Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Information Architecture, part 3

Roles in information architecture.


Information architecture needs people filling many roles. On a small project one person may take on several, or all of the following.

Information architect.

This person defines your site's structure, its content, and its functions. The architect does this with an eye to both business and visitor needs. But information architecture is an art. It's abstract. It is hard to communicate sometimes. Because of this the architect has to work well with others, and has to be good at communicating complex ideas.

Every information architect should be a generalist, but especially needs decent skills in visualizing, defining, and organizing information.

The architect needs to think like an outsider (remaining sensitive to visitor needs) while being an insider (who understands the business and its mission).

The architect needs to have empathy, and should be a quick study.

Creating a site that mirrors a product brochure is a mistake. Creating a site that mirrors an annual report is a mistake. A decent information architect can help avoid mistakes.

Remember that the average new visitor gives a web site only four seconds. Four seconds to get the message across. Four seconds to tell a compelling story. And then that person can simply click away, never to return.

So the information architect has a role to play. A crucial one, in making sure that each web site can entice, hold, entertain, inform, and repay visitors for time spent at a web site.

User interface designer.

Works to make a user's interaction with a site as efficient and pleasant as possible. Good interface design helps usability without drawing attention to itself. It is often overlooked or assigned to someone as a second role, but user interface design is critical, and should not be handed off to someone as an afterthought. Especially not to a programmer.

Usability engineer.

Is an expert at testing and evaluating systems. Concentrates on measuring system performance from a human angle.

Marketing experts.

Understand target audiences and how to communicate with them. Marketing expertise ensures that the business message is presented properly and not buried in jargon, or lost.

One drawback: marketers are geared toward selling, but helping users is extremely important too, sale or no. Make a good impression, provide some value at no charge, and you may have a customer. Word of mouth can make or break a business, and rarely shows up on sales reports.

Technicians.

Programmers, database designers, operating system and network specialists and others have the technical skills for modeling content and creating working databases and web pages. They usually are not trained in user-centered approaches to designing information systems. And even if they are, they don't have the time to do it justice, except on very small projects. These folks deal in nuts and bolts. Important things. Very important things, but done behind the scenes.

Graphic designer.

This is a person who oversees the layout of site-wide visual elements and creates a site's overall visual identity.

Graphic artist.

Creates specific images, logos, and pieces of artwork that contribute to the larger visual design.

Copy writer.

Copy writers focus on language. They write, proofread, edit copy, and massage content so a site has a consistent voice.

Project manager.

This is the person who keeps things on schedule and within budget. This person is a facilitator and a communicator, not a dictator. The project manager is a negotiator among team members and stakeholders, a go-between, and must be dedicated to maintaining a comfortable and productive working environment.

The project manager's job is to juggle the needs of staff, the needs of the schedule, and the tasks to be done. The project manager's job is not to give orders but to take them, to ensure that everyone can work at full potential.

And finally...

Back to the information architect for a moment. This person needs to know at least a little about each one of the other specialties as well. The architect's work affects each part of the process, and all team members. The architect is the keeper of the big picture, but has to stay flexible enough (and creative enough) to come up with new ideas on the fly, as required.

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