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.

Event Review – Ladies That Tweet…may want to think about it first.

Last Tuesday I attended an event in Bristol Called ‘Ladies that Tweet’ – one of those networking evenings for women who use social media in business to meet, discuss, be inspired and learn some helpful tips about the use of social media in business and marketing.

Obviously, being a women’s event, there was bound to be some talk of the difficulties women face in the workplace, and I realise there are many. There are still huge pay differences between men and women, there is also an enormous difference between the number of men and women in managerial and directorial positions – and this is especially true in the world of marketing.

Before attending the event, I had been reading a report by McKinsey & Company entitled ‘Women at the Top of Corporations: Making it Happen’ (available online) which found, among many worrying statistics regarding employment for women that ‘women are still underrepresented in corporate boards and barely present in executive communities’. Having previously worked for the Equality and Human Rights commission, I have read many such reports.

The issue of gender inequality is a troubling one, not just in management and marketing, but across many career sectors, right across Europe. After the networking (and cocktails – always a bonus!) there were three female speakers from various media backgrounds; an email marketer who runs workshops about online marketing and social media, a sex blogger turned novelist who had been horribly and unfairly hounded and bullied by the press after they publicly revealed her identity, and a woman who had recently started a company to try and change the male dominated marketing world, after being inspired by the hit series, Mad Men (which I am currently obsessed with by the way, and has raised many a gender related debate between me and my partner).

So far, so good.

The email marketer and blogger were both eloquent, professional, and raised some valid points for debate, as well as giving some great advice about handling the media, and making the most out of social media in the world of business, which is, after all, what the event was all about.

However, the speaker from the world of marketing, for want of a better word, shocked me. As did the reactions from other attendees on Twitter after the event, although, given we had just been told about the pitfalls of non-polite social media interaction, maybe they were simply worried about the repercussions of critical comment - as in fact I am in publishing this piece on-line.

I did pause to think about it, especially after the advice given in the event about the dangers of opinion pieces on the web. Also, as it was a networking function, I suppose it would be safer and less hassle to keep my opinion to myself.

However, I am a writer, and the issues raised by this speaker really did both trouble and anger me. I fully expect that many people will disagree, which they are completely free to do, in the same way that I am free to express my opinion. So here it is.

In a word, this woman was simply sexist. Initially, I could see her point. She had worked in marketing companies that were male dominated, and where, as in many marketing agencies, the content produced had been decided, in the main, by men. And regarding Mad Men, I have read some genuinely interesting and well researched discussions on the topic surrounding whether the world of advertising has really changed since Don Draper’s (the main character, if you haven’t seen it, and I recommend you do!) day, i.e., the early sixties.

As a topic of discussion, it was potentially an interesting one. But researched and structured debate this was not.

She opened by asking everyone in the room to raise their hand if they were a feminist. Bearing in mind this is a bunch of women who have come straight from work, who don’t know each other, and, if they were anything like me, currently quite focussed on the bowls of sweets on the table, (I would like to point out the event was brilliantly organised, the venue was lovely, and the other speakers, as well as the attendees were very interesting. It was largely a great event) so, for whatever reason you care to choose, only half the room put their hands up.

Thus began the casual sexism, man bashing, bad research and patronising of women. In my view anyway, as I said, many of the comments on twitter implied that lots of the attendees agreed, and didn’t have a problem with it at all.

The half of the room who didn’t raise a hand were met with the comment; ‘Well that’s just sad. Didn’t you want us to get the vote?’ The speaker then proceeded to profess the freedom of modern women to shout C***, which yes, is true, but totally inappropriate in a meeting about social media, as it would have been if a man had said the same thing.

She also showed a succession of slides which patronised the crap out of men in the same way that she complains they do to women. You know the type of thing, the funny pictures people post of Facebook, like a man has one button you push to get all his behaviours, we have lots. Wonderfully illustrated with a photo of one button, with the word ‘Man’ under it, and a photo of lots of buttons, with the word ‘Woman’ under it. Hilarious and informative, right?

She continued to speak about the way we should market to women because when a man goes in a shop, it’s to get one item, but women like to go with their friends, wander around in a haphazard fashion, like some neon-light befuzzled moth with a credit card, and always ‘with friends so they can ask each other, does my bum look big in this?’

This was illustrated with a floor-plan of a shop and a straight line mapping a man’s linear movement towards his item of choice, juxtaposed with a big wobbly squiggle to illustrate a woman wandering here there and everywhere, distracted, presumably by all the bags, shoes and other pretty, irresistible trinkets.

I’m sure there is some truth to this, but how can you moan about sexist stereotypes and put that up?

This was followed by an image of Mel Gibson shaving his legs in the film ‘What Women Want’. Another great and reliable source to illustrate the real problems women face concerning inequality.

There was also scientific reference, again backed up with a lovely illustration. ‘Men and women use different parts of their brain’.
So far so psychologically tested to be true, in some ways.
‘Men use the right side, and women use the whole thing’.

Hmm, not so well researched.

The problem I had with this whole discussion, and the reason why I felt the need to write something about it, is that it was badly researched, totally contradictory, and belittled the genuine inequality that both women and men face at the hands of sexist, capitalist marketing structures.

In my opinion, many women have an aversion to shouting about being a feminist because it conjures up this sort of thing. Angry, irrational women shouting, stereotyping and man bashing. There is no reasoned debate, little research and a lot of sexism and female chauvinism. And that hurts the cause of real feminists.

I understand feminism to be the desire for equality. And whatever your gender, and however passionate you are about a topic, you should be fair, and assess the evidence. Then you should rationally go about solving the problem.

Marketing is always going to portray people, men and women, in an unrealistic light because it aims to sell you a lifestyle you don’t already have. It also aims to sell you things you don’t need and an image of someone else, who’s prettier/thinner/ healthier/more organised/more stylish/whatever.

That’s capitalism for you.

It also sells to you in the same way this woman did, so I guess judging from the many positive reactions afterward, she’s very good at her job. It bombards you with pictures, distractions, half-baked studies and fictional or misrepresented statistics presented as ‘proper’ science. It also sells you things using catchy little hooks - like calling your company MadWomen, and offering to measure market trends with the patronisingly named ‘Femometer’.

Consistently fair market research should look at and measure the audience over-all  and use those stats to target efficiently.  However, a biased marketer will be able to sell just as well with this kind of quirky crap.

You can’t condemn one kind of sexist selling and simultaneously replace it with another and expound it as moral and a push for equality.

It is this kind of thing that ensures the difficulties women encounter due to gender stay as they are, or swing entirely the other way so we take over and gain the unfair advantage in the workplace that men currently occupy.

And neither of those options is good enough.

I hope Ladies that Tweet enjoys much future success, as there really were some interesting points raised. I just think they should be careful who they put up to speak, or what was otherwise an interesting evening full of intelligent, interesting and talented women will descend into nonsense.

And that would really be a shame.