“Now That I See It”

I’m writing a book this year. It’s called Now That I See It.

I’m not settled on its exact format… right now my aspiration is to put some original research findings and anecdotal case studies together into something a sympathetic blogger might call:

A surprisingly-readable and scholarly monograph, examining the all-too-common failure of website design process deliverables to secure durable client sign-off on the particulars of and strategy behind website features and functionality … and what the web design process might look like were it to be augmented with tools and techniques borrowed from and inspired by traditional architecture.

The Problem

I’m going to write about the tragicomical brittleness of some of our web design and development processes, and about how following the best practices in our alphabet soup of IA and UCD and HCI and IxD does not adequately protect us from the spirit-crushing moment of truth when the client arrives at a grand, game-changing realization long after the game has gotten underway.  The dreadful and dreaded moment when the client or stakeholder pulls you aside and says: …now that I see it

After more than a decade of building websites, in big interactive agencies and in small software development shops and in tandem with graphic designers and as a consultant to advertising agencies, I’ve seen the Now That I See It moment happen in all of these contexts and in spite of endless presentation of visual aids and diagrams, wireframes and blueprints and functional specifications.  I’ve witnessed  all manner of client walk-thrus and demonstrations where designers employ abstract representations of how the navigation will work, how the site is arranged, how and why the bits are arrayed just so in order to meet and align with the stated requirements.  I’ve seen these clients nod along in agreement and  “sign off” on hundreds of pages of wireframes and specifications, only to reach some later stage in the development process and encounter a Now That I See It moment that requires massive amounts of re-work to “fix.”

For the past five years or so, I’ve called myself an information architect.  Like the founders of  what one might call the Information Architecture “establishment,”  I came to see and practice IA through the lens of the library sciences.  This “Polar Bear school of IA” which grew up and out from perspectives rooted in librarianship and information science remains the predominant paradigm for planning, organizing and strategically-aligning business goals and user needs for large-scale websites, and has been codified in successive editions of an ubiquitous O’Reilly book.  Yet in spite of this librarianship-flavored affinity for and professional debt of gratitude I owe to Morville & Rosenfeld, the sad succession of epic Now That I See It failures I’ve witnessed or been party to over the years that have taken place in spite of doing things “by the book” gives me pause, and has caused me to question capital-l Librarianship as the primary basis for the  “foundational metaphor” in web design.

Has This Nut Been Cracked Before, Elsewhere?

I think that regular-old architecture is an incredibly fruitful domain of knowledge and community of practice from which to approach the building of websites.  For the purposes of this book I intend to conduct research into regular-old architecture design processes, and to interview scores of practicing regular-old-architects and structural designers to try and understand how and why (if ever) the regular-old-architect falls victim to Now That I See It moments with their clients. In much the same way that rhythm, axis, symmetry, and the other core principles of regular-old architecture provide a sound and timeless basis from which to inform the design and structural organization of websites, I hope to discover tools and techniques employed in the process of doing regular-old architecture which might better protect our website design and build projects from Now That I See It types of threats. I’m also eager to find out if regular-old architecture can speak to the “nasty paradox” the librarians who wrote the Polar Bear Book identify on page 292:

We are forced to demonstrate the essence of our work in a visual medium, even though our work itself isn’t especially visual

In my experience,  the bigger the project, the more and better the abstractions we end up rendering.  And as Austin Govella has observed, we calibrate our efforts on a given rendering based on factors such fidelity, iteration, notation and audience.  Perhaps there are corollaries and correlating principles used by regular-old architects when rendering blueprints and sketches that can better enable the clear communication of the elements and attributes and underlying strategies of the design to the client. And  I’m especially curious to learn about regular-old architects’ use of physical maquettes and to hear from practicing architects about the differences in client relations and buy-in/sign-off when using physical models as opposed to or in addition to so-called Virtual Reality renderings of a design.

That’s what I’ve got so far.  If you’re an architect or if you know practicing architects who might be willing to be interviewed for my book project, please leave info in the comments below.  Also, if you have resources for me to consider, please tag them on del.icio.us using the tag “NTISI”.

02. January 2009 by dan
Categories: Book In Progress, Information Architecture Design, Information Architecture Strategy, Regular Old Architecture | Tags: | 6 comments

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