“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

Comments (6)

  1. Hello Dan,

    Ed Vielmetti gave me the link to your blog. I’m a “regular-old-architect” in Ann Arbor. I worked with Ed and his wife on a low-impact kitchen remodel in the fall. Lou Rosenfeld is both a friend and former client of mine. I use simple chip board exterior massing and interior space models quite often in my work, and they are really effective. I would enjoy talking to you about your project.

    All the best,
    Margaret Wong

    • Thanks so much for the follow-up, Margaret. I used to work with Christine Golus at Q, so I’ve heard a lot about you and have met you once or twice in real life. And I think I remember seeing an Observer article about your toaster collection?


      I’m going to be coming to Ann Arbor sometime later this month and would love to sit down with you and ask you some questions – I will be so bold as to follow up via email and try to schedule a time that’s convenient for you!

  2. I’ve a software methodologist – work in agile, and patterns, CMM, SixSigma, and many others. Your thoughts seems close to what started “a pattern’s language”.

    Chris Alexander…


    check it out !

    • Thanks for the comment, Clifford. Alexander and another guy named Stewart Brand are the two “regular old architects” whose books and ideas I’ve been using in my IA course at UM School of Information. Alexander is sort-of a god to me, and while I’m a devotee of what he teaches about in The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language – for example, refusing to provide any comprehensive blueprints of the entirety of a structure and instead working organically and without graven images – he’s like … a guru. It works for him because of his fame and notoriety he can get clients who’ll play along with his process. The thing I hope to discover in the research process for this book is stuff that “regular old architects” do from a process and deliverables perspective which might help us regular-old web designers and information architects suck less with our regular-old clients – folks who’ve perhaps hired us because we were the low bidder, not because they’re starstruck and will accept our designs on the basis of us being famous.

  3. Dan – Ed also tipped me off to your post, and I’ll really need more time to dig into it and do it justice. I’m not sure if Alexander’s “Notes on the Synthesis of Form” would help.

    As for Alexander’s organic process, it works on a smaller scale; we’re renovating our house, and a lot of instructions to the carpenter have been along the lines of “put it there”, “make it that big”. Obviously one would not want to use the same design process for, say, a laboratory building for a university.

  4. The closet thing left me wondering – isn’t that like saying Leonardo da Vinci didn’t use enough purple in the Mona Lisa?

    And wasn’t Frank Lloyd Wright’s brief with the first Usonia house to design and build it for under $5k? I guess he thought he’d keep the roof and leave out the closets.

    I’m pretty sure he knew what closets were, too; he even put them in some of his other houses.

    Personally, I’d rather have bigger rooms and some well-designed pieces of furniture matched to my storage needs, but that’s just me.

    Metaphors really do wear thin sometimes, but as a species, we tend to look for parallels to make us feel comfortable – or just clever.

    I suppose if the field was known as Information Styling, we’d be comparing the work with make-up artists or barbers.

    Hope that didn’t come across as too cynical, but all these contortions tend to grate after a while :)

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