Information architecture: still vital to digital design

Over the years, the most neglected, and yet most essential, area of digital design has been information architecture.

Recently, a set of presentations for website designs were made to senior management at a large organization. One presentation was based on data. It had carefully analyzed customer behavior and focused particularly on the navigation structure and wording. But it didn’t have that polished graphical look. The second presentation was quite beautiful to look at but the creators used no customer data to create their design. They copied the old navigation, while focusing on eye-catching graphics. Unfortunately, senior management went for the eye-catching design. In 2017, it is indeed frustrating that many in senior management still want brochures instead of effective digital designs.

The number one reason for a poor digital customer experience are confusing menus and links. It was the number one reason back in 1995 when I started consulting on the Web, and it’s still the number one reason for customer frustration and failure. This is based on data and observations of thousands of customers seeking to complete tasks. 8 out of 10 times when I tell management that it’s the menus and links, they barely listen and hardly ever act to improve things.

Information architecture, navigation, metadata, linking; this is all hard, thankless, grinding work. And yet, this is how the Web is built, one link at a time. This is so much of the true value of digital lies. It’s frustrating to know what needs to be done to improve the customer experience and yet not get the required management support and budget. Yet we must persevere because information architecture is such essential work.

What was the killer feature for Facebook photos? Tagging. The ability to add metadata tags in order to name who was in the picture. Since the beginning of the Web, metadata has been essential to findability. I have worked with numerous ecommerce clients, where choosing the right link text had a huge impact on sales. I mean HUGE.

And yet … And yet so few organizations want to invest in doing quality, rigorously tested information architecture design. Always, there is the belief that some new technology will come along and solve the information architecture problem. Enterprise search has a history of incredible awfulness. Why? Because management invested in search engine after search engine but were not prepared to invest in the organization and management of their information.

And now we have chatbots and the “chat interface.” Chatbots have tremendous potential but they are not some magical cure. They are not some plug-n-play technology that doesn’t require us to have a navigation and classification.

How exactly are these chatbots going to chat? From what magic-magic land will they access their answers? Chatbots will require an extremely rigorous information architecture in order to ‘chat’ in a useful way. Otherwise, they’ll pretty quickly become gibberishbots.

Making the interface ‘invisible’ requires even more effort in the design of the back-end information architecture. The more you simplify for the customer, the more internal complexity you must take on. Efficiently organizing information is—and will remain—one of the most critical skills of the digital age.