Case Study — Information Design: A Process for Web Architectural Success

Review By Riley VanDyke

The chapter’s Wednesday 20 May, 2015 meeting featured Eric Hughes’ presentation, Information Design: A Process for Web Architectural Success.

Eric described how he and his colleague Don Donoughe guided the University of Arkansas (UofA) through a re-implementation of the university system’s online Cooperative Extension Service.

The Backstory

At the time that Eric became involved with the project, the University of Arkansas’s Cooperative Extension Service website:

  • Struggled to serve a large and growing body of disparate target audiences who resided in all of the state’s 75 counties
  • Comprised an estimated 10,000 documents, the great majority of them stored as PDFs
  • Frustrated new visitors who were unable to use the site’s labyrinthine lists-of-lists navigational structure to find useful information
  • Forced existing users to create collections of bookmarks that enabled them to return to useful information they had somehow managed to find on a previous visit
  • Had as an internal team failed over a couple of years to redesign the site

The Organizational Challenge

It would have been difficult enough to solve the site’s manifold information architecture problems. Before those problems could be approached, it was first necessary to overcome predictable and unpredictable organizational obstacles.

The Cooperative Extension Service site was and is developed and managed by the UofA. This put the site in the hands of academically oriented contributors who buried the project team beneath a landslide of committees, processes, flowcharts, data, and alternative design proposals.

How Can We Help?

The UofA realized it needed help. So it invited Matriculus and design partner Donoughe Design to present a new way forward.

At the core of the presentation Eric delivered in response to that invitation were the following answers to the rhetorical question, Why Hire Us?

  • We’ll teach you to manage the site as a product.
  • We’ll tell you how we’ll know when we’re done (Or the reason you do process is to define an end point).

Observe that neither of these answers mention technologies, tools, or information architecture. Instead, those are criteria defined the project’s goals in terms of quantifying effective process and quantifying a successful result.

To the Rescue!

In response to Eric’s presentation, the University of Arkansas awarded Eric and Don the contract.

One of the first steps was to find someone on the project team who had the organizational authority the team would need to break process logjams, acquire necessary resources, and enforce order.

Having had the good fortune of a strong central contact within the UofA project team, Eric could begin focusing and distilling the previous team’s overabundant contributors and analysis data.

Whittling Down the Contributors

The re-architecting of the Cooperative Extension Service’s  website was a highly visible project and many people wanted to be seen as contributors.

Fortunately, Eric’s UofA contact had the authority to break process logjams and acquire the resources required to get things done. This individual’s authority enabled her to pare down the size of the project team to a manageable number of results-oriented contributors.

Whittling Down the Analysis Data

The preceding project team had created an overabundance of focus-group data, online surveys, log reports, executive team surveys, process diagrams, flowcharts, and more. Eric and the now-downsized project team next distilled the existing into a small subset of information, conclusions, and assumptions.

One example illustrates the scale of the problem and the steps necessary to distill the volume of data into a more useful form:

  • Before Eric became involved, the UofA project team had defined 30 target audiences for the site
  • Eric and the new UofA team distilled that list into a subset of target audiences that served as proxies for the larger, less focused set of audiences

Let the Information Architecting Begin!

Only after assembling a smaller, focused team and extracting the useful portions of the previous team’s research data did Eric feel ready to develop the site’s new information architecture.

The team used data acquired from user interviews, usability testing of design mockups, and card sorting sessions to develop a 10-page “key problems & issues document”. The key document provided a single and concise declaration of the project’s scope, objectives, and criteria for successful completion, and summarized all the previous information and analysis that had been done.

The Happy Ending

The size and complexity of the project to redesign UofA system’s Cooperative Extension Service website is impossible to convey in this brief recap of Eric’s presentation to the STC-SF chapter meeting.

What is summarized in the following paragraphs is the project team’s fundamental strategy, and the essential steps the team took to fulfill their strategic goals.

Discover and build on what has already been done: Identify the useful parts of earlier work, but don’t let the project become a prisoner of data that doesn’t help realize the project’s current goals.

Document the design and project process: The objective is not to communicate what needs to be done, it is instead to clarify what the team will need to do. Having documented the process, be ready to modify the process as required to achieve evolving needs.

Discover and address the real problems: Don’t let peripheral issues, constraints, and political quandaries diffuse the team’s efforts.

About This Review’s Author

Riley VanDyke has been a contract and consulting technical writer since 1998 and is an STC-SF chapter volunteer.

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