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!

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When reviews stop being useful

Customer reviews are ubiquitous on the web today. Its hard to visit any site that sells a product or experience that doesn’t utilise customer reviews (usually on a five point scale). Whilst I acknowledge that the little five stars are not about to go anywhere soon, there is a scenario where they stop being useful.

Weddings, Zip wires and Mayan temples

In September I got married and went on honeymoon to Central America. As a consequence, In the last year I have found myself thinking (amongst other things) about the following three things:

Wedding venues: Where do me and my wife want to hold one of the important days of our lives?

Rainforest zip wires: Which company should we use for flying over the canopy of a Costa Rican rainforest?

Mayan ruins: Which of the 1000 year old long lost Maya pyramids poking out of the rainforest should we visit?

To quickly summarise 12 months, both our wedding and honeymoon were incredible. However, one thing thing that didn’t help us in planning was a customer review. The problem is, its very hard to find a wedding venue, Costa Rican zip wire or Maya temple that doesn’t come with a ridiculously good review…

Customer objectivity and bias
Its easy to see how any of these three activities will naturally come with excellent customer reviews, they are great things to do! Read any of the descriptions of the activities above and I challenge you not to inherently imagine how splendid (or awesome for my North American friends) they can be.

A photo of the author zip lining above a Costa Rican rainforest

How can anyone not give this five stars? But there are dozens of companies in Santa Elana, Costa Rica

However, when you look a little deeper at these activities (and talk with people who have done them) you spot two factors that helps explain the high ratings of customer reviews:

Unique or rare events: Typically these types of experience are unique or very rare in our daily lives. For example, most people who visit Costa Rica, rarely do more than one zip line trip.

Positive emotions: These kinds of experiences elicit a highly positive emotional response from us (well you’d hope so on your wedding day!)

In other words, If you only do something once and it felt great you are likely to give it a high score when filling out a customer review. Whilst this in itself is not a problem (I don’t begrudge people having a good time!) it does make the selection process when trying to purchase one of these experiences more difficult.

Your purchasing decision is harder
As a prospective customer looking to purchase one of these rare, positive experiences I simply stop using customer reviews. They just don’t enable differentiation in the selection process.

For more common experiences, customers are able to extrapolate and provide better critiques because they have a greater base of experience to allow comparison. For example, a business traveller may stay at several hotels a year and they generally don’t tend to be a particular highlight of their calendar year. Therefore, a customers reviews can be more objective. Thus I find Trip Advisor more useful for booking accommodation than trips to Maya pyramids in Guatamala.

Is this really a problem?

Everybody seems to be having a good time right? True. I guess my problem is that not all five star experiences are created equal. Anecdotally from our honeymoon travels, ourselves and several other travellers we met visited multiple Maya ruins across Central America. What quickly became clear is that some ruins were much better than others and yet they all had high scores on Trip Advisor. If you’ve only visited one set of Maya ruins then you will give it a great review, they are inherently cool. The paradox is that because you only visited one maya site (or got married once or zip lined once etc) you have no base of reference on which to base your experience.

A screenshot of Calakmul ruins on Trip Advisor with a 5 star review

The ruins at Calakmul with a five star review on Trip Advisor

A screenshot of Tikal ruins with a five star review on Trip Advisor

The temples at Tikal with a 5 star review on Trip Advisor

Contradiction and content implications

I’m not silly enough to suggest that having a five star review is a bad thing. What I am suggesting is that it should be possible to identify types of experiences where reviews will be less useful to prospective customers because of the combination of ultra rare and positive emotive circumstances I have been discussing here.

If we can identify these types of experiences, it enables us to consider what other factors we could potentially use to help differentiate these experiences for prospective customers. For example, if we know that reviews are less useful for decision making, then how does this change our content requirements for our individual product page? Is there additional content that we can add that is the clincher. For example, the fact that your zip line company offers couples zip lining options (how romantic on your honeymoon).

Despite me bashing reviews in this context, they will always be essential content requirements for customers. If only as an initial filter in decision making. The difficulty is that if all your competitors are proudly displaying their five star reviews then you too must puff out your chest and your “Trip Advisor Excellent 2013” award. You can’t afford to be the exception in the marketplace, even if in so doing your unique proposition is lost in a sea of five star reviews. A true contradiction if ever I saw one.

Thanks for reading!

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Maintaining the bigger picture in component led design

Design systems have recently been a major talking point in my office and the wider web industry. Whilst not an entirely new idea, the growth in interest in design systems carries a lot of merit and is a direct consequence, in my opinion, of the responsive design and content first movements.

One recent example of the design system way of thinking has been Brad Frost’s term Atomic Web Design. Brad identified five distinct levels in his atomic web design approach:

  • Atoms: Basic building blocks of our sites such as HTML tags;
  • Molecules: A combination of two atoms such as a form label, a field and a button forming a search box;
  • Organisms: Groups of molecules joined together to form a complex distinct part of an interface such as a product listing
  • Templates: These are concrete examples and groups of the above three items. They are typically where we start to see a design come together.
  • Pages: These are specific instances of templates and the most tangible to a user.

There is no doubting that thinking in a more granular / component based, system led approach rather than the “page” is excellent during the design phase of a website. Its excellent for the design team and the client to think in such a way as it enables a consistency of experience, optimisation of elements to be built (why have three carousels when one will do?) and a rationalisation of final templates.

My problem is the end user does not always think like this.

Wayfinding – Paths, Edges, Districts, Nodes and Landmarks

Since the dawn of the web we have called them “web pages” and told the public just as much. Even if as an industry we actually successfully managed to kill the page metaphor (“Kill the page” or “Content only, no navigation” have been two phrases I’ve seen banded around lately) people will still routinely attempt to locate themselves to a “place” within a digital product i.e. “Where am I?”.

The work of the architect Kevin Lynch in the 1950’s  identified a number of methods that people have evolved for navigating around cities. These are as follows:

  • Paths: These are the channels along which people move within the city. For example streets or footpaths.
  • Edges: These are boundaries between two places or regions. They help users group together general areas. For example, a large river bounding a park.
  • Districts: These are medium to large sections of a city. They will have recognisable character traits and be used as reference points.
  • Nodes: These are strategic points which are the focus of directions of travel. For example, crossings or two paths that converge.
  • Landmarks: This is a point of reference that a person cannot typically enter but can enable orientation because it can be seen from a distance. For example, a tall building or mountain.

My own experience has shown me that people routinely see themselves as being in a specific place and often adopt some of these wayfinding techniques to move around within a product or service.

Navigating the bigger picture
What i’m proposing is that particular design components (particularly at the “molecule” and “organism” level of Brad’s atomic distinctions) can be used by customers to orientate themselves within the website i.e. they can act as individual “paths”, “districts”, “nodes” or even “landmarks” in Kevin Lynch’s world.

However, when this happens customers are actually orienting themselves around these components within the context of the bigger picture i.e. the entire site. This is the reason why I feel we must be careful.

In my opinion, customers of a website will never think at the atomic / component levels that we as designers may operate. We may create incredibly flexible design systems featuring interlocking “atoms”, “molecules”, and “organisms” but it is still at the “page” level that we must ensure the site works for customers as this is the predominant metaphor in which they will be operating.

If we are too liberal or flexible in the application of our design systems then, in my opinion, we risk creating serious problems with wayfinding and orientation through homogenisation, repetition or misuse of elements.

Where lies the danger?

My concern with the design system approach is actually not during the design phase. My concern rests with post delivery when the client and subsequent teams of content authors inherit the new site.

Whilst the intelligent content management of a design system can utilise “atoms”, “molecules” and “organisms” to act as Lynch’s “paths”, “nodes” and “landmarks”; they can also be applied in such a ubiquitous and haphazard manner as to render them detrimental to the overall experience.

If a potential major strength of design systems is too aid digital wayfinding through consistency and orientation then, potentially, it is also one of their greatest weaknesses.

Therefore, my intent is to raise the concern that when creating our design systems we have to give serious thought to how and by whom they will be used after delivery.

Gestalt architecture

In writing this article I have found myself finding many parallels to architecture. The way that we design a building can have long lasting consequences for the way that it is inhabited. Both are essential life stages of the building.

Matthew Frederick (2007) wrote an excellent little book called 101 things I learned in Architecture School . I recommend every UX designer read it and absorb the parallels to our profession. One lesson in particular resonates with my point:

Create architectural richness through informed simplicity or an interaction of simples rather than through unnecessarily busy agglomerations.

Matthew goes on to provide some examples of unnecessary complexity in architecture, in particularly he states to avoid:

Agglomerating many unrelated elements without concern for their unity because they are interesting in themselves.

His accompanying diagram couldn’t resonate with this blog post more. Thank you for reading.

12 rectangles are arranged in different configurations on the page. On the left they form a jumbled collective. On the right they are arranged to form the outline of three overlapping rectangles with the smaller ones visible inside. Thus the 12 shapes are reduced to the informed simplicity of three blocks.

Three levels of knowing: Simplicity, Complexity and Informed Simplicity

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.

The Trouble with Resumption: Transitions in a modern service ecosystem

“Where was I?” Three little words that all of us have muttered when we return to something that we put on hold. It could have been five minutes or five days but either way we speak them aloud in an effort to refresh our memory. The phrase “Where was I?” is interesting because it leads to a subject that I have been thinking a lot about: transitions.

When I talk about transitions in the context of a modern service I am talking about the movement of a customer across various channels, typically following a period of elapsed time. This movement could include:

  • moving from Channel A (e.g. a website) to Channel B (e.g. a retail store);
  • returning to the same channel that you previously visited (although when considering responsive web design we could be looking at the same website on a different device…).

From discussions and experience, the phrase transition doesn’t seem to do justice to the significant realignment required on the behalf of a customer when shifting channels.

Therefore I have started referring to these channel movements as Macro Transitions to differentiate them from the smaller transitions that we typically design on a day to day basis.

What, Where and Why

Commencement of an activity following a macro transition can cause considerable problems for a customer. Immediately following a channel shift there are three obvious challenges that must be overcome that I like to call the three W’s:

  • “What was I doing?” – The customer must remember what they were thinking about before they stopped;
  • “Where was I?” – The customer must remember the very point where they previously stopped;
  • “Why am I here?” – The customer must place the new channel in the context of their overall goal.

Several others before me have discussed the concept of cross channel understanding (Andrea Remini’s and Luca Rosati’s 2011 classic Pervasive Information Architecture is a must read). However, for the benefits of this post it is a term coined by Joel Grossman in 2006 (in an article for UX Matters) that has resonated with me: “Designing for Bridge Experiences”.

Building bridges: The role of 3rd party applications

The bridge metaphor is apt when considering macro transitions as it perfectly sums up the problem we face as experience designers. We are trying to get a customer to cross a giant chasm in order to continue their journey.

As we have moved further towards cross channel ecosystems, the construction of these metaphorical bridges has been increasingly provided by third party applications and services.

In recent years there has been a proliferation of applications and services whose success is based on their ability to construct a bridge across channels. Some popular candidates here would include Dropbox, Pinterest, Evernote and QR code readers.

Hopefully this small list demonstrates to you the type of applications and services I am talking about. Each of these services or applications have the ability to reduce a customers pain when making a macro transition:

  • Dropbox: I can access files from any device I choose. I no longer have to worry about remembering to leave the house with the right file when i want to work on something;
  • Pinterest: When shopping I can pin something I like to one of my boards so that I do not have to worry about finding the same item again from whatever website I was on. I can access that board from Pinterest on my phone when I am standing in the high street store thus allowing me to continue my purchase journey;
  • Evernote: In a similar fashion to Pinterest, I can create folders for my interests and email things to myself that I can access at a later point from any web browser;
  • QR code readers: If implemented correctly then QR codes have the ability to help a customer jump the chasm from the offline world to some deep place in the online world, for example a specific product page in a large website.

Is there a problem?

So whats the problem you might say? As our society has embraced digital, certain companies have spotted opportunities to offer bridge building services. Good on them!

Thats not my issue, I love my Dropbox and Evernote! My question concerns the number of people in society who are using these services. Lets take a quick look at the number of global users for some of these bridge building services we have mentioned:

  • Dropbox: 100 million users
  • Pinterest: 49 million users
  • Evernote: 60 million users

So if these figures are correct then we are talking in the region of 200 million users (assuming some level of overlap). At this point I should acknowledge that there are other bridge building behaviours (for example emailing yourself links) that customers use but these are difficult to measure.

However, it still seems to me that there are potentially a lot of web users out there attempting to perform these macro transitions without any help whatsoever. Thats a lot of people struggling with the “What, Where and Why” and thats my problem with many existing cross channel experiences.

The trouble with resumption

Easing the burden of a macro transition typically relies upon a customer being both digitally savvy and proactive enough to adopt a bridge building service or application. I would argue these types of individuals are in the minority when compared to the total target population of many services.

Maybe this is only a temporary problem given the state of technology, the publics level of digital literacy and the range of commercially available alternatives in 2013. Whilst I love the concept of Just in Time Interaction, we are not there yet.

In my opinion, as long as navigating a macro transition relies on the proactive downloading of an application then there will always be a significant proportion of our target audience who will struggle in our services.

I will revisit the topic of transitions again but to conclude I want to leave you with a quote from the fantastic Thinking in Systems by Diana Wright and Donella Meadows. The quote comes from an old Sufi story and to me sums up everything about dealing with transitions in modern service ecosystems:

You think that because you understand “one” that you must therefore understand “two” because one and one make two. But you forget that you must also understand “and”

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.