Category Archives: information architecture

Usability evaluation methods

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Estimated reading time 4–6 minutes

I’ve been studying usability evaluation methods (UEMs), which although not directly related to taxonomy work, are relevant for anyone involved in information architecture (IA). I was surprised at how controversial a subject usability is, having assumed that everyone wants their sites to be as usable as possible. However, assessing usability does involve a lot of judgement calls and tradeoffs, which is one reason why some people seem to take against it.

You have to decide who you are going to focus your usability testing on, perhaps choosing a “core user group” rather than trying to please everybody. You have to decide what aspects of usability you are going to focus on – for example accessibility (everybody should be following minimum W3C standards anyway), but you might legitimately decide that you are not going to worry about making your site easy for children to read (e.g. if it is a postgraduate discussion forum). Then you need to decide if you are going to try to make individual tasks as efficient as possible (e.g. not using as many keystrokes) or look at the site as a whole (e.g. a social networking site might place a higher value on being fun and funky over being efficient to use).

Once you have decided who your target users are and what aspect of usability you are most interested in, you can choose a testing method. There seem to be over 100 different methods out there, ranging from fairly straightforward ones like Jakob Nielsen’s Heuristic Evaluation – which gives you a checklist of things to look at, and even “expert inspection” where you just look at the site to try to find potential problems. These methods assume you know quite a lot about what makes a site usable or not.

You could do an experiment, where you set up a task or scenario and measure people’s performance at it. This is often described as laboratory testing, but you can have a “lab” that is just you, a notebook, and a computer for your participants. This sort of test is great if you have one specific function (e.g. an ecommerce function) and you want to check that people can follow the steps easily.

The methods I liked the most were the more abstract conceptual methods, like CASSM, where you try to get a picture of users’ expectations and then compare them with the website to see where there are gaps or conflicts.

Interestingly, the literature shows that for all methods there is a marked “evaluator effect“, with different evaluators getting different results even when using an identical process. I think this is because there is so much interpretation at all stages. The closest you’d get to a “scientific” set of original data would be to set up a carefully controlled usability lab test, but even then translating the results into redesign suggestions is really an art, not a science.

There also seems to be a “political correctness gone mad” brigade who say that accessibility means you can’t have any pictures on your site and that Jakob Nielsen’s site looks horrible and out of date. I think this is a misunderstanding of what usability is all about. Usability is about making a site easier for everyone to use, and accessibility isn’t about leaving features out because certain people can’t use them, it’s about providing a “Plan B” for anyone who doesn’t use the site in the way you expect. So, it seems to me that it’s fine to including fancy visualisations, as long as you also provide a text description for people who can’t see them, or a tricksy javascript feature as long as you include an alternative for browsers that don’t have javascript enabled. Nielsen’s site is old fashioned, but that doesn’t mean it is the only way to create a usable site. The BBC have aesthetically pleasing modern sites that are also well crafted for accessibility.

It is true that there are tradeoffs and quite a lot of art rather than science in usability evaluation, but I think there is a moral (not to mention legal in the UK – not sure about elsewhere) imperative to at least try to be inclusive and in most cases it is simply poor marketing to shut out or make life difficult for potential customers.

Puzzled by The Future of Information Architecture

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Estimated reading time 2–2 minutes

I read a copy of The Future of Information Architecture: Conceiving a Better Way to Understand Taxonomy, Network and Intelligence because I couldn’t resist the title, but was left utterly baffled by the book. The author appears to have taught at some US universities, but no biography was provided and the preface declared that due to the “political incorrectness” of his ideas, no institution or establishment had supported him in writing and publishing the book. Nevertheless, he seems to have produced quite a few books over the last few years. The publisher, Chandos Press, apparently printed the book directly from camera ready copy supplied by the author.

He writes in an extremely dense and academic style using phrases like “existential dialectics” and “post-human post-civilization”. I usually pride myself on being able to “translate” philosophy into “normal” English, but could not work out what was going on. The gist seemed to be a description of taxonomies and networks in terms of six “principles” (opposites such as simplicity/complexity, order/chaos) and I had expected some kind of conclusion to draw these principles into a proposition. Instead, he suggested that there were many more principles that could be used.

From the title I had hoped for some predictions about how IA might develop under the influence of social media or cloud computing etc., but there was nothing like that in the book. Instead, there were some statements about post-human evolution and the impossibility of predicting what IA will be like when we cease to be humans and become “free floating consciousnesses”.

ISKO UK Conference 2009 – call for papers

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ISKO UK Conference 2009 – call for papers. ISKO UK 2009 will provide a rare opportunity for researchers, practitioners and innovators from all sectors to share ideas on the opportunities and challenges implicit in the digitization and networking of diverse information resources. The Conference will address issues in the organization and integration of text, images, data and voice – multimedia and multilingual.

Information Architecture for Audio

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Information Architecture for Audio: Doing It Right – Boxes and Arrows: The design behind the design. Another gem for the ever reliable Boxes and Arrows. The article highlights differences in the way that users interact with text and audio and sets out techniques for improving delivery of audio. For example, starting off a piece of audio by saying how long it will last and a summary of its content is helpful, as you can’t scan audio in the way that you can scan text.


Intranet 2.0: the need for ‘lean intranets’

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Estimated reading time 1–2 minutes

Intranet 2.0: the need for ‘lean intranets’ « manIA has some sensible advice on keeping an Intranet efficient and functional. I was drawn to the section where Patrick Walsh discusses “controlled folksonomies”, a phrase he attributes to Christina Wodkte. Essentially, you let content contributors choose their own tags, but prompt them with suggestions. Presumably, people are far more likely just to use the existing tags (thus preserving the underlying controlled vocabulary) most of the time, because it is easier than making up their own. He implies that people could use terms not in the CV, but not what would become of those tags. If they get added to the CV automatically, you would lose the control element as mis-spellings and ambiguous terms etc would slowly creep in. To keep the CV tidy would require some ongoing editorial work. For one of the CMSs used at the BBC, there are rules – once a folksonomic tag has been used a certain number of times, it gets sent to the IA team who can then add it to the core CV if they think it will be useful. Presumably, you also need someone to produce an initial CV in the first place.

ISKO international 2008

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I have just returned from the 10th International ISKO conference in Montreal, which was four days of excellent KO presentations. The pre-conference workshop was on SKOS and the conference itself included around 50 papers and a poster session. Some of my favourites were Knowledge and Trust in Epistemology and Social Software by Judith Simon, a Survey of the Top-level Categories in the Structure of Corporate Websites by Abdus Sattar Chaudhry, Deliberate Bias in Knowledge Organisation by Birger Hjorland, and Social Tagging and Communities of Practice by Edward Corrado and Heather Moulaison.

I’ll be writing up my conference notes and posting them here over the weekend.

Cultural design misunderstandings

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A really interesting discussion about the differences between Chinese and American website design on Live From Beijing (via 290s). I particularly liked the comment “Let’s avoid the trap of explaining things with culture instead of explicit motivations.” It’s so hard to disentangle the multiple motivations and influences on user behaviour, but financial gain does seem to have a tendency to trump everything else!