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The Information Architecture Process: Optimizing Usability

Information_Architecture

Creating the best user experience helps build a strong customer base and focuses user attention on your most important conversions. The goal of any project that the Information Architecture team begins is to inform and optimize design and usability. We examine user and business needs at an early stage, and then develop a solution by slowly adding detail and fidelity to it. We want to be asking the right questions and making the right decisions at the appropriate time—not all at once. With any given website, there can be a variety of directions to go in and ideas to enhance it. To get the solution that works best for the brand, you need to have feasible pieces of work that can be improved upon. To improve the final outcome of the project we are working on, we typically follow this process:

Discover

The first step to this entire process is a comprehensive website review where we try to thoroughly understand the client and their website to the fullest extent. To do this, we sit down in person and have the client walk us through their current website, what’s working now for their online business, what aspects just aren’t working, and where they want to try to get to with their website. Sometimes, this can result in a list of 300 tasks—which may sound like a lot, but when you think about the components of a website, it’s really a very complex system with tons of different aspects to it that you may not even consider.

We speak with the key stakeholders – the CEO, CFO, and all departments at the company we’re working with to determine what they all want to get out of this website. We host workshops with these stakeholders where we can ask questions, and understand how the website is currently used and what aspects are pain points. The findings from this are used to shape our formal discovery process, where we aim to understand the business requirements.

We’ll meet with a client over the course of several weeks and ask details about how users access the website and convert. Often, we’ll even speak with employees at the company to understand how they interact with the website, and users on a day-to-day basis. We conduct surveys, focus groups, and interviews—all of which are backed up by analytics. We also create “personas” and “user journeys” to work with business stakeholders towards a deeper understanding of who their customers are, what they’re doing, and what we think their needs are. After this research has been completed, we’re able to plan and strategize the main tasks and how they flow, and then determine the decision points for any website, and map out the processes and steps.

Ultimate Goal: Understand the client and the website, competitors, users, the requirements of the project, and the restrictions.

Define

Once the core problem has been discovered, we think about the structure and scope of the website to help define the proper design and technical solution. We look at the site’s structure through a sitemap, which lists all pages of the website, to see how all the pages relate, and pair that with user flows to assign features and functions to the initial page templates. User flows and process diagrams are key at this early stage so that we can understand the steps our users will need to take to complete a specific task and pair it with the right content and features to ease them through the process while avoiding any errors or confusion. The tasks we analyze in this way often become the primary conversion points for the site, if they aren’t already.

User_Flows

At this early stage, we have enough information to apply usability and design standards that will define the final user experience of this product. For example, we may focus on implementing a “recognition over a recall” UX strategy on a B2B ecommerce site with daily users, so that we can remind them what products they have in their cart or have purchased recently instead of forcing them to recall their past actions. Relying on these user interface design best practices allows our team to start from a solid, well-tested foundation and focus on the specific custom design solutions that will make your business and website stand out amongst your competitors.

Ultimate Goal: Define the structure, scope, flows and processes, scenarios, and site experience.

Testing

When it comes to testing, we focus on examining the structure and the concepts outlined. First is card sorting, a relatively simple but powerful research method to test your site’s structure. You write down each template from the sitemap on a notecard and invite individual users to complete a high priority task. You allow them to sort the cards into the order of pages they would click through to find the information or complete the task you prompted them with. We’ll ask people to complete a variety of complex tasks – like to find a product in a certain way -- and we will see how they attempt to reach their goal, as well as the various paths they take to get there. This exercise allows us to validate the structure and find opportunities to simplify it as much as possible before moving into design and development.

cardsorting

Another form of testing we perform is concept testing, where we create low-fi versions of the site and it's features, and ask users to test it, and record them as they do it. This is often used when a site or specific feature is really complex. We’ll ask them a few questions and to play around with it based on the parameters and determine which concepts are the most successful. This research method helps the team narrow the number of possible designs prior to creating more detailed iterations in the design phase, allowing us to focus our efforts on what works for your users instead of guessing without any research or validation.

Ultimate Goal: To test site structure, features, and design concepts

Develop

Now that the team has completed the initial research, defined the problem further, and tested some early concepts, we use this phase to create deliverables with additional details and fidelity. We focus on completing the sitemap to finish the structural design of the site, and then we move into creating high fidelity wireframes, which outline the functional elements of the site, for all devices and even interactive prototypes to layout the content and features on the page.

Site_maps

Prototypes, in particular, allow everyone involved in the project to try out any complex interactions related to our site’s goals and begin to see how the final product will look and feel within the browser. This more detailed work can also go through another round of user testing where we focus on the navigation, site experience, user journeys, functionality and the content to determine if everything is structured appropriately.

location_Hifi

Ultimate Goal: Develop structure, page layouts, interactions

Deliver

Once the layout and interactions have reached a point where they cover the user and business goals, the team provides a detailed functional specification. This document provides in-depth descriptions and annotated visuals to show how your site works, both for users and and the administrators that make decisions on the site. It covers everything from page layouts and interactions to business rules and technology requirements to make your site function to the specifications you desire. Our designers, developers, and marketers will use this document to guide and inform their own work in later phases of any site or application build.

Ultimate Goal: To communicate decisions so that we can inform and optimize design and usability of the web project.

The UX Process

By creating a website from the very beginning that truly embodies certain user personas, and the best possible user-experience, you will have as much control as possible over creating a seamless journey for your target audience. Streamlining the navigation experience for your visitors will help to increase conversions, and play a role in the overall growth of your business.

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