My IA Summit 2006 Experience: Part 3: The Conference: Day 2

By Pabini Gabriel-Petit

Published: April 14, 2006

Conference: Day 2: Sunday

“Wireframes are useful for exploring and communicating design ideas to a broad audience.”

Sunday was another great day at the Summit. Many of the panels I attended during the Summit failed to capture my interest, but two of the best were the back-to-back panels about wireframing and alternative methods of creating design documentation on Sunday.

Wireframes: A Comparison of Purposes, Process, and Products

Panelists: Laurie Gray, David Heller, Jeff Lash, Anders Ramsay, and Todd Warfel

The goal of the panel “Wireframes: A Comparison of Purposes, Process, and Products,” shown in Figure 1, was to give people an opportunity to learn about different methods and determine what might work best for them.

Figure 1—Wireframes panel

Wireframes panel

Each panelist quickly made the case for a particular method:

  • Todd Warfel—“Traditional Wireframing Methods”—Wireframes are useful for exploring and communicating design ideas to a broad audience—from designers to developers to executives. They are most appropriate when you are working with multiple clients, need a physical design artifact, don’t know HTML, but know wireframing tools, and need to balance behavior notes with illustrations. To make the most of wireframes, create templates, use multiple master pages, place behavior notes on a separate layer, include a document index and version history, and use storyboards for RIA transitions.
  • David Heller—“Flash: Designing and Communicating for Time”—Flash prototypes are also appropriate for a broad audience. They are most useful for expressing interaction design for Web applications. Flash prototypes are dynamic, interactive, and narrative, because they allow you to show change over time. Flash provides drawing tools, supports object-oriented design, allows code reuse, and lets you create timelines. Flash doesn’t provide printed documentation. Best practices for creating Flash prototypes include prototyping screens; starting with basic wireframes, then adding visual and interactive detail; and using XML to create data sets.
  • Anders Ramsay—“XHTML Wireframes”—Using XHTML and CSS to create wireframes of Web pages lets you represent structure, content, and presentation separately; leverage Web standards, use semantic markup, and focus on structure and hierarchy. XHTML is self-describing. Pros: rapid production, reusability, single-sourcing, fewer annotations, prototyping, knowledge transfer, and portability. Cons: requires knowledge of XHTML and CSS, requires early involvement of the entire design team, not well suited for rich media, and the separation of content, presentation, and code is fuzzy.
  • Jeff Lash—“User Interface Specifications”—Specifications provide complete, detailed design documentation that can evolve over time and incorporate feedback from reviewers. For each screen, they typically include visual prototypes created using Photoshop® or XHTML/CSS and descriptions of its purpose, widgets, user interactions, and error handling. Specifications provide a “formal record of rules, patterns, and decisions;” communicate effectively to a broad audience; are universally appropriate, regardless of platform; separate design decisions from documentation decisions; and are easily printable.
  • Laurie Gray—“Prototyping Tools”—Prototyping lets you quickly put together a working model of a design idea. Prototypes help you see holes in your design, show interactivity, and decrease documentation time, while increasing accuracy, but are time-consuming and complicated to create and may still fail to provide adequate information to developers. When deciding what prototyping tool to use, consider fidelity, speed of development, reusability, level of interactivity, level of editability, and portability.
“Specifications provide complete, detailed design documentation that can evolve over time and incorporate feedback from reviewers.”

A frank discussion of the pros and cons of each method followed. So, what method should you use? Jeff Lash summed it up: “I hate to say, ‘It depends,’ but let’s say it’s contextual.”

Wireframing Challenges in Modern Web Development

Panelists: Nathan Curtis, Livia Labate, Bill Scott, Thomas Vander Wal, and Todd Warfel

This panel discussion further explored the topic of wireframing. Livia described the successful use of low-fidelity wireframes as paper prototypes for usability testing. Todd described how they created the illusion of interactivity by using dental floss to pull elements through slits in the paper. Nathan suggested that we should think about our design artifacts in a systematic way. Bill advocated the use of visual design specifications and interaction design patterns, which together create a design vocabulary, and described an “interesting moments grid” that shows states and actors. The panel also discussed functional specifications, wireframes, storyboards, Flash prototypes, and much more. The discussion was much too lively and fast paced to do it justice here.

Lakoff’s Women, Fire, & Dangerous Things: What Every IA Should Know

Presenter: Donna Maurer

“We think in categories. Most symbols—words and representations—do not designate particular things or individuals in the world. Most of our words and concepts designate categories.”—Donna Maurer

In her talk on “Lakoff’s Women, Fire, & Dangerous Things: What Every IA Should Know,” Donna Maurer, shown in Figure 2, distilled the essence of Lakoff’s book and repackaged the information for designers. Thank you, Donna! She said, “We think in categories. Most symbols—words and representations—do not designate particular things or individuals in the world. Most of our words and concepts designate categories.” According to Donna, Lakoff’s book

  • “is about categorization and cognition
  • challenges the classical theory of categorization
  • contains a number of core insights into the way categories work in our brains
  • is fundamental for the type of work IAs do
  • can be paradigm shifting”

Figure 2—Donna Maurer presenting Lakoff

Donna Maurer

Donna discussed classical categorization, cognitive models, prototype theory, challenges to classical categorization theory, and basic-level categories, then provided summaries of their implications for IAs.

Prototype Effects

Donna made the following remarks about prototype effects:

  • “Recognize that they occur, and you’ll be less stressed about why categorization is not neat.
  • ‘Miscellaneous,’ ‘everything else’ categories are cognitively real—just not easy to use as navigation.
  • Use prototypical items when communicating. They are strong communicators, as they represent a category well.
  • Use less prototypical items to describe edge cases.”

“Lakoff not only gives us new techniques for doing IA, he gives us a mechanism for reflection on the craft itself.”—Dan Brown”

Basic-Level Categories

The concept of basic-level categories is very applicable to the work information architects do. Donna had this to say about using basic-level categories:

  • “Basic-level names are short and frequently used. Analyze user research data to identify them.
  • Basic-level items are easily recognized and likely to have good scent. Use them as trigger words.
  • Card sort with basic-level items rather than more granular content elements.
  • Get people to the basic level of the hierarchy as soon as possible in navigation.
  • Test navigation items for basic-level characteristics.
  • I wonder whether folksonomy-based tags are basic level, accounting for their popularity.”

Donna’s talk was engaging and gave us some new perspectives on solving information architecture problems.

New Approaches to Managing Content

Presenter: Dan Brown

“Categories are not defined by their boundaries, but by their central characteristics.”—Dan Brown

During his very interesting presentation “New Approaches to Managing Content,” Dan Brown, shown in Figure 3, urged us to reframe the way we look at content management systems, and he did so with wit and dynamism.

Figure 3—Dan Brown presenting on CMSs

Dan Brown

Here are a few highlights:

  • “Content management systems suck. They’re really hard.”
  • “Categories are not defined by their boundaries, but by their central characteristics.”
  • “The language of content management is about workers, process, and product. Content management systems are not designed for a modern, collaborative workspace. An information product is not a static thing. It’s better with an information flow.”
  • “Content management systems fail because they are built on the metaphor Business is a Factory.” Choosing this metaphor wasn’t a conscious decision.
  • First strategy—We could replace it with the metaphor “Business is a Living Entity.” Organic processes
    • “don’t prescribe specific steps”
    • determine their starting point as necessary
    • make progress observable and “allow people to gauge progress”
    • don’t prescribe specific roles and responsibilities for participants
    • “measure participation and contribution”
  • Second strategy—We could change the division of labor. Instead of having the computer controlling and enforcing rules, it could provide decision-making aids.
  • Rather than enforcing a set of rules on content, templates could create a framework for capturing the central information.
  • “Allow users to impose structure.”
  • “Do not prescribe structure.”

Dan is actively engaged in the kind of creative thought that will bring us new paradigms for managing content.

Mind-Shift: Is IA Equipped for Web 2.0?

Panelists: Dan Brown, Michael Migurski, Brandon Schauer, and Gene Smith

“Web 2.0 may require a shift from helping users understand applications to helping developers understand users.”—Dan Brown

My curiosity drew me to the well-attended panel Mind-Shift: Is IA Equipped for Web 2.0?, but it didn’t really speak to me. As someone who focuses more on interaction design than information architecture and believes in assigning meaningful names to specialties and roles, it seems to me that some information architects are trying to encompass all things Web and be all things to all people. It’s great that people are expanding their areas of expertise. I just wish they’d call themselves interaction designers or UX architects if their focus shifts or broadens. Information architecture is, well, about architecting information spaces—Web 1.0.

Application design is a fundamentally different problem, whether for Web 2.0 or the desktop. That said, the social side of Web 2.0 is, in many ways, an information architecture problem. How can we make user-created and tagged content navigable? During a brief presentation, that included some of the most beautiful slides seen at the Summit, Dan Brown made an interesting statement: Web 2.0 may require a shift “from helping users understand applications to helping developers understand users.”

This panel did elicit a lot of audience participation. From the audience, Jared Spool said, “It takes no skill to do something poorly. A lot of Web 2.0 is poorly done. … We’re dealing with the wisdom of crowds—a network effect. eBay and Amazon have had these problems from day one. How does someone working within an organization become aware of what other people are doing? We get very insular and focus on our own stuff. It would be very neat to see some kind of library on how to solve problems in a neat way.”

Bringing More Science to Persona Creation

Presenter: Steve Mulder

“Our personas are more credible, because we have more data to back them up. … Turn the data into a story. Simpler stories are easier to act on and remember.”—Steve Mulder

Describing a new, more data-driven approach to persona creation during his talk “Bringing More Science to Persona Creation,” Steve Mulder, shown in Figure 4, shed new light on the practice of using personas. Often, product team members question the veracity of personas. Have you ever been asked: “Aren’t you just making stuff up?” Personas typically embody market segments that derive from qualitative research on users’ goals, attitudes, and behaviors—that is, from user interviews, usability testing, and field studies. To back up his qualitative research and market segmentation, Steve uses quantitative data from user surveys and site-traffic analyses to validate his personas.

Figure 4—Steve Mulder presenting on personas

Steve Mulder

About user surveys, Steve said, “You have to know what you want to measure, and every question should tie to a dependent or independent variable.” Dependent variables show candidates for segmentation; independent variables, candidates for features. “Ask about what users really do, not what they perceive.” He suggested using text boxes rather than predefined options in surveys. Doing so adds to the analysis time, but elicits more reliable data. To ensure that you can “draw informative, useful conclusions” about market segments, he suggested shooting for “100 survey completions.” Preparing the data for analysis takes about three times as long as analyzing the data. To make the data more meaningful, Steve suggested tying survey respondents to a customer database that includes their purchase and site-usage histories.

Segmentation is “where art meets science.” The goal of Steve’s segmentation process is to “find clusters in the data that we can develop into personas.” Using cluster analysis on his quantitative data lets him see where clusters of common goals, behaviors, attitudes, and demographics emerge. Once he understands how “people are different from one another,” he can “create stories about who the customers are.” “We create the story that gives meaning to the data.” When identifying segments, Steve asks himself, “Do the segments feel like real people you can describe?” He usually identifies three to five segments that are candidates for personas and creates a “summary segmentation matrix.”

In conclusion, Steve said, “Our personas are more credible, because we have more data to back them up. Make the personas real. Focus on key differences, and don’t get overwhelmed by details. Oversimplify. Turn the data into a story. Simpler stories are easier to act on and remember. They don’t have to be true to every single data point.”

Conference: Night 2: Sunday

A crowd of about 40 people gathered for the IxDA dinner at Relish, shown in Figure 5, a great downtown restaurant that serves west coast and fusion cuisine. After the dinner, some of us went on to Balthazar, an atmospheric night club, for drinks, conversation, and dancing to trance music. Lada Gorlenka rocks! It was great relaxing with friends old and new.

Figure 5—Lada Gorlenka, Dave Heller, and Loretta Hui at the IxDA dinner at Relish

IxDA dinner at Relish

Photos by Pabini Gabriel-Petit and Kyle Pero

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