Although I spend most of my time working out of my home studio, I recently consulted onsite at a large New York City interactive agency. At this agency, they had two soda machines from two popular soda companies. With the agency subsidy, a can of soda was only 25 cents, and I was a frequent customer.
Most days, I stuck with my favorite soda, putting in a dollar, hitting the button, waiting, reaching down to get the drink, then reaching off to the right to get my change. Simple. Then one day this machine (call it machine A) ran out—due in large part to my insatiable thirst for diet soda—forcing me to use the other brand’s machine (call it machine B).
So, I put in my dollar, pushed the button for the ersatz soda, waited, reached down for my drink and discovered something very cool—my change was right next to the soda, not over to the right where it had been on machine A, but right where it was convenient for me, next to my cold drink. That’s information architecture.
Illustration by Nathan Marsh
Soda machine vs. website
A soda machine is a lot like a website. You’re faced with options in the form of buttons, and after you make your selection, you’re rewarded with what you were seeking. In this example, the reward was diet soda, but in the case of a website, it might be information, movie tickets or a message from a friend. In both cases, the user is completing a series of steps laid out by the designer.
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In the example above with the nearly identical soda machines, machine A delivered the user’s money in a less convenient spot off to the side where thirsty users might have to hunt for it or, worse, forget their change altogether. If it makes so much sense to have the money where the soda comes out, why wasn’t machine A designed that way? Here are a few likely reasons:
Complacency: That’s where it’s always been. Often, designers of soda machines or websites slip into autopilot. We fail to see design opportunities in the small things while we’re looking for the big splash. Both things are important.
Pure aesthetics: That’s where it looked the best. Arranging the elements such as the coin slot, buttons, dispenser and coin return is a lot like designing the elements of a page—subjectively based on the designer’s preference and aesthetic approach.
Convenience: That’s what was easiest. In addition to the designer, an engineer was surely involved in the process of creating this soda machine, just as coders are needed for websites. It’s possible that having the coin return off to the right used less material or caused the coin to move in the straightest line, thus causing the least amount of headaches for the engineer.
What’s missing from all of this is an understanding of the users’ habits and a consideration for their needs. That’s what information architects and user experience (UX) experts do: They consider the user and develop the best possible plan for the experience.
The thinkers behind machine B weren’t focusing on branding, nor were they developing the mechanics. They were thinking about the user. More specifically, they were thinking about the experience a user would have when they purchased a soda. They likely asked: “How can we make it more convenient for them?” This little adjustment to the experience of buying a soda added an element of surprise and delight, and it also created real value by helping the users remember their change.
Information architecture evolution
For more about information architecture and user experience design, check out these resources:
Of course, information architecture (IA) is much more complex than a simple coin return on a soda machine, but the example illustrates the value in even the smallest ideas. To fully understand the concept of information architecture, I spoke with Steven Mocarski, an information architect and user experience designer for Marriott Hotels. He described for me how the role is changing.
“Back when I started working on the internet, websites were predominantly ‘information spaces,’” he explains. “News sites, medical sites, marketing brochure sites, etc. So there was a need to ‘architect’ these spaces, which meant designing effective ways to a) organize the content, and b) navigate through it so users could easily find what they were looking for.”
But most websites aren’t linear anymore. Sites have evolved into tools that we use to perform tasks rather than static sources of reference material. As a result, the role of the information architect has changed. “When websites became more transactional, IAs started to become more like interaction designers, thinking in terms of discrete user tasks, mapping out user flows, designing—from a functional point of view—the individual components that would allow users to complete tasks and all the nitty-gritty that went into each component,” Mocarski says.
As a result of this shift, professionals who once called themselves information architects are now more likely using ‘interaction designers’ or ‘UX designers’ to accurately describe their roles and stay competitive in the job market. And as the title changes, the role expands further to include designing smartphone, tablet and kiosk experiences.
“We’re on our tablets while watching TV, listening to music, cooking or messing with the kids,” Mocarski explains. “As a result, users expect something beyond a well-crafted web page. They expect the design to delight. They expect an experience that’s seamless across devices. They expect it to be fun. Designing within the user context becomes paramount.”
So whether you’re designing soda machines or mobile apps, the role of the information architect (and by association, the user experience designer) is critical to satisfying the customers’s needs and expectations. And it’s critical to rounding out your skills as a graphic designer of the modern era.
This article appeared in the July 2012 issue of HOW.