Here’s a story about a website I created several years ago that I had considered a success and now, upon reflection, see as a partial failure.
When it comes to measuring the success of information architecture, I usually think of clearly measurable criteria, such as findability. I ask someone to find something in a website and measure if they can and how long it takes. Easy.
But what if IA goes deeper than that?
For several years I did pro-bono work for my kids’ preschool. It started one day when the school’s website disappeared. That’s right, it just disappeared. And it was just a few weeks before their big registration period. Apparently a non-profit that received a grant to make websites for schools had built a reasonably nice site for free. But when the grant ran out, the organization disappeared. And the hosting account and all the website files disappeared too. All the school was left with was their domain name.
My wife heard about this and volunteered me to save the day. I was used to these sort of client-driven fire drills in the consulting world, so I was able to conduct some geurilla research, gather assets, and build a site based on a purchased template in a little over a week. Success, right?
Months afterwards, the school scraped together about $16,000 to hire a local agency to build them another site. While my ego stung a bit, this decision made sense: they wanted more functions and a CMS which my site didn’t have. Fair enough. Unfortunately the agency-built site had several “coming soon” sections that were never filled in, used an oddball CMS that was difficult to use, and overall was hard to maintain.
My version didn’t have these problems. I built a one-page site that was long but one could easily find everything by scrolling down. There wasn’t any superfluous content or navigation. But the biggest problem with it, and why the school replaced it, wasn’t the information architecture’s performance. It was about how the brand was projected by that single page. It didn’t look like a “real” website; it didn’t look “normal.” Normal websites have navigation along the top and maybe the side. The pages aren’t more than 2 screens long (with the exception of articles). And while the school was happy I came to the rescue and gave them something when they needed it, ultimately they didn’t want a site that projected an image that was outside their perception of convention.
So that’s a lesson I learned: IA is also brand, and brand matters.
Victor Lombardi is the design director at CapitalOne, and the author of Why We Fail: Real Stories and Practical Lessons from Experience Design Failures. He helped turn around a failing media business at Fox Mobile Group through the development of a new web platform and mobile apps. He walks the walk by developing his own product, Nickel, with the goal of making personal financial planning accessible to everyone. Follow him on Twitter or buy his book.