I spent a lot of time as a kid playing with Legos. Arguably, I think it was the perfect toy for someone who grew up to be a user experience architect/closet librarian/newspaper page designer.*
Website architecture challenges
Fast forward 30 years, and my organizational challenges have gotten a bit more complex. Now, I don’t just have personal angst about how to organize things. I have professional angst about helping other people organize — specifically their website content and how to navigate it. Those Lego lessons are still coming in handy (thanks Mom & Dad!). Because just as my arguments with my best friend over whether brick size or color is better were futile, sometimes our debates about organizing web content are futile, too. Futile in the sense that there is no right answer — or at least not one that is practical. By that I mean when I visit acme.com, ideally it would be organized in a manner that fits how I think, factors in my cultural biases, and puts my interests front and center. The problem is when you visit acme.com, you want it to reflect your mental models, cultural biases, and interests — which are different from mine. The typical website can’t accommodate both of us. Magnify that problem out to a few thousand (or more!) users, and it gets really overwhelming. When I’m working on the architecture for a website, deciding what content should be grouped together and what words should be in the menu to identify those groupings is critical. If you don’t see a label that matches what you want to find on a website, you give up, right? And even if you do see a relevant label, what happens if you click it but the content that appears next isn’t what you’re looking for? Frustration, right?
An online research tool helps reach users
With some projects, these issues are trickier than others. That’s what we ran into when we were designing the architecture of a new site for CARLI — the Consortium of Academic and Research Libraries in Illinois. (The new CARLI site has not yet launched.) In modernizing CARLI’s website and especially rethinking how lots and lots of documentation on the site would be categorized, we hit a brick wall when trying to determine the best content groupings and labels. Fortunately, there is a technique called card sorting, which has long been used by information architects to help with this issue. The old school method is to literally write content topics on index cards, shuffle them up, and the sit down with real users of the site and ask them to divide the cards into groups and then label each group. Once you’ve gotten input from enough users, you can study the groupings and labels and get some ammunition for a new architecture. We knew this would be a perfect solution for our CARLI problem, but CARLI’s users work in college and university libraries all over the state. To deal with this geographic challenge, we used OptimalSort, an online service that allows anyone to do card sorting studies online. The index card metaphor still holds, but instead you invite real users to complete the study via e-mail and they group and label virtual cards on their screens. Our CARLI study worked flawlessly, and we got great insights from the CARLI users. Any method that brings real users to the table and sheds light on their preferences and language is a powerful one. This is a technique that I look forward to using more in the future. But for now, I think I’d better schedule that visit with my nephew to “help” him with his latest Lego project. OptimalSort: I can’t overemphasize what a pleasant experience it was to use OptimalSort. I evaluated the free version of OptimalSort and a competitor and ironically found the competitor’s interface to be very confusing. * My first career was in journalism where I was an editor and designer and worked on the best ways to present news both in words and visuals. I recently completed a master’s degree in Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois where I focused on information architecture and user experience but got plenty of exposure to other information challenges, including those relating to libraries.