Thursday, June 13, 2024



Intro to IA
Defining The Site's Goals
Defining The Audience
Content and Functionality
Site Structure
Visual Design
Design Document


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Define the Audience

Intro   Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5


After figuring out why a site should be built, the second most important aspect of designing information architecture is determining who the audience is. This is an invaluable step that many people fail to grasp. Many sites do not even take into consideration who will be using them. How can you design a site if you don't know who's going to be seeing it?

Some people think an audience is defined by the technology it uses to access the site. This, too, is missing the point. That a user visiting the site uses a 28.8 modem is only a small part of the audience definition. A true audience definition consists of who the users are and their goals and objectives. Scenarios, or stories, are useful in visualizing the audience.

Oftentimes, a single department or group in a company takes the lead in putting together a Web site. The result is usually a site focused on that group's needs, which ignores the needs of everyone else. For a long time, MIS departments were responsible for putting together their corporate sites. These sites were utilitarian, and neglected important departments, like marketing. It is your job to prevent this from happening on your site.

Defining beforehand the user experience you seek establishes a clear, well-documented definition of your audience, and it helps in understanding how users will react to the site.

To get started on this stage of the IA process, just as with defining the goals, you need to figure out who will be involved and how much time you will have. Generally, the same people will be involved. However, you probably will change how you weigh each person's opinion. For example, the marketing department should have a good idea of who your audience is. If that is the case, you'll want to listen to them more than to others.

Defining the audience takes less time than defining the goals, because you have already established how you will be working with people - whether formally or informally - and you are more familiar with asking them questions and getting responses.

Define the Audience

Remember that list of intended audiences that you compiled? You need it now. It is the basis for a list of all possible audiences. Add as many audiences as you can think of to the list, and ask everyone if they have any additions. If the list gets too long, you may have to break it down into categories.

Say, for example, you are building a site to sell cars. Audience categories might be Buyers, Sellers, Dealers, and Other. Buyers would consist of people who need a car right away, those who need a car within the next couple months, and people unsure if they need a car and are only doing research. The Other audience would consist of people trying to learn about who built the site, as well as possible investors in the site, and those searching for different kinds of information.

Have everybody rank the importance of each audience on the list. Gather the results, and create an audience list. Remember you will want to weigh each person's response appropriately when creating the list.

Then give the list of intended audiences to everyone so that they can write down what they think the most important needs and goals are for each one. Once again, compile the results, and create lists. Have everyone rank the importance of each need and goal for each audience. Once you have processed all opinions, add the needs and goals to the list of intended audiences.

You can, of course, shorten this process if you want. You don't have to come up with the list of audiences, evaluate them, then come up with the needs and goals and evaluate those. You can do both of these at the same stage. It all depends on the urgency and time frame for building the site.

Now you are ready for the next step, one of the most fun in the entire IA design process.

Create Scenarios

Scenarios are stories. They tell the tales of users experiencing the site, and they help you and your collaborators visualize the site and its users. Scenarios are also useful in validating the site's design once it is finished: If the scenarios match up with the actual design of the site, you did something right.

Using the previous definitions of your audience, try to come up with a set of users who represent the majority of visitors. The size of the site and audience determine how many users you will write scenarios for. Usually three to six scenarios are sufficient. However, you may need to come up with as many as 20 - really!

For each user, write a scenario. To get started on a scenario, you need to bring the user to life. Create a character for that user, and give him a name, a background, and a task to accomplish on the site. Use a task from your list of audience needs and goals. Then write a story about how the character uses the site to complete the given task. Scenarios will be important later on, when you are defining the content and functional requirements of the site. It may seem like a chicken-and-egg problem - if you don't know what is on the site, how can you write a story about it? Well, you already have an idea of what users will be doing on the site, so use your imagination! The sky's the limit. Being creative here will push your design into places you may not have thought it could go. Creating scenarios isn't that difficult, and it can be a lot of fun (but be warned, it can be time-consuming).

Competitive Analysis

Knowing your competition is a good way to learn about your own site. Whether you are casually browsing your rival's site or seriously evaluating each and every competitor, you need to be aware of what other sites are doing.

To get started, make a list of your competition. Ask around, since you probably don't know all of the sites. Do a few Net searches as well; you may find some sites your client is unaware of.

Next, you want to generate a set of features and criteria to evaluate each site. Start with your goals, using them as the basis for a set of features in your competitive analysis. As you evaluate sites, be sure to add any features or functionality you find interesting. Criteria include things like download time, page size, layout, and look and feel. It is helpful to create a grid with the name of a site for each column and the features and criteria as the rows. This grid provides a rough, objective measure of how other sites compare. Here is an example:

You are now ready to evaluate each site. This is fairly easy to do, but you must be thorough. Every feature or criterion can be evaluated in two ways: a simple check mark or a number from 1 to 10. For example, if you are comparing whether sites offer free email accounts, that can be done with a simple check mark. However, evaluating the look and feel of a site is more subjective. Most important, take notes and grab screen shots of each site. They will serve to jog your memory in the future, when people ask you why some sites fared better than others. Don't forget to evaluate your existing site, if you have one.

Finally, document the results. For each site, write down the pros and cons, and include your notes and screen shots. Bonus points go to those who can create a PowerPoint presentation for management. Create a schedule for revising the competitive analysis, since your site, as well as those of your competition, will evolve. Pick a good time frame for reviewing the analysis, which can be anywhere from six weeks to three months.

The competitive analysis can be a project all its own. Get some help if you can. Don't neglect the importance of reviewing your competition. If you don't have enough time to do a proper analysis, a quick and dirty one will do.

Design Document: Audience, Scenarios, and Competitive Analysis
It is time to document what you have just done. Create chapter 2 called "User Experience" in your design document . Add the audience definition, and incorporate the scenarios. You could try to integrate the scenarios with the audience definition, but it is probably better to put them in their own section. Next, write up a summary of the competitive analysis and add it to the design document. The competitive analysis itself should be included as an appendix. Remember to publish these results so that everyone can see them.

Next, Part 3: "Content and Functionality"

Intro   Part 1   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5



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