Castles made of Sand – The practical value of IA & UX (and how to explain it to clients)



I took on a project recently that I am pretty excited about.

I’m working for a start-up company with some incredibly clever aerospace engineers who’ve invented a new type of torque coupling (see slides for an image!) which is present in most vehicle engines.

While the technical nuances of this revolutionary invention escape me, they assure me it makes engines more eco-friendly and safe.

They all quit very well paid jobs to form the business. They have years of engineering experience between them. They clearly know their shit.

What they don’t know shit about, is digital, which is why they hired me.

However, I have had great difficulty explaining that before we get to the exciting (read: pretty) bits of building their new website we need to consider IA and UX. They just don’t see the value in it.

It’s a scenario many people in the web industry will know well. The engineers know they need to be online, and they know they need to digitally market their product because their competitors do. But they think digital marketing and SEO copywriting is all a load of fluff and nonsense. They also have no clue whatsoever how websites actually work beyond what you can see. They don’t need to.

I recently did a talk about explaining the value of IA & UX to clients at SWUX Bristol based on working with these engineers – you can view the slides here.

These guys aren’t fans of digital, and are even less keen on marketers. They make ‘proper’ things. Tangible and very complicated parts that keep aeroplanes in the air. They work from CAD diagrams, test materials under different strains to ensure they don’t fail.

If they fail, people die.

Comparatively, digital marketing does seem a bit lame.

The problem is that given the nature of their invention, the site needs to contain a hell of a lot of information, and will need to track a lot of data. From demonstration videos to technical specs to material and safety data spanning four very different industries to a catalogue of various parts and information on their applications – this project is going to be a big job.

I gathered all the information I could, learned about the industries they are going to sell to, and split what we needed to include into sections. Then I made a low-fi wireframe of the site.

I sent the frame to the engineers and told them not to worry about images or final copy at this stage, but to click things, see if they could find all the information sections they thought their customers needed and expected to see, where they would expect to find it.

I told them to note down what worked and what didn’t, not to discuss this with each other, and to bring the notes to our next meeting.

Simple, right?

Well no. It wasn’t at all.

I tried to explain that the section titles were merely an indicator of what sort of content would be included. I explained that the content blocks could be repeated on different pages, and that there were different paths people could use to reach pages.

I explained that the placeholder ‘image’ squares could be videos, pictures, diagrams – we just needed to work out what resources we would need. I explained this was a big job, which is why we needed to get the user journeys and IA right at the initial stage.

They didn’t get it at all. I spent over an hour unable to get them to move away from the homepage, and to stop asking why all the information (and an animated gif logo – eek) shouldn’t be on the homepage.

They wanted to know what the banner image would look like, whether we should have this or that title, and I couldn’t get their heads around the concept of content blocks. They would only think in terms of pages. When I decided it might be easier to show them the user journeys off screen, I got the post-it’s out.

That sealed my doom as another trendy marketing tosser.

I decided to take a different tack at our next meeting. I explained that like any physical architecture, we needed a blueprint from which to work. I explained that it’s wasn’t marketing, it was technical. I explained that if the measurements and materials specified in the blueprint were wrong, the builders could knock something up that may look great for a moment, but would soon fall over.

They hadn’t in fact realised that there were builders required at all. However, by explaining the process in terms they were familiar and comfortable with, they got it.

The materials testing engineer was the first to really see merit in this approach. He realised my job was in nature, pretty similar to his (minus the threat of physical crashes); testing, tweaking, improving iteratively so you know that by the time you put the plane in the air, you know it won’t fall out of the sky.

He convinced the MD to stop thinking about the logo, and just give me the facts. Plain and simple. He finally understood that whatever journey you map, all roads lead to home (digitally speaking) and that this process meant finding the most simple, logical and well sign-posted route from A to B.

So I’ve made some tweaks to my blueprint based on engineering expertise, and we are nearly ready to call in the builders. In a world where people expect to be wowed by quick results, and where marketing is often a dirty word (and let’s face it, a lot of it is fluff), we need to go back to basics, and to remember to talk to people without the jargon.

It can be easy to just agree with what the client wants, but the truth is, they often don’t really know what they need. IA is something marketers, writers, designers and project managers should consider before they kick off any project.

Information architecture may not be sexy, but it’s the blueprint that all the shiny stuff is built around.

All sites are different, and levels of complexity will obviously vary, but not matter what information you need to include, you should consider IA. It may not be exciting or nice to look at, but it’s well worth paying for.