Fire one!

Provoked, to say the least, by Jeff's new column in Digital Web.

"User-centered information architecture is a myth"; attention to user requirements has "overshadowed the fact that there are business needs that need to be addressed."

The article continues in a more conventional tone, but clearly, there's a lot here that I just flat out disagree with - especially in the context of this discussion.

What say you?

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Hmm. Here's a librarian's perspective.

I agree wholeheartedly with Jeff's point about understanding and reaching business goals as a measure of success. I just don't think that many of us take an approach that solely relies on something like user research, for instance. I think user requirements are informed by user behavior and attributes -- from user data and design personas, for instance.

It's interesting to me, because I believe many library systems approach information structure from a user perspective, but don't completely rely on research of user behavior. I know library systems rely on user feedback and survey data. Corporate digital libraries like my own take user research seriously and use that data to inform information structure -- our taxonomy, for example, was initiated because of specific user community collaborations and has continued to grow because of that. The catalyst for creating a business taxonomy in the first place was a customer-sponsored report that clearly attached dollars lost due to information seeking time. That was what prompted the need for a granular telecom classfication system. Of course the taxonomy is managed by information professionals who make judgements about relationships, but our user community's expertise in the subject matter is clearly a key factor. I think that's a huge testament to the value of user-centered IA.

What I say...

I'll fully admit that the title is flashier than the rest of the article, but, hey, I grabbed your attention, didn't I?

If you read the whole article (and I'm not saying you didn't), you'll see that I'm advocating an approach to IA that balances user needs and business requirements. A 100% user-centered IA might sound good in theory, but in practice, you'll never be able to get away with that in "the real world." I'm not saying to throw out user needs entirely. I still think they're vitally important, it's just that there are other needs that should be addressed.

Let's say you're designing the support section of a website for a computer software manufacture. Users might just want to find the toll free phone number right away and call someone to get their question answered. Well, it might cost the business $5 every time someone calls to get their problem answered (800# charges, operator support time, etc.), versus $.05 to get their question answered on the website (development, maintenance, bandwidth, etc.).

This is a classic tradeoff between user needs and business requirements. If the business wants to reduce support costs, then designing entirely around the users' needs is worthless and detrimental. A good solution would be to design the support section so that it will be easy for customers to attempt to solve their problem online, and then, if they still need help, you can give them the 800 number. If done well, it can take care of user needs ("I need to figure out why my software won't work") as well as business requirements ("We want to reduce support calls by 20% for the fourth quarter of 2002").

I think a lot of dot.coms failed because they thought too much about what would be useful to users, and did enough to make it usable, but didn't set realistic business goals. (Think All the IA in the world won't help you meet goals if you don't know what the goals are, if they're impossible to meet, or if they've never been defined at all.

Excellent examples

Excellent examples, Jeff. I did read your entire article. I always do :). I didn't think you were advocating throwing out user requirements or considerations of user behavior and needs. I think those were the statements that may have been bugging Adam, though.

In any case, the arguments you make are right on and timely.

Context of Balance

I agree we need balance in our products. But as designers we talk so much of users because we have to. I have never, ever heard a business person turn to me and say, "But Victor, enough about all these business requirements, what about the users??" It's my job to create balance in the overall context of the product, and I do that by emphasizing the user, because in all the companies/clients I've worked for there is no one else who's job it is to do that.

Apples and oranges

I did read all the way through, Jeff. You're right, there's very little cause for contention in the main body of the piece. It's those introductory paragraphs that worry me so: for their potential to be taken out of context, especially given their position. We all know people who skim articles to get the gist.

As I point out in my comments on v-2, I sort of figured you were thinking of Kozmo/Webvan situations. And I have to say that the issue with those ventures certainly wasn't poor IA that satisfied users at the expense of channeling them through meaningful transactions - it was underdeveloped business models, undercapitalized business plans, and obscene executive overcompensation.

I think it's valid to say that *customers* were satisfied without meeting business requirements, but that's different than asserting that *Web site users'* ease of use was related to that failure. And that's what I read your piece to say.

I also agree with Victor's comments, below. There's plenty of advocates, in most of the organizations I've dealt with, for white-knuckled profit-taking. Not so many voices countervailing them, though. There is an imbalance, but I feel it's not in the direction you suggest.