The web, information architecture, and interaction design

The impact of digital technology—from the Web to mobile phones to the silicon in your toaster—has meant a proliferation of terms for the work people do to define digital products and services. People talk about "customer experience," "user-centered design," and so forth. This talk can confuse even people who do that work for a living, as you often find different people using different terms to mean the same thing—or using the same term to mean very different things!

Many people say that this reflects a breakdown of disciplinary distinctions in designing for the new world of the digital. "It’s all just design." I disagree. I see a few major types of problems in the digital world, and I believe that each of these has its own set of tools and methods that work well to solve that type of problem.

Two of these types of problems lurk behind the terms "information architecture" and "interaction design." As I said, we live in times with slippery terms, so I want to admit that I’m using these expressions in a way that may differ from the way you or your colleagues do. Though I have some good reasons for thinking that I use these terms in the most useful and appropriate way, I want less to advocate for certain language than to make clear something about two different kinds of problems that emerge in designing for the Web.

To understand why the distinction between these problems can become obscured, it helps to look back over the history of Web design. Early in the growth of the Web, many graphic designers with backgrounds in print media migrated into Web design. They discovered that the specifics of good graphic design in print don’t always work so well on the Web, and creating good Web sites required some new techniques. But graphic design for the Web was still graphic design.

On the other hand, as Web sites grew larger, with more and more content, Web designers came to realize that creating effective Web sites requires solutions to some problems very different from those addressed by graphic design. Not only do individual pages need to look appealing and readable, but you need to organize and label links so that people can find the content in a large site. We now call those "information architecture" (IA) problems. The methods of graphic design don’t help with IA, and for a time Web developers struggled with IA problems, even having trouble recognizing that these problems even existed. But at this point Web development organizations understand the distinction between graphic design and IA, and recognize IA as its own distinct discipline with fairly-well understood methods and techniques.

Because the culture of Web design remains strongly rooted in graphic design, many conceive of IA as "all Web design that isn’t graphic design." But that misses another important distinction.

Just as the growth of Web sites created problems in organizing content, giving rise to the discipline of IA, so too the appearance of Web sites generated by complicated software generating unique pages that people use as tools, calling for a discipline I prefer to call "interaction design." (IxD)

Let’s unpack that distinction.

IA means defining information structures to answer the question "how does a user find the information they want?" Thus navigation links for a big corporate Web site reflect IA: where can I find directions to the company’s main headquarters? When you talk about content, page hierarchy, and taxonomy, you probably have an IA problem.

On the other hand, IxD means defining system behaviors to answer the question "how does a user take the action they want?" Thus the pulldowns, buttons, and checkboxes in a Web email application reflect IxD: what must I do to reply to the sender of this email? When you talk about action, controls, and dynamic elements, you probably have in IxD problem. Some problems include both components: consider how Amazon includes both large amounts of static content and some very complex dynamic behaviors.

It turns out that the techniques for doing these two things differ dramatically, at least as much as they differ from the techniques of graphic design. IA calls for exercises like card sorts, usability testing for category labels, hierarchical structure diagramming, and so forth. IxD calls for exercises like workflow analysis, usage scenarios, wireframed walkthroughs, and so on. The work done, and the skills needed to do it, differ considerably between the two. Just as few people can fully master the skills of both graphic design and IA, few people will master the skills of both IA and IxD. It serves both organizations and practitioners for people to specialize.

So when thinking about a new Web site, first ask what kind of problem you have, to make sure that you bring the right people—and the right tools—for the job.

2 Comments

hw15
Thanks for the great article! Out of curiosity, how do the three disciplines you described--graphic design, information architecture and interaction design--fit in with the rest of the puzzle? There are also terms floating around like web design, web development, interactive design, flash design, user interface design, front-end design. Also, where do you draw the line between front-end and back end? For example, I had a client whose programmers created the database field names and then used the same labels for the from field labels on the front-end. Obviously this is an information architecture issue, but most companies cannot afford to hire a specialist. The artist or graphic designer is not responsible for the text on the form, so it falls to the programmer. Anyway, I suppose all of these front-end specialties must work together like a symphony. Maybe, combined together, it could be summed up under the broad term for user experience or usability design. However, this term is a bit redundant, in my opinion. Is providing quality, visually appealing, information and services to users quickly and easily not what it web design should have been about all along? Instead, somewhere down the line the users were forgotten while creating websites became a battle between the artists and the programmers, where the result is either a website that looks great or functions well, but not both. Overcoming the challenge of merging substance and style together, while also keeping in mind the needs of the user, is the ultimate goal of today's web design. Except now it has been given the fancy term "user experience". I would be interested to learn more of your thoughts on these topics.
Henk C. Meerhof
I like the article very much, i tend to differ in my opinion in to ways. 1) The problem people are experiencing now, has always existed in our information. Coming from book design I am much more aware of the problems encountered with web content compared to a graphic designer specialized in news paper ads. Amongst writers, editors, publishers and many others you find the same experience. I with will do not mention the (new) web specific disciplines. I still remember a web programmer to try and lecture me on 'tagging' content. My answer: Oh yes sure, and what have we don in book design to get type setting right? We used 'tags' (type setting instructions),which differ only in the machine language (a Compugraphic type setter doesn't understand HTML, but it is possible for a good type setter to convert the one code into the other) So Information Architecture (I don't like short forms in text), Goes back to the cave man drawing images on the walls... How do we organize and distribute content. The web only made existing problems more obvious and relevant. 2) Reason many people want to call all related with content (strategy, architecture, design, production, distribution) by just one name is easy. There is no such thing as pure graphic design, or pure writing. Every person in each of the disciplines of old already was concerned about and acted on some level with the connecting fields of expertise. Graphic designer and text writer can both have an opinion about how a header is best used to get the message across. For the web programmer/designer it's a simple H2 tag that does the job. Making good content is a hell of a lot work. Above I only used examples between from and text. But they exists in all kinds of content. In the old days you just had a look in the family album, if you had one. Nice put away in a book in mostly chronological order, and the family could just have written some captions. Now with modern technology, thousand of images are created before you read this sentence. Our technical appliances have added the information they can. So it is clear where the picture was taken (geo tagging) and all photo techniques and date/time you can find in the Efix part of the file. So what is the problem? The problem is that I am a human, I don't relate to (most) of these specs. I look for human, social, and other relations to this image. Who are on it, what are they doing... Anyone working with photo archives know what I mean. But on the non and semi professional scale, those parts of content are not put in. Mostly because there is no time enough, or the person making the content doesn't consider it important (enough). This is a changing world, languages are not the only things changing over time, also job descriptions do. I'm not so much concerned about how we call things, as long as we a re clear what we are talking about. That's why I like this article. It makes us (re)think how to call the things we work with, making part of communication clearer so content can be found and used by many.

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