Reflections on the r-word by Grant Carmichael
Here you are again, facing another site redesign. You, as a Product Manager, don’t want this to be another shot in the dark but a real step toward a sustainable user experience. Will this be the one that is embraced by your existing users? Will it pique interest in new ones? Will it give pause to your competition? Will it usher in a new profitable chapter for your business?
Going in, you know what doesn’t work, because you’ve wearily seen these scenarios play out too many times before…
Fixing as you go, responding to every complaint or feature request as they come in.
(What is our plan?)
Pinning all decisions on that one focus group your manager sat in on.
(What kind of research do we really need?)
Buying off-the-shelf solutions that never seem to magically fit your needs.
(Wait, should ‘how’ come before ‘what’?)
Hoping IT’s new platform or process will really be a panacea this time.
(What informs their decision making?)
Bolting-on the features of your competition.
(What do OUR users really need?)
“There is no time for research…” has been the common refrain. But this time, you will tug the inertia away from the usual forces of tight timeframes, implementation-centered thinking, or that lone overriding last-minute opinion. This time, you will will be armed with tools to ensure that your business goals will be aligned with what people really need.
Information Architecture Can Make Your Next Site Redesign a Success
Your product is part of a larger conversation people have with your organization. This conversation is framed within an information space that needs to be planned to be successful. By applying the principles of information architecture, you will begin to see how your website—an “information space”—can become a holistic “information place” when it makes sense across physical and digital contexts. People will know where they are, what they can do, and can flow effortlessly throughout as they follow their needs (and even their bliss). Without information architecture, language will not be in service of the user’s mental model, resulting in confusion and frustration.
It takes digging to uncover associative relationships that users find valuable, to ensure that information is structured like contextual lily pads so users can jump to what they need at any time. User models help us visualize and anticipate these opportunities.
What is a User Model?
Our clients recommend us for the development of personas and scenarios, TUG’s most robust way to ensure the places we architect are well-designed for users.
User models help companies better understand their users and keep their stories alive to inform decision making. A user model can take many forms, such as personas; mental models; and experience, relationship and empathy maps. These models are created from the insights gained from interviewing users and observing their interactions. Listening to users’ stories allows information architects to become more empathetic to their perspective, and to understand their goals, needs, contexts, and what they bring with them in terms of capabilities, feelings, and aspirations.
To propagate awareness of the users’ experience to all stakeholders, user models can be printed large and displayed in a dedicated space to share the insights and spur conversations within your company.
User Models in Action
For a large university website project, we at TUG interviewed close to 30 site users in addition to many stakeholders. While the site was intended for multiple audiences—prospective students, researchers, staff, industry partners and others—many stated that they felt that the site surely wasn’t made for them. Emergent themes included:
a disparity between what users were familiar with and what the university offers with regards to study areas, areas of expertise and even terminology
a mismatch between the university as a physical place and digital one
too much content causing friction
a concern about information findability and accuracy
No redesign was going to magically resolve these issues. We needed to make user models inform a new architecture for the site. For this project we focused on two types of user models: Personas and Experience Maps.
Personas are the stand-ins for the types of users encountered in the research, or the ‘why.’ They represent particular types of users at key moments along a lifecycle of engagement with the university. Consideration of their experience helps you more effectively define ‘what’ should be built before you get into the ‘how.’
Experience maps come in two flavors:
As-is: These highlight the current paths a user makes through key scenarios as reported in the research, noting pain-points and touch-points across channels.
To-be: These chart the ideal experience for a priority scenario (like say, ‘What do I need to do before classes start as an international student?’ or what a prospective student may experience, shown in the map below). Pain points of the as-is flow are specifically addressed and cross-channel reinforcement is explored. To-be maps also allow us to anticipate themes for each step, whether a person needs supporting content that emphasizes clarity (think), experience (feel) or action (do). When walking through the possibilities, it’s easy to stray into blue-sky territory, but that can be captured and spur conversation about near- and long-term goals after considering the entire flow.
Armed with new personas and knowledge of their issues with the current site, we then facilitated a stakeholder collaboration session. This exercise served two purposes:
Introduce the practice of using personas and prioritized scenarios whenever changes are proposed for the website and explore as a group what the experience should be
Inform ‘to-be’ experience mapping, an exercise to reframe the users’ journey through an entire information place and across multiple channels
Listening to stories and coalescing them into models such as personas and experience maps make them shareable vital perspectives that can be referenced and revised by clients for years. These living documents will inform your website decision-making toward a sustainable user experience–and a meaningful information place for your users. The models become the evidence that will hold the usual forces at bay, the ones that might get some short-term needs addressed but not prevent the inevitable, and dreaded, redesign