Ordinarily, a project’s very first show-and-tell would include walking our client/SME through a stage-setting information architecture or site map. It was never the most exciting thing ever, but we’ve recently realized that not only was the exercise not reflective of all the work we’d have typically done to that point, but it was also pretty much always a flop in the usefulness category. Either clients would yes-ma’am their way through the explanation without question and we’d wrap in 20 minutes, or they’d silently misunderstand the exercise. Either way, the result was the same: lots of revisions farther down the line, when site structure was easier to visualize (most of the time by the wireframe stage) but unfortunately harder to change.
We didn’t so much do away with creating overlying IA as we did away with presenting it to clients. It’s still something we hand over, but we don’t walk though it live anymore, unless asked.
When you do the work to create a site map, you’re putting down the pylons of the site’s structure; to keep with the construction metaphor, outlining its general footprint and where the walls and doors will go. A lot of work goes into deciding what will live in the main navigation, how pages will link to and work alongside other pages, and how many individual templates or pages the site will have. We have to think through these things to create an experience that achieves the client’s, and importantly users’, goals. But we’ve found it’s just too abstract for a lot of people to truly understand. It’s usually a quick meeting: they look, they see a tree structure and the bigger buckets of content they know they want on the site, and nod their heads, figuring they’ll have plenty more chances to change things later on.
(We do not want them to change lots of things later on.)
So, we wondered, how can we make the IA reveal more valuable to the process?
Our version of the Content Design process inspired us to re-think what we should be checking in with the client on this early in the experience design process. Rather than just plunk down a site map, we decided that we’d rather start immediately talking about site intent — taking the room’s temperature regarding the overall story we’re wanting to tell in the site’s journey, how we’ll align with brand strategy and position, and most importantly, what perspective we’ll bring to each major part of the site based on our audience research.
An example: We have a client that’s an experience design company looking to elevate their look to being a world-class creative agency. They’re brilliant. They’ve got the creativity, strategy, and work to prove their value to any big brand. But as is typical, the cobbler’s family had no shoes, and their site is meh at best. We were tasked with helping them conceive of an experience that would wow CEOs and CMOs at disruptor brands away from their more established boutique agency competitors. Audience research told us our targets wanted to be immersed in spectacle and story, to feel in their bones and the back of their eyeballs that this group could put on a show. So, we conceived of a perspective that treated each major site area as part of the progression of a well-staged performance…and shared this POV with them during what would have been a yawny site map presentation.
We walked them through how each part of their site would align with our showmanship directive, down to potential nav items and button placement. We presented inside our Figma file, and wove in ample visual examples (other sites) that brought the ideas to life — knowing in this instance, the client was very visual and very motivated to collaborate on the spot.
Hint: know your audience, but also know you client audience. It alleviates so much pain and awkwardness.
The result was more workshop than presentation, and a chance to hear their excitement and reservations about various high-level decisions in real-time; nobody had to go away and scan a site tree and then push questions back to us basically via telegram.
Here, the Content Design process’s insistence that we question everything (including the validity of a deliverable), as well as forever look through the eyes of our audiences gave us the opportunity to turn a box we have to tick into a huge leg-up on creating a truly engaging, audience-aligned experience.
We probably won’t ever put all our initial thinking down in a deck again. There will likely be no more talking through research findings via PPT or (fingers crossed) lingering over in-the-weeds requests six steps too late anymore.
From now on, we’re getting credit — and feedback and collaboration — around our biggest assumptions and decisions as soon as we humanly can.