ in UxD, and there should also be an unsubtle hint towards people who embrace said fundamentalism that I think they are mental (which seemed like a nicer expression than ‘utterly incompetent’).
So, today, let’s talk about navigation. Where should you put it on your page?
Here is the absolutely incontrovertible answer…
It depends.
(Pardon me whilst I channel Christina Wodtke (amongst many other smart people who would say exactly the same)
If you thought that there was a rule book somewhere that would tell you how to do your job, then you’re absolutely out of luck. You need to use your mind, and your experience, and your smarts. You’re going to have to do some research (see what other smart people have done in similar situations), and do some user research.(don’t under-estimate your users, they’re smart)
I *know* that people have probably told you that the left hand side of the page is place that people most expect to find the navigation. Others have probably told you that navigation top of page is the most efficient placement. But, what do you think? Are either of these reasons compelling in your case? Is the site/application/system you’re designing *like* the sites that people are referring to when they’re making these statement?
Loads of blogs now have right navigation (I think that’s why I’ve found myself feeling it to be more and more natural over time). There’s also been an emerging trend for blogs to put their navigation at the bottom of the page [example]. Do you just ignore these trends because they’re not *real* websites? At your peril, you do. (or, unless you really *want* to create utterly uninspired experiences for users by pumping out the same old thing every time and hoping you get a good creative to spice up the visual design so your work looks better than it really is).
It’s not just the evolution of blogging templates that make a RHS nav seem like good sense. Check out the great literature review that the Razorfish (Germany) guys have done in their paper outlining the results they received when testing RHS navigation on the Audi website.
And what did the guys find?
Well, they went in to see whether the accepted view that LHS nav was more efficient than RHS nav was true. They were pretty surprised to find that this didn’t seem to be the case… that RHS nav was also efficient, maybe even more efficient. Sure, people weren’t expecting it at first, but they learned it quickly. And users reported that they enjoyed using the RHS navigation.
So they went ahead an implemented a RHS navigation, and by all reports, it’s been well accepted by users.
It’s important to note that Razorfish didn’t just throw in a RHS navigation for the hell of it. Or for the sake of being different. They had a rationale.
‘A key motivation for this design decision was that a right-hand navigation better reflects core values of the Audi brand: innovation, progressiveness, and individuality. The design goals (creating a usable but unconventional layout) were therefore tied closely with the business goals (reinforcing brand values and distinguishing the site from competitors’ sites).’
Very important. I don’t want anyone to think that I’m advocating a free-for-all, or that we’re allowed to ignore all the findings of the past. Everyone should be able to justify why they choose to design an experience a particular way. My point is that the response ‘because that’s just the way you do it’ shouldn’t cut it as a rationale.
So, you have a project that might benefit from a navigation on the RHS and you need some ammunition to back up your decision to a Usability FundaMentalist? Here’s some stuff I gleaned from the Razorfish paper:
Interestingly, Nielsen (1999) also theorizes that right-justified navigation areas should result in better user tasking and usability. He believes that placing the navigation menu next to the scrollbar will save users time. Additionally, he claims that a right-hand navigation and the main content area on the left should increase the priority of content. Nielsen abandons this logic, however, and goes on to dictate the use of a left-hand navigation: “If we were starting from scratch, we might improve the usability of a site by 1% or so by having a navigation rail on the right rather than on the left. But deviating from the standard would almost certainly impose a much bigger cost in terms of confusion and reduced ability to navigate smoothly” (Nielsen 1999). In other words, the vestigial behavior outweighs the actual efficiency of a right-hand navigation. Nielsen offers no proof of reduced usability with a right-hand navigation, however.
Fitts’ Law: Fitts’ law has been frequently applied to computer interface design (Mackenzie 1992). For all intents and purposes, it simply means that the bigger and closer an item is, the easier it is to click. Position on the screen, then, is a key factor in “ease of click”. In general, shorter mouse movements are better according to Fitts’ law. Therefore, locating the main navigation menu next to the scrollbar on the right side of a Web page should indeed reduce the time required to alternate between the two.
Constantine & Lockwood (2002): You can confidently make novel use of many standard, well-established controls, visual elements and interaction idioms provided that new functions and behaviors are consistent and logical extensions of the old…Significant improvements in the user experience often require creative departures from standards and accepted practice. However, useful innovation in visual and interaction design should not burden the new user with a long and frustrating learning process”
Need a couple of sample RHS Navigation sites to further prove your point. Try these on for size:
Ok. Let’s talk.
  • Anyone out there disagree and think that RHS navigation is the devil’s spawn?
  • Anyone got some other good example sites or literature to back up RHS (or maybe bottom?!) navigation systems?
  • Anyone got another FundaMental Belief that needs tearing apart?
Go crazy.
Image Credit: Chauss513 @ Flickr