Why structure matters – The second task

When I was asked to speak in Bristol at this years World Information Architecture Day (WIAD), I found myself contemplating a range of topics to present. Being the keynote with a 30 minute window, I wanted to find a balance between opinion piece and practicality. My eventual topic “Experience, Errors and Structure” was well received, which was very satisfying as it is a theme that I have been carrying through much of my work in recent years.

My goal with my presentation was to acknowledge some of the history of UX (human factors / ergonomics / UCD – Delete as appropriate) and its movement from an earlier focus on usability and optimisation of software, product and web interfaces to the provision of some form of experience across channels.

However, I was also keen to point out that in the rush to provide an “experience”, I felt there had been a loss of focus on the immense value of a well designed digital product structure and taxonomy. Some would call this classic IA thinking or maybe even systems thinking. I talked about how thinking about structure and taxonomy can:

  • underpin the design of many dynamic experiences;
  • mitigates the occurrence of human error within the system;
  • provides a level of inherent usability to the system no matter how tailored the experience has become for the user.

As I talked about taxonomy and structure being the foundation of experience design I realised that I wanted to find a simple example I could talk to people about that would emphasise the inherent value of user centric site structures, over more dynamic, personalised or tailored experiences. From talking to my team, clients and peers i’ve started to call this example “the second task”.

The second task
Our industry will talk a lot about how users come to a digital product and how we “convert them” once they are there (am I only the only one who thinks this sounds weird and stalkerish?).
Social media, email marketing, personalisation, geolocation contextual targeting are techniques that have the ability to route users intelligently and directly to relevant content like never before. They are powerful value adding techniques that enable user’s to successfully locate content that can can often be buried deep in our websites.

So lets assume we have been successful in our goal of helping a user achieve whatever behaviour or task they wanted to when they visited our website? For example:

  • The came and read the article on our website that they found on Twitter.
  • They logged in and changed their address after receiving an email from their utility provider.
  • They bought and downloaded the ebook they saw advertised in the window of the shop in the high street.

What next?

Are they going to leave or are they going to do something else with our website?

After consuming that first initial piece of content on the website (and assuming they are still engaged), a user can be presented with two logical next steps in order to continue:

  1. Available navigation options (assuming they are intuitive)
  2. In-page content (assuming they are relevant)

Both of these “second task” options are presented as a direct consequence of the structural and taxonomy level thinking we have completed during the early phases of design. When thinking about “the second task” it is our site structure and taxonomy that takes over as the primary facilitator for the continuation of a user’s journey.

When we consider “the second task” (and we really should when thinking about cross sell, upsell and prolonged engagement opportunities), in my opinion, we are really acknowledging why thinking about structure is important.

Why structure matters

“A day without taxonomies is not found” Jared Spool (from the Accidental Taxonomist)

If you haven’t read it yet, Mark Boulton’s article “Structure First. Content Always” is an excellent exploration of how thinking about structure really is the crux of successful web design.

It is not my intention with this post to dismiss many of the dynamic powerful techniques that we can use to tailor and personalise relevant content for users today. I understand the value these bring.

My intent with this post (and I believe what I was getting at in my talk at WIAD 2015) was to emphasise that the need for logical, user centric structures and taxonomies has never gone away. We can tailor and personalise experiences as much as we want but it is my belief that sooner or later there will be a need for a user to fall back upon the underlying structure presented to them.

When you consider the time and effort invested in the pursuit of fully tailored, personalised experiences that some organisations are striving for, you have to ask whether some good old fashioned IA and Content Strategy thinking wouldn’t have a faster return on investment and bigger impact instead.

After all, “the second task” isn’t going away, nor should anybody looking for deeper engagement want it to.

Thanks for reading!

If you enjoyed what you read then please do share it, I’m always appreciative of the support.  You can also follow me on Twitter here.

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