Understanding Consumer Behavior

When designing systems, it’s easy to assume that we know what customers need, without making any real effort to validate our assumptions. But to design products, services and experiences that really hit the mark, we must first truly understand how people engage with the world…

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Website Findability Strategy

In the last 10 years, the rise of excellent search engines has changed the way that sites approach findability of their content. On many modern sites, less than 20% of sessions start on the home page, because users are pointed to some internal point in the site. This has in some ways obscured the critical role of websites to assist users in traveling the “last mile” from the site to their desired target…

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Confident In Our IA Value Proposition

A talk given by Kaarin Hoff at World IA Day-Ann Arbor in 2016 on the value of the information architect's worldview.

The notes from her presentation are provided below the video.


1. Confident in Our IA Value Proposition

2. The theme of World IA Day 2016 is: “Information Everywhere, Architects Everywhere.”

The email I got described the theme further—it said, “Because of the ubiquitous nature of information, information architecture is not just practiced by specialists. Instead, we see information being architected by people holding all sorts of titles, coming from all walks of life.” This got me thinking about what makes an IA. Everyone does information architect-ING—you don’t even need a computer to do that! Far fewer people do Information Architect-URE.

3. And I’d argue that there is a toolkit difference, a mentality difference, a difference in the way of approaching the world.

4. When I say Information Architect, I don’t mean it like a job title. Your job title may be UXDesigner or Event Planner or Administrator or Product Owner—but the way you approach your world might be as an Information Architect. I mean “Information Architect” in the way people mean “Engineer.” When people say “Engineer,” everyone has a stereotype of what that is, and they think they understand the value of an Engineer. Dilbert is a great example of that stereotype. Engineer is an identity, a way of approaching the world, an affinity your friends and neighbors won’t let you forget.

5. Last year at about this time of year, my husband and I were sitting in the ultrasound room at the hospital excited to see our baby for the first time. Then the technician said, “There are two in here! You’re having twins!” I was speechless, lost for words like all the air went out of the room. But my husband knew just how he felt. He said, “Well, that’s efficient!” And every time I tell that story, perfect strangers will say, “He must be an engineer!” And he is!

At least, that is what his degree is in. He doesn’t describe himself as an engineer. It is not his job title. His day-to-day activities aren’t what you or I would consider engineering. Yet anyone who met him would guess he is an Engineer. There is something we associate with an approach that leads us to think of someone as an Engineer.

What exactly that is would be difficult to describe, but I think you could summarize like this: an Engineer approaches the world in a certain way. They have a certain mindset. And that mindset is highly valued in our society. Of course you need an Engineer on the project! No question.

We here at World IA Day events in 2016 are in a new-ish field that isn’t well understood by the world. It would be a relief to have our own stereotype—for people to say, “He must be an IA!” What might that definition, that approach that defines us, look like? What IS the IA value proposition?

6. We have to sell our skill set all the time. We are more than our deliverables. We have to sell our process. We have to defend our ability to do proper discovery—stakeholder interviews, content audits, user interviews, modeling. Many of you in this room work at companies where your tasks are rigidly defined and your time is closely watched. I’ve given a few talks on the value of conceptual modeling—of working out the problem space thoroughly before designing solutions—and after each talk, people tell me how difficult it is to make the case for conceptual work in their workplaces. The truth is, the activities that lead to deeper understanding and better solutions are also more difficult to explain—and more difficult to sell—than other more brass tacks activities like wireframes and specifications.

7. Many of you in this room are students at the start of your careers. You have a lot of knowledge gained through your courses, and that can make you feel like you should know the right answers. You hear questions like: What do you mean defining the problem? Why can’t you just build it? How many solutions could there possibly be? Why don’t you just know the right answer? It’s just a simple website, or app, or console, or on and on and on.

8. IA isn’t about having the right answers; it’s about having the right approach that gets you to the right answers. And I hope this talk helps you defend the right to have that approach.

9. We are the ones who care about figuring out why we would build something before building it. We are the gatekeepers that hold off the solutions, the How, until we know the What and Who and Why. And explaining that can be really difficult.

10. Many of you are probably all familiar with pace layers. It is a way of expressing rate of change. Everything changes, but at very different speeds. Here in Stewart Brand’s diagram, we see nature at the center. Nature changes slowly. Culture changes a little faster. And Fashion on the outermost circle changes quite quickly.

11. What would an IA’s pace layers look like? I think the desire to make the complex clear is our center circle. Clarity wins. For me, that means clarity of meaning. We are building digital places—places people go to and interact with. The only building material we have is information, and the meaning of that information changes that building material. You can build a wall out of bricks, but if suddenly the meaning shifts and one of those bricks is a pony, well, that’s no longer a very good wall!

Here at World IA Day 2016, there is a feeling of togetherness, comradery—that we all agree that making clear things—good things—matters. That’s our core: Clarity Wins. What I want to discuss is the next layer: Approach-Toolkit / Mentality / Orientation. The difference between us and the Engineer or the physical architect is that our approach doesn’t result in something physical. If there is a bathroom in the garage and none in the house, everyone knows something is wrong! And everyone can see why an architect would model before building: building a house costs a lot of money, takes physical resources and space! I would argue that our Approach is even more crucial because we are dealing with the meaning, defining the meaning of things. That meaning changes when it is related to other parts of the world. There are physics to meaning and structure, and it is very, very possible to do it wrong—to mess up. A door is always a door to an architect; a door is not always a door to us. We can spend an hour with a room full of stakeholder making sure we all mean the same thing when we say the word door, and that time would be very well spent! A project has spun off course many a time because no one had the IA approach of exposing the parts, making sure we know what we mean when we say what we say, determining a system, ensuring the integrity of meaning is still intact. But this skill we have, this Approach, is very difficult to talk about. So let’s try.

12. Imagine someone shows you a webpage or wireframe (this picture is intentionally vague). They ask, “What do you think?”

13. Well, there are plenty of things you could say about the Application—how it adheres to and differs from the norm.

14. You could recognize a standard layout and know they used WordPress or an Axure library.

15. There are plenty of things you could say about best practices: Way to put a picture of “people like me” front and center!

16. But when it comes to Approach you can’t say anything. You don’t know the answers to the What questions: What are the parts of your business? Purpose? Mission? Who are your users? This is what I mean by Approach. Sandwiched between our ideals about clarity and the practicality of best practices, what is our lens on life that encourages us to seek out answers to all the questions and compels us to sort them to reveal their patterns?

17. Let’s talk more about this Approach pace layer. There are three main chunks to this Approach. It’s not a linear thing, but a cyclical process: exposing the parts, asking the stakeholders, “Are these the right parts? All the parts? What else?” Then determining the system those parts suggest or form. Working out that system often results in discovering more parts. And discussing that system with the stakeholders yields further and further insights. Deciding together is the binding element of all the activities that occur within the approach layer. All of this is in service to defining meaning, which is in service of clarity.

18. To dig into these parts of the IA Approach, I’d like to talk about it at a high level by focusing on a non-digital project: fort building! We all have experiences with forts. We’ve played in them or even built them. There are many types of forts from cardboard to community playgrounds. Today let’s focus on the age-old backyard fort.

19. The project of building a backyard fort has a lot of similarities to any digital project. There are users to consider, stakeholders to consult, tools to utilize, time constraints to adhere to, risks to mitigate, and budget constraints.

20. Ok, so first let’s discuss “Exposing the Parts.”

21. How do you find the parts? Mostly by asking the right questions. That can take the form of literally asking questions in an interview, or by investigating questions on a website, or by performing a content audit, etc. In our example project, you are building a fort. Here are some parts exposed by interviewing your child and your spouse. They, of course, wouldn’t literally tell you these parts. They would talk on and on about how they envision the fort looking, and what they want to be able to do with it. There would be a lot of HOW, like: “I want a slide that looks like a dragon I can slide down, but it never gets hot like the one at Steve’s house.” Then it is your job, with your IA approach, to boil that down to Slide

22. Once the parts are exposed, you can all talk about the same things with the same words. This is an opportunity to ask more questions—the biggest one being: is there something missing? But also, this creates opportunities to get the right nuance: Affordable but not Cheap; Survey, not just Look. You can clarify further: “Tell me what swing means to you?” Ask, ask, and ask some more. In order to further the meaning, we often start conversations with, “I’m going to be dumb now in service to being clear—it’s really important that we nail down what we mean when we say what we say.”

23. After this process of refining the meaning, Look becomes Survey. Cheap becomes Affordable.

24. This spreadsheet shows an example from a digital project we did for a university. We interviewed lots of stakeholders throughout campus, and then extracted their goals, aligning them when we heard more than one group state the same goal.

25. In a digital project there is often more than interviews to pull parts from: there are also websites to scrape and other inputs like existing user research to consider.
Here is another digital project where we started collecting all the words we found the organization used—and some natural groupings started to occur. This is the natural progression of exposing the parts where you start to determine the system

26. Once you have the parts, you can group and arrange them.

27. Here we see the parts from our fort interviews placed into one sort of system. It’s showing the relative importance of the parts and the major groupings they fall into. The dragon slide you heard your child describe was overshadowed by the numerous times they mentioned climbing. You spouse didn’t have any overlapping parts with your child, so you can split the goals into two big, clear chunk: Play and Safety.

28. and 29. Once the system is determined you can discuss the relationship between those parts and the new meaning it creates. A stakeholder may see something like this and say, wow, I don’t like the priority we are giving to budget constraints. Or, oh, now I see how my team feels the way things have been running make a lot more sense.

30. The list of goals in excel we saw earlier was later turned into this set of prioritized circles just like in our fort example. These are all direct stakeholder quotes in relation to each other. This gave us and the client’s digital team a guidepost to check decisions against throughout the project.

31. You might also make a quick sketch of how these action goals relate to each other in sequence. Height is necessary to get to survey and hand and slide – so it’s natural to have climb lead to those parts. This particular action of determining the system would take you seconds, and would get your brain thinking in new and advantageous ways.

32. Here is a system of parts from a past project. Clearly there are hundreds of parts that fall into three main categories. There are further categories exposed through color-coding. And each part takes on addition meaning through its connection with other parts, forming a huge system that represents the client’s world. This might look like a tremendous mess, but its actually representing tremendous clarity. In one case our project got ended with this as the main deliverable and it lived on the client’s wall for years. They wrote us to tell us how often they referenced it when making implementation decisions or explaining the ecosystem to a new employee or determining where a new part fit into their existing world. This is not an ER diagram; it’s not about implementation. It is conceptual, much like the fort diagram.
There are systems at play. Almost like physics. You can do it wrong. You can break it’s meaning. EXPOSING IT is critical!

33. Deciding together happens throughout the project. Every example I’ve shown you today was shown to our clients as the work progressed. This ensures alignment and also shares the ownership of the decisions so that after we, as consultants, leave the project the stakeholders own their solutions. They know why decisions were made and why the structure is the way it is – making it more likely that the clarity we have achieved with endure.

34. Word of caution: “Each category valorizes some point of view and silences another.”

35. Criteria for making, criteria for what good is, criteria that determines is something works. Not an engineering problem

36. When there are tensions a great way of discussing them is through intension models. In our fort example there is discord between hide and surveil. You can’t see a hidden child, but hiding is part of playing. So where is the balance?

37. Here is an example from a digital project showing real results. The stakeholders anonymously answered the question, and then the nine answers were discussed. The group ultimately landed on medium global focus. Directionality on these tension points is required for a project to move forward. You can’t be all things to all people.

38. So at our core we have Clarity. And we layer on an Approach that respect the seeking of clarity. Once we’ve exposed the parts, determined the system, and decided together we layer on best practices, tools, and application—all the while respecting the pace layers that came before. This results in great products!

39. Maybe our final product would look like this.

40. And the client knows what they are getting because it all maps back to the parts that were exposed and the systems that were defined that we all decided on together.

41. Remember my ultrasound story? My husband was being a stereotypical engineer in his response, “that’s efficient!” When once I recovered, I was a stereotypical IA! I started thinking about the ramifications of having two babies. Being very budget conscious, my head first went to childcare. We were discussing it before we left the hospital parking garage.

42. So first we laid out the parts: We both planned to continue working, we had a budget for what we planned to spend on daycare. I actually had it all mapped out for Kid One in 2015 and Kid Two in 2017 and projecting costs all the way through when they graduated from college. I’m a planner. I’m an IA. Well, now I was having twins. So the parts of what I was considering about childcare weren’t changed: cost, schedule etc. But their meanings were certainly changed. Schedule now meant getting two babies ready in the morning. Travel now meant two car seats and two hats and two coats.

43. Our priorities on these parts also didn’t change when we found out we were having twins. But due to Cost being one of our biggest circles, daycare was out of the question. Daycare costs double for double the babies. A nanny coming to your home cost only marginally more.

44. This shift from daycare to nanny though changes the meanings of these parts! Travel no longer means my travel with the boys—now it means my nanny’s travel. Does she have a reliable car that can get to our house in a snowstorm?
Schedule is not longer 8-5 and we can’t be late—it’s more of a give and take where we respect each other’s time and have to flex to each other’s schedule. A daycare worker having to go to the dentist wouldn’t affect my schedule—but my nanny’s dentist appointment changes my whole week! We went with a nanny, and she is great.

45. I hope all of this helps you to be more confident in your IA value proposition. That you are doing amazing things in this world. Determining meaning in service to clarity. Making the world be good.

46. If I may add one additional point: We need to encourage and develop the IA tendencies in those around us. To grow those who do architecting into architects.
There is no need to be competitive about this type or work. We are not making paper mache angels—the market for IA work is limitless.
I strongly believe that if we became good at explaining the core of IA, and good at recognizing that core in others. If we got good at encouraging and complimenting those who are also trying to make the complex clear. If we do that there is no limit the the number of IA projects in the world.

47. Thank you for listening!

48. P.S. Often when people don’t see the value of IA, it’s because they view the project as simple. They think you are suggesting you need an architect to build a snow fort! Everyone understands you need a professional to build a business fort—this is an example from a children’s museum. Business forts have more requirements and higher risk (people sue!)

Snow Fort
• Materials: Snow
• Audience: Maker
• Approval needed: None
• Risks: None
• Clean-up: None
• Who makes it: Anyone

Business Fort
• Materials: Wood, Nails, steal beams, steal cables, etc
• Tools: Crain, Drill, etc
• Audience: The public – all ages
• Approval needed from: Business, legal standards
• Risks: Huge
• Who makes it: Qualified professional company

49. P.S.S.
“Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun. I take culture to be those webs and the analysis of it to be not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.” —Clifford Geertz, American Symbolic Anthropologist

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Big Data And Real User Stories

This project was a collaboration between Daniel O'Neil from The Understanding Group and Eric Kushner from Project Two Paths, Ltd.

It has never been easier to get or analyze data for your organization. Massive data sets that used to be available almost exclusively for the Fortune 500 exist all around us, usually collected almost by default, and at minimal cost, by the systems that we use to run our companies.

From Google Analytics to our merchant and fulfillment systems, insightful customer-centered marketing strategy is just a spreadsheet away! What is key about this explosion of data is that it requires an even greater commitment to story-driven strategic marketing. If data is not judiciously applied to the human narrative, marketing departments can be pushed into reactive, tactical activities against tiny bits of information. We think you should go big instead, and use the data for high-level marketing strategy and planning.

The approach uses three major principles:

  1. Marketing teams know their audience and should tell stories about them.

  2. Those stories should be testable with data.

  3. The collaboration between storytellers and data analysts should end with compelling user stories that drive focused, specific marketing campaigns.

Recently we had an opportunity to apply this framework to GamerSaloon, a brokering service for players who wanted to find opponents for cash video game competition. GamerSaloon’s revenue model is largely driven by frequency so they asked us to determine how to maximize player engagement based on the large dataset that contained ten years about players, the games they played, and their win-loss records.Players who sign up for GamerSaloon have a wide range of usage patterns, from playing multiple times a week for years, to trying only a game or two before moving along. A significant portion of accounts on GamerSaloon were inactive—that is, the player had signed up but had never actually played a game. We were asked to find out what these players needed to continue playing or why they never played in the first place, then develop a marketing strategy to engage them.

Getting Started: The Creation Of Initial Theories

We started by doing stakeholder interviews with the marketing and customer support team, as well as creating accounts and playing a few games. Our findings allowed us to create several customer segments, each one of which represented a story about a kind of player behavior. Our titles were designed to be human and memorable. Here are three examples:

  • Hey big spender: Players who deposit larger amounts initially are more likely to play again

  • The power of first impressions: The outcome of the first three games has an impact on long-term player value.

  • Interval training: The shorter the pause between the first deposit and the first game, the greater the long-term player value.The core concept used for the marketing analysis for GamerSaloon was an engagement funnel, where long-term, repeat game play was the desired end state. The initial theories were chosen with an eye towards inputs that could, based on our experience, be turned into specific messaging campaigns to improve the performance at targeted points in the engagement funnel from initial site visit through early game play.

The Acid Test: Checking The Theories Against User Data

Once the hypotheses were created, we examined user behavior data through three lenses:

  • How many of the theories were actually testable given the state of the data?

  • Were the theories supported or refuted by the data?

  • What additional patterns seemed to emerge from the data analysis that can be applied in actionable marketing campaigns?

The quality of the data on the player platform was extremely high, so we were able to test almost all the theories. As is typical when using this approach, about half the theories were supported by the data. Among the most notable findings was that the size of the initial deposit had a negligible impact on a player’s lifetime value and that a sizable number of depositors had never played a game. We also found a significant correlation between a player’s long-term value and their win-loss record in the first few games.

The most notable pattern that emerged from the data analysis was the identification of an inflection point for lifetime value in new players. We were able to define the numbers of games we needed to foster for a new user to substantially increase the likelihood that he’d be a "golden goose" versus a "one night fling."

Tying It Together: Creating An Actionable Plan

Once we gathered the data, we used them to support initial hypotheses, each carefully crafted with if/then clauses that could be effected through marketing strategy. The answer to each question illuminated a revenue optimization or customer acquisition strategy, and if it didn’t, we set it aside. The findings were valuable because we took the time to identify the addressable variable and approached it with ideas on how findings would impact our marketing recommendations. With a few clear options pre-conceived, we knew that regardless of the findings, we could act on them to positively impact the business. And again, in the instances where that was not the case we tabled the the hypothesis.

Where did these notions come from? We started by examining the mechanics of customer acquisition with our client’s business as well as their revenue model. At the end of the day, there are a finite number of ways to drive more revenue and they are as simple as they are universal:

  • More prospects

  • More customers

  • More frequent transactions

  • Higher value transactions

  • More transactions over the life of each customer

There are nuances, of course, such as time to peak spend and cost of customer retention and customer service and the like, but those are the nickels and pennies. Work through those after you’ve uncovered the quarters and dimes. Final tip: Start at the top of the funnel and work your way to the revenue end of it. Enhancements at the top compound on one another and earn the marketer the time to work at the narrow end of the funnel where the stakes are higher and the audience, narrower.

Outcomes And Final Thoughts

Identification of user experience obstacles for first time site visitors resulted in the development of a new user registration wizard that, combined with targeted email interventions, drove conversions up by nearly 7%. Similarly, the data revealed that many users failed to leverage the full breadth of the community. An issue that we mitigated with an email primer series that boosted game play from new users in their first two weeks by more than 100%!

What’s most notable about this project is how, even after years of cheap, widely available data, most companies are not making the effort to address their marketing channels with this approach. There are huge opportunities by creating user stories and big data for companies and organizations of all sizes to better serve their customers, grow their company, and increase their bottom line.

Making Things Be Good With Servant Leadership

TUG operations manager Paul Metler shares how listening is an integral part of Servant Leadership and making things be good.

It’s easier to do a good job when you know what good is.

I used to be the Director of Catering Sales and Events for Zingerman’s, a five-star Deli in Ann Arbor. I helped plan weddings and catering for people all over Southern Michigan, Northern Ohio and Indiana, often managing multiple events on the same day.

Planning a wedding means capturing the vision of the bride, (or often her mother) who’s been spending most of her waking hours thinking about what things will look like on the special day. It was a huge responsibility to make sure everything was perfect, from watching the weather, to coordinating vendors, to monitoring the temperature of the food and beverages (in a tent in a field, 25 miles from anywhere, on a 90-degree day).

When our catering team pulled it off—it was good. Why? Because we listened. We listened because we had leaders who tried to live out Servant Leadership, modeled after a book by Robert Greenleaf by the same title.

My job with The Understanding Group is similar to wedding planning. Integral to doing a good job is learning how to serve our team whose job, in turn, is making things be good. I still tend to call our clients “guests” and will always look at the people we serve (including employees, as my guests). This, I like to believe, ultimately makes things good.

“Quite simply Servant Leadership changes everything about the culture of a company and the outcome of the product a company sells, simply because good is defined. It is all about giving, and it is all about service…In any element of life, service is the highest form of contribution we can make to those around us…Perhaps the toughest Servant Leadership paradox to tackle is the higher up you move in the organization, the greater your obligation is to serve.” Ari Weinzweig Being a Better Leader.

Working for a start-up information architecture firm and thinking about how to create a culture of Servant Leadership, often working virtually, is a challenge. In Being a Better Leader, Ari breaks down Servant Leadership into simple steps that are easy to teach and model.

Six elements of effective Servant Leadership

  1. Provide an inspiring and strategically sound vision

  2. Give great day-to-day service to the staff

  3. Manage in an ethical manner

  4. Learning and teaching

  5. Help staff succeed by living the “training compact” (I’ll expand on this)

  6. Saying thanks

Having worked as a recipient and practitioner of these steps, I’ll be taking some time over the coming weeks to break down these elements of Servant Leadership in a way it can be applied in any work environment.

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The Map: Context And Memory

By Daniel O’Neil

As we described in a previous blog post, websites need guides, the friendly voice helping people discover spaces where they can learn, work, and play. They act as a findability strategy for your users to locate things on your site.This post gets into more detail about the oldest of all guides: the map. Maps are most important when your users need to see the broad context of possibilities related to an idea, especially if the user can’t recall what the original idea was. To put it another way, maps are good for narrowing and remembering things.

The Map: Learn And Remember

Salthouse ancient channel map made by Surveyor John Hunt in 1649.

Salthouse ancient channel map made by Surveyor John Hunt in 1649.

Maps teach and inspire. They tell you where you are and where you might be able to go. This depiction of the world also makes assertions about what is important to focus on. They are more than spatial depictions of the world; they are usable tools that make assertions about what is important in context.As a map, your site helps users see the broad context of possibilities related to an idea.

What Makes Maps “Mappy”?

Chicago “L” train line (in French). Wikimedia Commons.

Chicago “L” train line (in French). Wikimedia Commons.

Solving the Three Basic Pulling Problems, from the OTC Specialty Tools Product Catalog

Solving the Three Basic Pulling Problems, from the OTC Specialty Tools Product Catalog

From an information standpoint, a map is a representation of relationships expressed and explained in context.By this reasoning, we are surrounded by excellent maps that aren’t necessarily mappy. In fact, the first really good travel maps didn’t look mappy at all.T

he Roman military created maps that were long, narrow scrolls of 20 feet. They showed a path down Roman roads from city to city. The map depicted distances of thousands of miles, all spooling along these roads. It told a story about a world where Rome was the anchor of any journey across the empire, and the roads were the connective tissue that held the empire together.

The approach clearly resonates in the map finding nature of our world, because in the 20th century it was replicated, in almost exact design, in the AAA TripTik, a multi-page road map that showed your journey from point to point in a series of 80-mile long tiles.

Another pathfinding map archetype is almost any major light rail commuter map. Note that this map of Chicago's light rail system is rotated 90 degrees from the actual orientation in order to more cleanly show the line stops and make room for the map’s annotation.

But maps aren’t always implicitly spatial. One of my favorite maps is of Pullers, a kind of heavy duty wrench used in manufacturing and auto repair shops. This map shows the relationships in context, annotates their use, and prioritizes their selection. It’s not spatial at all, but as a map of use, it is profoundly helpful.

Are Maps Right For You?

Guide Selection Strategies

Guide Selection Strategies

StubHub’s ticket selection interface. Note that when you roll over any given section, a view of the floor is available as well as the price range and remaining tickets. Annotation in the main map is minimal but is available in a legend to the left of the diagram.

StubHub’s ticket selection interface. Note that when you roll over any given section, a view of the floor is available as well as the price range and remaining tickets. Annotation in the main map is minimal but is available in a legend to the left of the diagram.

So where do maps help us in the online world? They are less common than other guide strategies, but are important in high-complexity, low-knowledge contexts.

There are 3 places where maps work wonderfully: calendars, filtered search menus, like those on a search result page in Amazon, and planning websites.

StubHub.com, for example, is an excellent planning website, with a remarkable map for purchasing tickets. It is the quintessential map: functional, representational, and ably displays information in context.

Beyond those 3 archetypes, there aren’t many explicit maps in the modern internet. This reflects a broader information pattern, which is that most online strategies assume that the assembly of understanding and context happens AFTER things are found.

To put it another way, the internet assumes you are going to start at some level of understanding and then go deeper into the thing you are trying to learn about. Maps then will be the focus at the end of a journey, not as a way to reach it.

Whether or not this should actually be how we manage or process information is, to me, one of the biggest questions about the future of knowledge in the modern world.In the meantime, take a look at your own digital footprint. When would you need maps? Are they necessary to help people make a journey? If so, what would yours look like?

The Index: Knowledge-Based Lookup

By Daniel O’Neil

Sites need guides, the friendly voice helping people discover spaces where they can learn, work, and play. Most sites try to do this by adding three major navigation strategies: Direction Signage, Maps, or Indices.

Previously we described each of these strategies at a high level and talked about how you can start to think about the right one for your site. This post gets into more detail about the original search tool of the literate world: the index. Indices are most important when a domain structure is known to the people using it in order to quickly look things up.

The Index: To Look Up In A Known Structure

Le Nouveau Dictionnaire Larousse Volume 2 pages 476-477, 1899.

Le Nouveau Dictionnaire Larousse Volume 2 pages 476-477, 1899.

As an index, your site helps users get more specific understanding of things they already know something about, in a system they are comfortable navigating. This is often in the form of completing a thought in the form of a word, phrase, or discrete metric.The key to the index is that the structure is KNOWN.

We all know, for example, the order of the ABC’s - the classic lookup model of the literate world - or that 5 comes after 4. Some structures are more domain specific, like the sections of the Glass-Steagall Act or the sections of the Dewey Decimal System. By knowing this structure, a user can look things up quickly and accurately.All indices rely on some technology - a printed page, a codex, a card catalog. To start, you need a word native to the system, so that you are able to find that term in whatever internal structure exists. The most powerful modern instantiation of the index - a well-managed search engine - needs ONLY that word, but the user still comes with some notion of what they want.

Indices In Computer Systems

iTunes “Browse by Song” window.

iTunes “Browse by Song” window.

Files in the Mac OS X System Library Folder, shown in the Finder.

Files in the Mac OS X System Library Folder, shown in the Finder.

Java 7 Standard Edition Class Reference

Java 7 Standard Edition Class Reference

Menu and Ribbon sections of Microsoft Excel 2011 for Mac

Menu and Ribbon sections of Microsoft Excel 2011 for Mac

It turns out that, outside of search, indices are not as common as signage, but they are still important parts of our computer systems. The most common index a computer user sees is their music application; if they are using a PC, it might be their file share.

These feel pretty “indexical”: a list of files that can be sorted by a range of attributes and a search box.Indices abound in “expert” systems on the web as well. The most classic expert indices are api and programming references, such as the javadoc file. Its categories are sorted hierarchically, in alphabetical order, and within any given class by repeatable elements that can be quickly used to find information. This is a classic index.

Another index is the menu and ribbon structure of word processing and spreadsheet programs. The nuances of this kind of index are so great and complex that it’s worth another blog post. But the short story is that, once upon a time, the menus represented signage. Now they have so much in them that they aren’t really signs at all, but collections of concepts that people have memorized as structural categories.

Is An Index The Right Guide For You?

Guide Selection Strategies

Guide Selection Strategies

Sites rarely just need a single guide, but they should develop and extend them based on the specific needs of their audience and the content at hand. TUG usually starts with a combination of a site’s complexity and the user’s domain knowledge:As we look at this matrix, we see why indices are less common.

High domain knowledge is not something that most systems on the internet assume. In fact, the internet is based on building mastery from LOW domain knowledge. Search is the big exception to this, and the failure of search in many contexts is due to the fact that the searcher doesn’t know the right terms to find what they want, and the search engine cannot help them figure them out.

In short, index guides have been relegated to fairly specialized or high-knowledge domains. But when an index is useful, it is VERY useful, often being the most commonly referenced part of any system or knowledge base. If you are in a high domain knowledge space and want people to find things quickly, an index guide may be for you.

RSW: Better Is No Longer Good

Just now I ran across a great quote from Mr. Wurman in chapter 33 of the book Digerati by John Brockman (1996):

"In the past, it was possible to get along by doing a much better version of what you were doing previously. In the future, you're going to die on the vine if you do only a better version of what you're already doing. It will be increasingly important to explore alternatives, parallel ways of buying and selling ideas, services, products, et cetera, in brief transactions."

At the end of the chapter on Wurman, Brockman includes quotes about RSW from the other folks featured in the book. Here's a chestnut:

(Sherry Turkle): Richard Wurman shows you how to look at things a little differently, and then, after trying it his way, you usually can't imagine how you did things any other way. Richard's design sensibility has changed the way I hold meetings, plan my travel, and light my office.

In Tags

TUG Notes: August 2018

The header for The Understanding Group's newsletter. It contains the company logo and a photo of a tugboat pulling a ship.


How to think like an architect

Architecture in the physical world is something that we're fascinated by here at TUG, in part because we take a similar approach to our web projects. Like architects, we employ the discipline of placemaking—the process by which undifferentiated “space” is formed into and experienced as a “place.”While the practice of creating good places for humans originated 1000s of years ago in the built environment, Information Architects realize that in our digital age, people experience websites as places, too—places made of information.One of our favorite things to do is explore cities where we can see our shared architectural principles in action—and you can join us! In September, Dan Klyn will be leading architecture walks in Detroit, Michigan, and Dublin, Ireland. We'd love to see you there!

What we're thinking


What is the role of information architecture in a web design project?

by Bob RoyceWebsites are places made of information, and architecting information is harder to do than it seems on the surface. How do information architects do it?


Is search the best findability strategy for your website?

by Daniel O'NeilWhat is the best onsite findability strategy for your website? It depends on your users, what they already know, and how complex your site is.


The street sign: Navigation and findability

by Daniel O'NeilDaniel digs into a familiar website navigational guide—directional signage—and describes when the strategy is most useful and the kinds of sites that use it well.

What we're reading

 To lead in the digital era, think like an architect, not a technologistby Joe McKendrick"When you look at your watch, the user interface is very clear. When someone asks you for the time, you don't have to explain how the watch is working."Pace Layering: How Complex Systems Learn and Keep Learningby Stewart BrandFrom the author of the classic book, How Buildings Learn, Brand explains the concept of pace layers to describes the rates of change civilization—which applies to digital structures, too.

Featured World IA Day content

Welcome to a new TUG Notes feature! Here we'll highlight a few recommended talks from the new World IA Day archive.Architects EverywhereTranscript of talk by Abby Covert in Zurich, Switzerland, in February 2016.To deal with the reality of the impending “tsunami of information” approaching our shores, Abby debunks 4 of these misconceptions about IA.Information Everywhere, Architect EverywhereTranscript and video of talk by Peter Morville, keynote speaker for the first ever World Information Architecture Day in Depok, Indonesia in February 2016.Peter talks about of key milestones in his career and important lessons he's gleaned that have shaped the evolving practice of information architecture.

The Role Of IA In A Web Design Project

Many people start web projects by talking to web developers (the HTML coders), and put them in charge of leading the project. For small projects, this can work. But for larger projects, that’s a risky approach.

Imagine building an office building by selecting the kind of steel for the girders, then talking to the interior designer about the colors for the walls and the style of furniture, and only then working with an architect to lay out the floor plan. Of course...that’s backwards!

Architects lead physical building projects. They clarify the different purposes and uses of the building, and then translate that into a set of plans and blueprints that tells the builders what to build. They do this by understanding how people perceive physical spaces, and how to form building materials into places where people will have the kind of experience intended, be it an office building or a church.

Websites are places made of information. Walls and doors and windows, all the things you use to orient yourself in the physical world, are replaced by words. Menus and lists and headlines and copy—they all work together to let you know what kind of place you’re visiting and guiding you where to go.

Architecting information is harder to do than it seems on the surface. Language is tricky. People use the same word to mean different things, and different words to mean the same thing.

When talking to people, we can use the context of the discussion and dialog to get a clear sense of what is meant. On a website, that’s harder to do, and it’s the role of the information architect to build a sensible, coherent system of language that will ensure your visitors always know where they are and where they need to go.

Before you hand your website project to a development team, make sure you architect the site’s information.

Architect Your Websites

Over the years, TUG has developed a proven process for translating your digital strategy and objectives into architectural plans for a digital place that will delight your visitors. We'd love to hear about your project and share how we can help - schedule a call with us today.