A few weeks ago now, I had the pleasure of hearing Larisa Warnke speak to a group of local information architects about her work at Carlson Marketing. She gave a high-level overview of the process used by her user experience group as they go about creating a user interface, and of how they interact with clients and other groups in the organization. The timing of her presentation was opportune, as I’ve been reading about process and research in Rosenfeld and Morville, and in an article by Jakob Nielsen.
In general, the Carlson Marketing user experience group creates user interfaces for two types of products: reusable components referred to internally as “durable assets”, and custom sites and products that are created on a case-by-case basis. These products include web sites such as online catalogs and loyalty systems, email marketing campaigns, and call center operator interfaces.
The software developers at Carlson Marketing base their projects on the Rational Unified Process (RUP), an iterative methodology that in its most common form doesn’t really address usability or user experience. In order to address this deficit, Carlson Marketing contracted with a third party vendor of user experience processes tailored for use in RUP. According to Larisa, this process has been extremely useful. This is not to say that it is applied rigidly and blindly to every project; steps are shuffled or skipped as appropriate, but the process is a solid framework for each member of the team to fall back on. The process doesn’t “talk back, and it doesn’t point fingers.”
Once a business need and goal have been defined, there is a role for an information architect in every step of the user interface creation process, according to Larisa. The particular challenge that the user experience faces at Carlson Marketing is that there’s often a project manager in the IT group concerned with the programming, and perhaps an account manager or operations team member concerned with managing the client relationship, but there isn’t necessarily a dedicated project manager for the UI process. As a result, the user experience group sometimes finds itself left out of crucial steps in the process such as testing or basic planning. This presents an opportunity for the UI team to refer back to the established process to assert its role.
Larisa gave me some useful insight into the practicalities of the research phase of the IA process. In his essay, Jakob Nielsen addresses the common disparity between how users say they use a site and how they actually use it. Nielsen says that it is crucial that usability be genuinely tested rather than simply put through a focus group. Only by observing the way individuals use a site can you really gain insight into what’s going to be useful and intuitive. If users are asked simply to look at a layout, they will gravitate to what seems cool or interesting, rather than what’s useful.
Rosenfeld and Morville’s chapter on research identifies a basic approach to research based on their venn diagram showing Context, Content, and Users. In the context realm, they discuss the importance of researching the client’s business environment in order to understand the goals, business plan, budget, and infrastructure constraints of the project. In this, Rosenfeld and Morville reemphasize the possibility of resistance to the notion of information architecture, and the challenges of explaining the concepts and their value to clients.
Larisa bridged these two challenges with an interesting real-world scenario, in which it is the client, not the user, who has a preconceived notion of how the users will interact with a system or product. This can often be a touchy situation, because the client may feel strongly that they know their customer base intimately, and that an outside party couldn’t possibly know their business better than they do. However, if an IA researcher can get permission from the client to analyze help center call logs, or support request e-mails, or better, actually interview users, a picture of how users actually interact with the system or site quickly emerges.