Universal IA and UX Truths I Learned Studying Digital Collections of Art [Guest Post]

Photo of a room in an art gallery
Last year, I spent a few months studying the underlying information architecture and user experience design of the digitized collections of art made available by a few world-class North American museums. The work, which was generously guided by Sam Raddatz, the Founder and Chief Information Architect at Logic Department, served as my graduate capstone project at the Information School at the University of Washington.

At the time of the project I couldn’t stop thinking about the overlapping themes I uncovered in the work of making these vast information environments possible (some of these collections contain hundreds of thousands of items a user can browse through) and my own work building much, much, smaller websites for businesses and nonprofits. A year later I still think about it and so I wanted to share some of those themes here in this post.

Any Website/Information Environment is Only as Good as it is Easy For a User to Find Content

Anyone who creates for the web can tell you that a website is only as good as its content. I’m amending that. A website is only as good as a user’s ability to find the content therewithin. You can invest in world-class content creation, but if the underlying information architecture of the site leaves most of the content hidden, then as a system the website is a failure.

If websites need good content to be of value (they do), then they need mechanisms for users to find that content to be useful. Websites with navigation systems that offer categorical browsing and search features are two of the most straightforward ways we can help users find what they need.

However, it’s not just that the site itself has to be organized well, the content has to be described well, too. That means assigning content useful administrative and descriptive metadata so that content can be recalled in search and better understood by search engines (the first tool for discovery).

If you work with an Information Architect they should be able to help you with at least two things:

  • Creating logical navigation structures that utilize plain-language
  • Providing useful descriptions for text and non-text content

Information Professionals MUST Collaborate with Designers and Developers

My project looked at a world in which the people intimately working with the content in question were not the same people building the environment that housed the content. That’s not inherently unusual, but my observations only underscored the value in connections between the content creators (in this case, the people describing each image in the collection) and the people building the website.

When the people building the website (that’s often me) have a better relationship with the content it will hold, they are intellectually empowered to create a better environment for others to find and interact with the content.

Less of this. | Image Credit: Rawpixel by way of Unsplash
More of this. | Image Credit: Rawpixel by way of Unsplash

Dynamic Systems/Websites Cannot Be Optimized Without User Research

In the space I operate in there isn’t a lot of room for things like discovery or research. You have to know who your audience is based on logic and the insights available to you. When it comes to “larger” websites (dynamic systems) that (to put it bluntly) represent enormous financial investment and provide users with access to a wealth of content and opportunities, there’s no excuse on this Earth not to invest in user research. You cannot optimize dynamic systems without valuable qualitative feedback from the people they were designed for.

In the design community, you’ll see variants of these phrases: “we do not design for ourselves” and “we do not design for other designers.” These truths can be difficult to remember, honestly. We all have a bit of implicit bias. We think things should look and work a certain way. However, as people who build these systems, we are inherently not like the people who use these systems. Ultimately, we design for our client’s audience, whether it’s the client’s employees, their customers, their prospective donors, or any variant of the three (or more).

That is all to say that anyone involved with the creation of a dynamic system is almost too close to the work to create it for a lay user. Even the best information architect or user experience designer could miss out on a vital nuance that takes the usability (and therefore value) of the website to the next level.

Invest in user research. Gather a healthy number of the people who will use your new website and ask them a multitude of questions. Observe them using the existing website and document every action they take on screen and reaction they communicate verbally or nonverbally. At the least, it’ll reaffirm your ideas about how the website is utilized. At the very best you’ll discover opportunities to improve the website.

These are all things worth getting familiar with or hiring out! | Image Credit: David Travis via Unsplash

Websites Are Dynamic — Update Them!

It pains me that in 2019 there are world-class organizations that constrain themselves in all kinds of ways. To know that something doesn’t work, but not take immediate action to fix or improve it when doing so might only require a snippet of code or moving things around in a WYSIWYG editor just slays me.

Websites are meant to be updated when they need to be. If you need to bring on additional support to do it, there are gobs of people with expertise who are available — I promise.

The point here is that no organization should dilute their brand reputation or stymy the number of people who access their content, products, or services because they can’t rapidly update their own website to improve usability.

Assist People On Their Journey

In the small usability study that I was able to lead for my project, the core theme in my findings was that users want some kind of assist in their experience. They wanted the structure of the website to provide a path to content and they wanted a highly functional search feature to help them communicate what they were looking for (we need to think of search as a form of communication and not just a task).

The navigations systems we build (primary, secondary, tertiary, and so on) and the search features we provide go a long way in helping frame a user’s journey. We can go even further with useful copy that respectfully makes clear what kind of interactions a user can engage in on the website, what kind of paths they can take to content, and so on. Be conversational about it.

A Few Other Things

Of the things I learned in that project that still resonate a year later, the above reflects a few items that rang the loudest. Here are a few other things that I find to be of universal note:

  • Aesthetics instill user trust. It’s not the only ingredient in that recipe, but it cannot be ignored.
  • Empty states do not always convey elegance or minimalism, more often they just convey absence. Use them!
  • People are open to learning and with assistive features and good information architecture, we can help them discover new things.
  • It’s true that people expect all websites to work a certain way. That said, people really are open to learning and if the cues are there to help them figure out how to use your website, you can be innovative.

This guest post was originally shared on Medium on February 19, 2019. Big thanks to Michael Wagner for allowing us to share it here!

Michael Wagner is a Squarespace Developer and Information Architect at Markon Brands. Connect with him on LinkedIn.