IA Summit: IA’s Role in the Optimal Design Team

by Luke Wroblewski March 24, 2006

Jared Spool discussed Information Architecture’s Role in the Optimal Design Team at IA Summit 2006. He began by articulating the value of user experience in product design today and cited the iPod and Netflix are great examples of the success quality experience design can bring.

More than a hundred iPods were sold per minute in December 2005, 85% of Netflix’s new subscribers come on board from recommendations by friends, and 93% of their customers evangelize the service to friends and family.

Conversely, there’s many companies that have had design projects go bad. 20% loss of revenue after $100 million spent on a redesign effort and 40% drop in page views are an “improved design” were two examples Jared presented.

So given that experience design is critical to success (and avoiding failure) – how can companies build successful user experience design teams? Interviews with Netflix users showed that they never mentioned the information architecture, use of DHTML/Ajax, or social networking features in the product. Instead they talked about movies, delivery, and recommendations. The experience design was invisible and as a result successful.

To achieve successful user experience design requires good copy writing, information architecture, usability, information design, visual design, interaction design, and lots more. The teams that are successful have these skills sets. So experience Design is multidisciplinary.

There are three ways to form a user experience design team:

  • Consulting: people who come in and do the work. Consulting only works well when there are a small number of projects in the queue.
  • Review & Approve: a central group reviews what teams create and supplies guidelines, standards, and compliance metrics. These systems tend to become bottlenecks or gate-keepers within the company.
  • Educate & Administrate: company admits that they cannot touch every design that goes out there and instead provide education on the front end vs. review on the back end. In this example, the entire organization is responsible for quality user experience. In order for this model to work, an organization must have a clear vision of success, disseminate user knowledge & feedback, use design problems as teachable moment, build communication paths to all the design agents, make collecting feedback less expensive, constantly share learning across the organization, and make good design the path of least resistance.

Information Architecture is a skill-set within user experience design as a result, Information Architects are specialists within a user experience design team. Specialists dive into a specific discipline within an area of practice. Generalists bounce between disciplines. But both gain experience and skills through repetition and study and both are required for successful user experience design.

Not every company can afford to hire specialists. Regional economics drive specialization. It only exists when there is enough demand. In fact, in very high demand economies only specialists can survive. It should be noted that specialization is not compartmentalization. Specialists have the breadth of skills across their entire discipline but the bulk of their experience is within their specialty.

Since few design teams have enough demand to afford specialists, information architects must be versed in other user experience disciplines. This is especially important when economic conditions change and no longer support specialization (this happens in cycles). The information architecture community must support both information architecture as a skill set for user experience generalists and information architecture as a specialty.