Saturday, June 28, 2014

Web Design Information Architecture - Part 1

You would never build a high-rise building without a blueprint. Setting contractors off to start hammering in nails and welding steel without a plan is a recipe for an expensive disaster.

In the same way, regardless of visual design or usability considerations, the physical development effort of building a web site that works well across multiple devices from desktops to tablets and smart phones is a huge investment for most companies.

At the end of the day, however, the only reason to make such an investment is to accommodate the needs of your customers. Whether the customers are your internal sales people, business partners, or consumers, the whole reason for the website’s existence traces back to the end user.

Therefore, the only way to justify the development expense, and maximize your return on investment, is to make sure that you design the site correctly from the start in a way that anticipates and delivers on the needs of the customers. This process begins with information architecture.

Defining the Audience

Many companies cater to a number of different types of customers. The website may or may not try to accommodate all of them. First define the business and marketing goals for the project, and then determine which customer segments the site should target.

For instance, on a recent project, the client expressed an interest in tailoring the website experience towards younger demographics. Their older customer groups were firmly established, and they already had a fluid sales relationship with them. The client worried, however, that as the older group aged, their key customer base would shrink dramatically, and it was crucial to reach out to a new generation and create new brand relationships. Therefore, the website was entirely built to serve the wants and needs of young consumers. The site messaging was also focused, since it was all geared towards creating new relationships and introducing the brand to them.

Interviewing the client

How do you determine what the audience segments are so that you can decide whether or not the site should accommodate them?

I like to start by interviewing the client’s brand and marketing managers. After all, they know their customers best. Here’s a list of questions you can consider asking them:
1. How many different customer groups do you have?
2. For the purposes of this project, how would you prioritize the customer segments?
3. Are there any segments the site should ignore?
4. Describe the profile of each priority customer type. What kind of person are they?
5. What are each customer’s barriers to purchasing or engaging with your brand? Cost? Try before they buy?
6. What is the biggest value this new website will provide to each customer group? How will they use the site?

Developing user persona

The client interviews will give you a good starting point in understanding the client’s customers. The next step may be to interview actual customers that fit the profile of each priority segment.

The purpose of this research is to give you and the design team a clear picture of the people you will be designing the site for. In fact, user experience teams create fake profiles called “personas” to represent each different customer group. Like above shows, the persona gets a name, a picture, a gender, an age, an income level, an education level, and even a list of brands they like.

The idea is to “get to know” this person so you can think like they would think, and better anticipate what’s important and what’s not important to him/her. Another component to document is what sort of barriers they have if any, to engaging with the brand. Is the brand offered too expensive, or too time-consuming? Is the brand perceived as cheap or low quality? Are they the decision-makers or do they influence the purchasers?

In above, we meet “Ash”. He squarely falls into the younger generation that my client is trying to reach. In order to motivate someone like Ash to purchase my client’s products, I can now clearly see what needs to be done. For one, the content on the site needs to be credible and cool. It cannot be overtly marketing oriented, but much more lifestyle in concept. It should integrate social media discussions and videos, and maybe even offer a handy “how to convince your parents this is a good product” cheat sheet, written in an irreverent yet informative sort of way.

Customer segmentation

Many companies have more than one product or service offering which span different verticals. This makes it tough because these different verticals often have completely different customer group bases. The way to tackle this common scenario is to create a customer matrix that shows how the verticals relate to the customer groups.

As you can see above, a bike manufacturing company makes four kinds of bikes, as shown in the vertical columns. During the persona exercise, we identified six different main consumer segments which are represented in the horizontal rows. Not all customer segments, however, engaged with all the different kinds of bikes. We put check marks in the boxes where there was a match. So, for example, you can see that “Ash” only participates in Mountain Biking and Street/Park riding.

After creating this matrix, I can now see that the web site needs to support potentially 11 segments. That’s a lot of segments, and so we need to prioritize. Given the client’s business goals of engaging new and younger audiences, the decision was to focus efforts primarily on the four highlighted in blue. We would still cater to
the other segments, but not to the same level.

Next - Web Design Information Architecture - Part 2

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