Information Architecture is the new Black

July 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

A massive amount of capital is currently being deployed into consumer applications.  This is a predictable trend following the widespread adoption of social platforms (facebook, twitter, LinkedIn, etc.).  Throughout this gold rush, a lot is being written about design.  Rightfully so, as design is critical to success of an app.  But before you get to design, you have Information Architecture (“IA”).

Information Architecture is the blue print of how a consumer will flow through the application.  I believe that this is where an app is made or not.  No matter how beautifully an application is designed, if it has confusing user flows, people will get lost, confused and give up.

Think of it this way, have you ever seen something that you say, “that is cool, but I don’t really understand it”?  Consumer electronics are the perfect comp here.  Most people still don’t know how to program a VCR.  Enter Tivo, with its drop dead simple one button record user flow.  Tivo added a fun sound to the record button, and boom….consumer adoption.  Tivo’s brilliance is that it made a highly used, but highly confusing process seem simple.  Apple’s iPhone is another example of this.  Using a personal example, my Mother still has challenges downloading files from an email, but has no problem using an iPhone.  (I love you Mom).

Why have Tivo and the iPhone worked?  Sure the designs are beautiful.  They are catchy on the eye.  And that is very important.  But before the designer got involved, the IA team laid out the product flows.  Let me give you another example.  To enter an iPhone, you have to swipe the arrow, then enter a 4-digit password.  That is all IA.  To move from screen to screen, you swipe your finger to page forward..IA.  To delete an App, you hold it down for 3 seconds and a little “x” appears in the top left corner, which you click on to delete the app…that’s IA too.

What is so fun about IA, is that simple features (like the swipe of the iPhone arrow) take a lot of thought and debate and iteration.  You talk about things like learned behavior and what is intuitive to new users.  You also want to put in features that are discoverable.  An example of a discoverable feature is the left to right swipe of an email or text in an iPhone that immediately pops up a delete button rather than requiring the pressing of the “Edit” button.  The edit button process flow was put in because it is intuitive.  The swiping feature was put in to be discovered.  If they just did the swipe feature (because it is really cool) and didn’t add the edit button, then most users would get lost the first time through, conclude that the text app is confusing and give up.  And if Apple just had the edit button, but didn’t have the swipe feature, then power users would get bored.  That is Information Architecture.  Little decisions like that take a long time to figure out and implement.  But when you get it right, it is a beautiful thing.

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