Archive for the ‘Case studies’ Category

Prospecting in the 21st century

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

I have been sitting on this post (and maybe this fence) for some time and a recent article finally gave me the impetus to write this.


Image courtesy of theonlyone 

Firstly, I would like to highlight some opinions of UX (and UCD) themes in evidence in the last 6 months:

  • The purists – those who believe UX should be kept out of the advertising agency world (Merholz and Bowles).
  • The integrators – those who feel that UX must play a part in communication of a product or brand and be an integral element of an ad agency (Abby the IA and Karen McGrane)
  • The skeptics – those who don’t believe in UX being a discipline at all (Ryan Carson).
  • The naysayers – those who believe UCD (and indirectly UX) is a waste of time and even misleading in terms of creating a truly innovative solution (Skibsted and Hansen)


Eric Reiss in the Journal of IA took a balanced and considered view to these opinions. Framing them with a sense of perspective and presenting some deeper thoughts about UX and the role of IA in all of this. I particularly like his focus on business reality and the clarion call to embrace Information Architecture as the label that defines what we really do;

Ultimately, it will be our understanding of disciplines both within and beyond IA, that will ensure us a place at the table around which the big decisions are made.

Why UX must be present in the advertising industry

I think it’s important to reaffirm why we should not have an elitist view of UX and why IA is at the very core of the user experience collection of disciplines.

Clearleft and Adaptive Path do excellent work as UX design companies. But they are a minority in a huge marketplace of varied design companies and to say that UX doesn’t have a place in other types of business is contradictory to their usual UX evangelism. Isn’t it much better having people in all sorts of businesses doing information architecture and interaction design under the umbrella of UX?

In the company I work at, we are growing our UX offering around a product and it is a slow but sure process of convincing people that this approach (with the right designers) can really work for their business. However, we must also embark on communication and design work as our market is not as big or as mature as the US or UK. These are driven by the need for business survival but it also ensures we have diverse viewpoints on our projects. Different perspectives provide value.

The concept of baked-in marketing

…there are so many opportunities for engagement through interaction, conversation, utility and actual *use* between the initial message and the product itself.

A day before Peter Merholz posted his view on UX and advertising, Andrew Hinton highlighted  that product development and communication go hand in hand. This closer alignment will have repercussions for UX – pushing it into mainstream design consciousness. Just about every design pursuit will need to look at wider issues that surround the customer and product. Companies will strive to engage, to create interaction. Creating users who become customers.

Service design is the natural progression from UX – taking interactions across platforms and concentrating on the invisible and tangible connections around customer or user interactions. Information architects should be at the heart of this design work and don’t be surprised to start to see IAs appear in companies that you didn’t even think of as ‘digital’.

Let’s also remember that this isn’t just the domain of designers but all stakeholders. We must realize UX work is done by those who do not call themselves designers. This can have both good and bad sides but if there are more people who know what we are talking about, in the right domains, this can only be for the good.

Design practice – risk and innovation

The reality of the times, is that a business needs to innovate and create better products, faster than before. But they need to mitigate risk, and UX methods offer a way of backing this up with real and relevant data. It seems at this stage to be a correct and considered way to ensure you have the right approach.

But the caveat is how to interpret data from users and it can be a minefield. The best designers will filter and discard many findings and see the real gold in reams of user interviews. This level of skill is learnt through experience. The ability to be a synthesiser of data and create meaningful relationships between themes is a core quality of any designer.

Conceptual work needs verification with customers at some stage and even Apple does this before they go to market. So to say they do not listen to users is a fallacy. They have conducted ethnographic studies with their customers, observing them using their products in their homes and offices for weeks.

The amount of data they acquire from these sessions would warrant a convincing case to not go for persona creation or user interviews, ever. They pretty much know how people feel about and use their products, so for them to innovate they need to pick up on areas that are hinted at by user comments and their behaviours through their usage. Concepts that are achievable by being verified with customers who have previously talked about the ‘what ifs’ and the ‘nice to haves’.

Action research and design doing

Negating risk by investing in research that is actionable is a shrewd move, especially in a marketplace where customers are more vocal and more likely to be persuaded by peers than ever before. For business, the value of UX can be seen in exploring hypotheses backed up by quantitative and qualitative research.

Optimization, concept creation and execution on innovative ideas can all be handled and explored by UX teams. Considered product developments and the tangible tools to be innovative, create real business value.

Software design, integrated service design and product design all benefit from design research. In my opinion UCD is purely another way of obtaining the right information. I wouldn’t design anything without ensuring a brief that included as much background information as possible. Would you?

Design thinking is one thing but design doing is a far more powerful act for business. A necessary part of this act is to gain real insights from user (or customer) research.

Envisioning the future by studying the present

It is not just interface design. It is not just about making the world more usable and ethically correct. It’s all this and more. It is a force for changing business in its approach and to make it economically stable by providing for needs but also satisfying wants beyond the present day. This is the business value of UX. How you interpret the data you collect, and create something truly unique, relies on the teams skill set and experience.

All of this leads me back to my belief that UCD as a philosophy and UX (and especially IA) form the foundation for the best products and service design. A whitepaper was released as I wrote this, defining UX – written by academics, practitioners and industry. It would be good if this were a full stop to the infighting and misinformation the discipline faces, but somehow I doubt it.


Saturday, January 29th, 2011

Recently we launched Hello Group’s site after 4 years of (let’s say diplomatically) sub-optimal solutions. With the best intentions, getting a site together that everybody in a company will be happy with may never happen. When it is a design centered company this can be even less likely. As it is what we do and are passionate about, we all tend to have an opinion and want it heard. Of course we can’t take all opinions into account, otherwise the project will lack focus, direction and will be difficult to maintain progress and reach a launch date.




Other factors come into play such as content. Where there is content there are firm opinions that go to the very core of the strategic direction of the company and what is communicated externally about the business. The site becomes a vehicle that must satisfy so many factors (and people) that there is always a risk that it will not do anything particularly well.

Direction and collaboration
The realisation of this fact early on, led to us having a core group of UX and visual designers working on the project together, after we had gained a clear strategic and creative vision of what we wanted to say. A day was set aside to see how far we could push the project, and though not all objectives were met it gave us a cohesive view of the design direction and interactive elements of the site.

We wanted a platform that tied together our other digital spaces (Facebook, Twitter etc) and did it in a way that we could easily build on. Once the design was decided we could brief the developer on something that was tangible and easy to explain. There was a lot of iteration and discussion between the visual, interactive and dynamic areas of the site between developer, designer and the UX team. Without constant dialogue the project would have become harder to complete satisfactorily.

We also had to involve the other parts of the business throughout in a way where their inputs would help shape the site but not derail the process of building to a deadline. I have no doubt that not everybody is as satisfied with the outcome as I am, but these issues will be resolved and importantly the site must be seen as a living entity that enables change as we go. It has been designed and built with this in mind.

Below are some factors, or principles, that led to a solution that for our market and our company’s values we feel is the right approach. A large part of the philosophy was realizing the importance of not communicating everything. That what you do not communicate is equally important as what should go on the site.



What we really strived for with the new design was to produce something that clearly told something about the company, showcased our work, allowed an insight into our people and their interests. But we wanted it to be entirely easy to access, with minimal clicks and interaction. The main reason was that building the site is a first step before growing it, into something more experimental and ambitious. Rather than focus on grand designs we wanted to set a foundation for us to be able to move around content and present new ideas easily. More importantly using WordPress allowed us to have a CMS (though custom made) that allowed everybody to be able to edit and contribute content very easily.

The front page is modular, meaning elements can be switched or turned off depending on the need of focus. News is an important part as we often do things beyond client work that are interesting and valuable to know. The main dropdown also allows extra elements to be inserted inside the structure of the site without interfering with the main navigation. Jobs, news and other elements will appear as they warrant the inclusion through the amount of content available to the user.

The website works well on the iPad – some content may be missing (Flash based video – which will be changed) but it does not harm the experience of using the site. So designing for tablet usage has enabled us to see what we are producing is beyond the browser but more about the platform. We had to think about a dual way of looking at user interaction. Touching and clicking on elements on a screen have to have a common element of interaction. The areas needed to be big enough, give appropriate feedback instantly, and convey a way of interaction that is intuitive. Expect more in the future as this crossover allows us to explore this way of designing interfaces further.

Why show our people? Well apart from giving our clients the ability to work out who does what, we wanted people to put names to faces, and to see where they fitted within the company. As we are only a small number of people it is critical that those who may deal with us know who they are talking to and have the ability to get in touch directly. Not least it gives us a human angle. Humanizing the web is something there simply isn’t enough of. We also wanted to show what some of these people thought, wrote or created. The Follow section allows us to have an area that links the other spaces where we occupy (blogs, Flickr etc) and allow us to pour this content into a general area of interest.




Content creation
The platform used by Wired, Mashable and TechCrunch is very accessible and is easy to manage content through a team that can collaborate through the interface. It also allows permissions to be set up that require different user roles to produce and publish the content. A very necessary element of producing a site is to ensure that there are methods to publish live, and instantly, when needed. WordPress allows this in a way that is supported by a multitude of plug-ins that ensure other concerns (such as SEO and social media) are addressed. Simply put, WordPress is a free back-end system that helps you run a website professionally. Yes we used extra coding to get things done how we wanted, but the system that runs the ability to add more content is out of the box.


fonts   Known issues
We use a home made font solution to render Helvetica on many browsers. Chrome manages it the best but Safari suffers on the Mac (though not on the iPad due to the font renderer on the tablet). This has caused issues and will be rectified for the Mac user. Some elements of the animation of the list are a little clunky and these will be ironed out as we go.


Key people
You will find success in making sure you stick to the goal and remaining committed to it throughout. Setting achievable deadlines and communicating that to the other team members is critical. Technical problems may delay a launch but resource issues shouldn’t derail the building of a site – that’s just bad planning or lack of foresight. Also a creative developer was critical to this being built – his can-do attitude with an eye for details and creative flair ensured we have a site we are happy with, and can improve easily. Without his skill it would have been much harder to achieve our vision for the site.

Also make sure you have somebody who can continually badger people to get things done (if like me you haven’t the stamina to do it yourself). I luckily has a great PM to help and she kept on at the team to provide what we had laid out in the plan. At times you will get disheartened but remember that your ability to achieve the goal is mirrored in your personal belief that it is achievable. Always remain positive and it can be done with dedication and team work.




A site for the future
Conceiving, designing, building and refining a website can be a straight forward process or a challenge that will test the patience of all involved. Thankfully by adopting an agile strategy to design and user experience we managed to have a very clear direction quickly about how the site was organized , and the interaction and visual design was produced in a matter of days.

Content held us up and producing cases perhaps took (and takes) longer than we wish. But often they require feedback from all stakeholders and this takes time. What we do have upon launch is a site that has attracted attention and we are happy with. The best part is it is a platform that works well on tablets and laptops, we can add elements and ensure that we have a medium for communication that supports our demands.  

This site represents a new beginning for Hello – and that was a key theme in it’s design. The designers managed to encapsulate this feeling in a look that is fresh, bold and in-keeping with the company. After all the work it is a very satisfying feeling to experience what has been built. The launch is just the start. The evolution of it can now begin…

Euro IA 2010 – ‘Strong IA feels real’

Friday, October 1st, 2010

Last week I was in Paris for an entertaining, yet equally perplexing Euro IA. The majority of talks were a thought provoking foray into the usual domains of information architecture but also service design and co-creation.


The opening keynote from Oliver Reichenstein was a strange experience, part personal take on the field and part philosophical reflection on how he personally arrived at his own professional destination.

I am an admirer of his work and yet elements of those great data visualizations and experiments (the web trend maps) were not mentioned here. He did attempt to explain his user experience diagram but after claiming metaphors were only useful to a point, he then likened IA to ‘the recipe for user experience’. This gastronomic reference, was a recurring theme throughout the two days.

Contradiction seemed to be the order of the day. On the one hand stating that he found IA used too many ‘bullshit’ terms that were unhelpful, he then described his own design process as ‘dialectic’. I find philosophy in alignment to IA has never been helpful to our profession. It doesn’t resonate with me as thought-through – ‘the architecture of the mind’ that Reichenstein holds up as one of his views is unhelpful to a layman and really only strengthens the opinion of those who feel that IA is intangible. Even Reichenstein says that ‘if you stretch metaphors they break’.


image   Ian Fenn wrote a fictitious tweet, and yet ironically it was exactly what it felt like after he delivered his keynote.

It was a shame that this opportunity was lost of convincing the group that he didn’t just use the term because he liked the phrase. But unfortunately that seemed the real reason if you take the talk at face value.


His comment that ‘strong IA feels real’ was ironic, as this ia felt unreal, unrealistic and abstract. Even if it works for him and his company, I felt he didn’t tell the whole story.

I think therefore IA…
Other talks also reflected the philosophical aspect. Koen Claes focussed on designing for memory (enjoyable but try selling that to a CEO). Peter Bogaards talked about the similarity with gastronomy to aspects of what we do as UX people.

All thought-provoking stuff but really it had the feeling of some in-joke that only UX people would get, and that those from other communities who were present, the product managers, marketing and developers would look on and question.

This is not a practical application or useful in my opinion and after talking to a few attendees after day one they felt the same. These talks gave more attention to the experience of being human than the thing that we design. Though the two are obviously connected, it becomes too indiscernible from existentialism.

Lean IA, service design and Ubicomp
The second day proved far better, more real  and more tangible. More useful to talk about how to design in an agile way, using co-creation and the methods and skills found in the scrum processes of product development teams.

Here Jeff Gothelf, Johanna Kollmann and Franco Papeschi proved that the application of our skill set is the most important thing in our domain. The tools and methods are fine but not as important as engaging the team, working collaboratively and transparently and being an agent for change.

Their approaches were the exact opposite to the mysterious design master. This is the future of UX, with Claire Rowland and Chris Browne representing service design and ubicomp in a very comprehensive, fascinating talk.

Christophe Tallec also talked about how the theory of the wisdom of crowds, has usefully been applied to a product. These emerging fields becoming more relevant every year, and I guess in the not too distant future these fields will become facets of the same discipline.

Aimless ends
The closing plenary was given by Paul Kahn where he stated that Facebook was not important to him. But with its 500 million users and a previous slide stating how the biggest sites are user generated it just seemed he was being provocative for the sake of it.

As he ambled through several sites that he liked, it was similar to surfing a smashing magazine post of cool dataviz sites. The structured and non structured aspect of metadata is well documented but the talk really just seemed to meander without purpose.

His closing message that user-centred design is best tackled by saying ‘you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink’ was uninspiring. Did this statement derive from too many failed projects?  One he showed – though it used a neat UI trick it was where he openly admitted he didn’t have numbers to know if it was effective or not. Who knows?

Summing up
There were a lot of great presentations and Martin Belam has gathered the talks on his site and are well worth a look. But keynotes are from thought leaders. Surely they have a responsibility to not use the platform as a casual debate (or product promotion) with throw away comments?

Or perhaps that is their call, but I do ask as an attendee for the speakers to prepare the material and avoid being self-indulgent or misleading. Give us something real. Give back something tangible to this community.

I remember last year being at a talk where a student pleaded – ‘give us something we can use’. From the keynotes, I was left with the same feeling…

IA collaboration – two heads can be better

Saturday, March 1st, 2008


IAcollab   Two months ago I wrote about a case study, how it was implemented and what the results were. I thought I would go into the detail of the information architecture and how collaboration with my colleague helped us reach a successful conclusion to the project.


I was extremely fortunate to be working alongside a taxonomist, Rachel Hammond. We were sat beside each other and interacted continuously on the same project daily. This made for an extremely good collaborative working environment.

(more…) An IA case study

Wednesday, December 5th, 2007

The old

This was not so much a redesign, or even a relaunch, but more of a resurrection of a site that had become tired, old and ineffective. Its many shortcomings were highlighted with the onslaught of the new generation of sites from competitors that used user-generated content and a more social networking approach to their presentation layer.

As this site represented the best of computer related business journalism, it was apt that it should be the company’s first site that underwent a complete overhaul from the ground up.