Building a case for design at the beginning of the web site design process

I recently gave some thought to the change in the way internal or external corporate clients treat the development of web sites as compared to 4 - 5 years ago.

This is generally how I remember it.

It was with the wide spread adoption of tools like Microsoft Frontpage, GoLive Cyberstudio (now Adobe), Claris Homepage, and others it seemed to become aparent that potential clients need not rely on hiring professional "webmasters" to build web sites because the technical fog called html had been lifted.

Further more, with graphics packages allowing you to create "web buttons" or the ability to find pre made graphics on cd-rom or on the web itself the need to hire someone was greatly reduced.

The good fight at that time for web designers seemed to be:

1) the convincing of clients that these tools were not able to create code or graphics as good as they the professionals. These tools could not take in to consideration the ranges of complexity that non standard browsers introduced. The discussion about cleaning up Microsoft Frontpage mark up has only recently subsided to a dull roar (Golive and Dreamweaver Javascript continues).

2) We seem to spend a lot of time convincing people that just because their neighbours cousin Johnny can use these tools there are a myriad of other concerns - things encompassing basic communication design. Of course we may have used other words like style, quality look n feel, quick loading graphics, or some other not to the point phrases.

The new issue I witness regularly seems to be in convincing corporate clients of the need to introduce design professionals at the beginning of their web projects.

I'm not referring to strategy or even business planning. Not even defining goals or target audience. There are whole other areas of design necessary to developing good user experiences that we must fight for inclusion into the "designers" role. The current situation is such that there are many beautiful bad products being made.

Typical Scenerios

Designer as Production Artist

Designer as that "Art Designer"

Designer as Engineer.

There is so much more involved in designing effective user experiences on the web.

There seems to be a lack of in-depth understanding and experience in Taiwan as to exactly what is involved in designing user experiences for the web.

Until we as Art Directors, Designers, Producers etc. understand the elements involved and gain some expertise, clients will continue to lead this part of the process.

The user experience is everything that the user sees, touches, feels, or interacts with on a site.

We all share and have experiences of some sort. We are all conscious of what constitutes a quality experience. With the realization of what constitutes a quality experience we can discern patterns; patterns which are reproducible. Creating a quality user experience is conscious, not accidental.

There are a number of key considerations that go into the development of user experiences on the web. Jesse James Garrett has a diagram called elements of the user experience that we can use :

Elements of the User Experience

The most neglected elements are accessing user needs and information architecture. Both of these elements tend to start very early in the design process and are either forgotten (user needs) or left up to the client (IA)

Information Architecture

"Information architecture is the structural design of the information space to facilitate intuitive access to content"

Going from a messy pile of stuff to structured stuff

Intuitive access to content means matching your users expectations

Common problems:

structures that resemble the companies org. chart
structures that only make sense to it's creator
structures that are not extensible
structures that are not structures at all
Information structures that reflect a designersŐ bias

At the highest level, you ...

Research target population

Derive a bottom-up structure based on content attributes

All content must be inventoried and tagged with appropriate ID's. The grouping of these ID's into logical categories forms the basis of your bottom level architecture. Developing strict bottom up architectures in this fashion is an incredibly powerful tool.

Derive a top-down structure based on audiences and their tasks

Mental models are developed from user research and content is mapped to them. Top structure can also be developed through the use of scenarios - pairing the personas with scenarios.

You also can bring the user into this process by the use of card sorting as the means to form your structural presentation. This also ensures that the language used in your labels matches your users expectations.

Your ultimate goal is to create structures that meet your users expectations while meeting your business imperatives.

© 2002 Clark MacLeod,