A lot of the advice I end up giving, with regards to the creative side of Internet development, has to do with things like gif optimization, HTML standardization, forms, and interface design. This is all very important and relevant, but today, I’d like us to take a step back, and talk about two important things to think about before embarking on any online project: Information and Experience.
Whether you are creating an entertainment website or an information service, you are brokering information in one form or another. Your product or content may not overtly look like information, and you may not want it to feel like information. But you inevitably have to deal with the information you are sharing and creating.
What is Information Design?
Information design is the design of the structure and flow of information in content. Content can be an interactive product – a book, a newscast, an essay and the list goes on. Every day, we act as information designers as we compose letters, organize desktops and sort through the complications of life. Most of us, however, wouldn’t consciously call this sort of activity information design.
Information Design in Content Creation
It is important, at the earliest stages in a project, to look at the scope of the data being presented. It’s also important to look at the various ways to organize and package, visually or otherwise, that data. Data, with context, is information. The methodology of information design is the process of analyzing a body of data, and reviewing the various ways of organizing that data.
Richard Saul Wurman, a renowned information architect, offers five different ways to organize information; others have expanded that number to six or seven.
Information design is not an exact science – but it’s also not a crapshoot. If you follow a sound methodology and remember what you want the user’s experience to be, then a strategy for the information structure should emerge clearly.
At the earliest stages of a project, another important thing that needs to be dealt with is the experience. As interactive media become more sophisticated, and the lines between broadcast media such as TV and radio become more blurred.
Personally, I believe that creative content creators will soon become experience architects. We will be drawn upon knowledge from visual design, film production and theatre to create interesting, high-bandwidth, high-resolution interactive experiences that are available to the public in a digital, non-linear format.
Today, of course, we are very constrained when we put together commercial websites that are highly trafficked. We pull our hair out over 10k extra hits on a page, and wonder what the best palette will be for a given gif.
Nevertheless, it’s important to ask your team, from the beginning: What is the experience we want the user to have? What kind of experience do we want to create for the user? Of course, this depends greatly on the type of content you are creating. A reference (yellow pages, classified ads, rental information,etc.) site will probably call for a direct, results-oriented user experience. A shopping site may require clarity and ease-of-use, but it may also be good to encourage the visitor to stay around and explore a little.
The Creative Approach
The interface design, pacing, overall design style and feel of a website should respond to these experience needs, not vice-versa. Nathan Shedroff built what he calls a Taxonomy of Experience, which he is using to try to better understand human experience, and the context of experience. Nathan believes that by better understanding the realm of human experience in the world, we can create more interactive, engaging and immersive experiences in interactive media.
Probably the best people to look to for inspiration and knowledge when it comes to experience design are actors who work in live theatre. Live theatre requires an intricate, real-world sensitivity to the audience, the message, and the context and translation of that message. The knowledge gleaned from studying theatre will be invaluable as the Internet matures as a medium.
Today, many businesses look towards their companies’ brochures, commercials and annual reports for inspiration and content when creating a website. I would argue that they should look more towards human interactions within their organizations, and see if they can model online interactions on some of these experiences.
The Web is still young and very limited. So it’s important not to get discouraged by the gap between what you want to do, and what you can do. But don’t stop imagining the impossible. It is always much easier to cut back on something that is overambitious or impossible than it is to bump up something that is a product of the limitations of its medium.
Now is just the beginning. This is the time to learn the tools and get comfortable in the medium. This way, when content creators start to make real money on the internet, you are positioned to help make it happen.
Information Architects and Experience Architects are two essential professions for the twenty-first century. Keep your eyes open, and don’t forget to deal with information and experience at the earliest stages in an interactive project.