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This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue of HOW Magazine.

I recently consulted on-site at a large NYC interactive agency. At this agency, like most office environments, they had two soda machines from two popular soda companies. With the company subsidy, a can of soda was only 25¢ and I was repeat customer.

Most days I stuck with my favorite soda, putting in a dollar, hitting the button, waiting, reaching down to get my soda, then off to the right was my change. Simple. Then one day this machine (call it machine A) ran out— due in large part to my insatiable appetite for diet soda — forcing me to use the other brand’s machine (call it machine B). So, I put in my dollar, pushed the button, waited, reached down for my soda and it was then I discovered something very cool — my change was right there next to the soda waiting for me. Not over to the right where it had been on machine A, but right there where it was convenient for me, next to my cold soda.

That’s information architecture.

If you think about it, a soda machine is a lot like a web site. You’re faced with options in the form of buttons and after you make your selection, you’re rewarded with what you were seeking — in this example diet soda, but in the case of a Web site that might be information, movie tickets or a message from a friend. In both cases the user is completing a series of steps laid out the the designer.

In the example above, featuring the nearly identical soda machines, machine A delivers the user’s money in a less-than convenient spot off to the side where thirsty users may have to hunt for it. If it makes so much sense (no pun intended) to have the money where the soda comes out, why might machine A not be designed that way? Here are a few likely reasons:
Complacency: That’s where it’s always been. Often times as designers of soda machines or Web site, we slip into autopilot. We fail to see design opportunities in the small things, while we look for the big splash. Both are important.
Vanity: That’s where it looked the best. Arranging the elements like the coin slot, buttons, dispenser and coin return is a lot like designing the elements of a page — a purely aesthetic approach . Line them all up neatly and… wow… that looks great! I’ll definitely win an award for this one!
Convenience: That’s where it was easiest. In addition to the designer, there was no doubt an engineer involved in the process of creating this soda machine, just like there are coders for Web sites. It’s possible that having the coin return off to the right used less material and caused the least amount of headaches for the engineer.

What’s missing from all of this is an understanding of the users’ habits and a consideration for their needs. That’s what information architects and user experience experts do; they consider the user and develop the best possible plan for their experience.

That’s what information architects and user experience experts do; they consider the user and develop the best possible plan for their experience.

Machine B, where the change appeared in a convenient spot, didn’t have the sleek symmetrical lines of machine A and I would bet it probably cost a bit more to produce. The information architect for machine B wasn’t thinking about design, nor were they thinking about mechanics. They were thinking about the user. More specifically, they were thinking about the experience a user would have when they purchased a soda. “How can we make it more convenient for them?” they likely asked. This little adjustment to the experience of buying a soda was

Of course, information architecture is a much bigger topic than the coin return on a soda machine, but this relatable example illustrates the value in even the smallest ideas.

Most designers see IA a sketch or a way to quickly block out design ideas. “The nav up here, the logo over there, an image here…” etc. Designers tend to think about the pages of a site in terms of the amount of design required; home page first, sub page template, maybe a shopping cart or contact page.

Information Architects think of Web sites in terms of a user journey. And in doing so, they may not think of whole pages, only portions of pages required to complete common and high-value tasks. An information architect’s primary responsibility is to uncover new ways to make the user journey as smooth as possible.

For example on a travel site, an IA specialist might focus heavily on the “book a trip” box, then on the page of results, then to the itinerary page, perhaps a customer service link and so on. None of those items exactly get a designers mouth watering; but they’re critical to the site’s success.

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