Wireframes Are Not Coloring Books for Designers.

Posted on February 11, 2008


color in the linesI was chatting with Dave Lowe-Rogstad the other day co-founder of the upstart creative shop Substance in Portland. We were talking about how we as designers and communicators had to be the UE/IA (User Experience/Information Architecture) experts in addition to the title on our business card. In fact way back when they were really inseparable, or at least it was difficult to discern where UE/IA ended and design started. What he said has stuck with me…”Information architecture shouldn’t be about making coloring books for the designers to fill out”.

The UE/IA role is a rather new one. I won’t disparage what the good ones do. Like any profession…there are good and bad. I think what has actually led to the proliferation of the breed is our goddamn quest to speed everything up. That’s fine. So are IA/UE folks jobs are there to get things on a page suggest some positions and get clients to sign off on essentially a checklist of must haves set in an objective setting devoid of theme and color? Not if you ask one of them personally. First off they would say their job is “to protect the user”. From what? Paper cuts? A nasty multi-key combo? or the dreaded “no look confusion maker” of dare I say…the absence of a “home”button? Seriously though their aim is to make sure information user need is on pages in somewhat dependable areas…but that sounds like a designer who knows his job? IA/UE, lets call them “usability folks” from here out, are good at setting boundaries for tests and trials I’ll give them that. A creative would pull out before half the of the first of the pots of coffee of the 9 that will be consumed during a typical user testing scenario. Were weak that way. I’ll admit it.

IA/UE suggestions and decisions are also based upon case studies of human interaction with things that are already done. Usability people are wonderful at remembering rules and things that have been done in particular scenarios and cautioning against things and suggesting things that have been proven to work. But this is where it all goes to hell in a hand-basket. More often than not what agencies are presented with is a situation that has a particular set of rules and requirements that by the sheer nature of the client being unique, makes the problem unique. So how can you apply a set of rules based on past solutions that worked on past problems against problems that haven’t been solved yet?

And I think this is where I really try and get involved with the usability folks. It is valuable for a voice to provide some additional rules for the usability teams to truly be effective with their task. For example if a particular website for a company has a brand attribute…e.g.”helpful”…it would be a good idea to have a precedent built in that suggest that is considered during every step of the way. Here the usability folks can be diligent in placing “need help?” links or other aid devices. Additionally determining user flows that truly facilitate a particularly “helpful” experience is where i personally rely on the strengths of UE/IA folks. Why is this important? Because today, Brand is a promise…if that brand lives online than the experience there is the promise personified.

So Dave made a good point. “Information architecture shouldn’t be about making coloring books for the designers to fill out”. It should be about making a guide that was authored by a team of experts (Usability, Creative, and even Account folks? Sure as long as they pick up lunch) who understood a particular problem and developed a system of rules and hierarchy that strategically opens the door for creative to do some wonderful things.