Client Fallacy #2: "We may want to add a few new sections later, but we'll address those items down the road."One of the best aspects of a website is its flexibility. Being able to make changes in one place where the whole world can access that new information is very freeing. Sometimes however, clients can get fooled into thinking that a website is more flexible than it really is. Due to this notion of flexibility there is a sense that major site elements and features can just be "dropped in" when needed. While this may true technically, there are important information design issues that constrain the technical possibilities.
The importance of working out information design issues before designing and programming a site grows in proportion to the depth and breadth of the site. A large site (hundreds of pages or more) with a breadth of content for a diverse audience has a great need for carefully thought out information design. Problems inherent in large sites multiply over time. The initial investment made in information organization, navigational systems, and user interface become increasingly valuable as the complexity of the site grows.
The Big Dig
Information design is the most beneficial when engaged in at the outset of a project. It is much more difficult to fix information design problems after a site has grown to include hundreds or thousands of pages than it is to structure it properly at the outset. Take a non-internet example like the "Big Dig." Anyone traveling through the Boston area is aware of the massive engineering project known as "The Big Dig." A tunnel was constructed to run completely under the city. This project was one of the greatest civil engineering projects ever undertaken. At every stage of the project an incredible amount of work had to be done re-routing traffic and utility systems, building temporary structures, destroying old structures, and finally constructing sections of the new tunnel. The complexity of this project was due to the complexity of the existing city that has grown slowly over time, bit by bit.
Information should be structured in ways that assume growth. The more flexible and well thought out the initial design, the less work (destroying and rebuilding existing pages and structures) will need to be done in the future.
Boston vs. Indianapolis
Think about how hard it is to get from one end of Boston to the other (especially during the Dig), imagine having to give someone directions who is not already familiar with the city. Now think about doing the same thing for a more modern city such as Indianapolis. Because of the opportunity to do proactive city planning in a city like Indianapolis (not to mention the lack of geographic limitations like oceans), the structure of Indianapolis is more consistently based on a grid. Terms like "West North Street" and "East North Street" actually have some relationship to where you are in the city. Compared with Boston, it is much easier to figure out your way around the city, even if you've never been there before. Information design needs to establish a clear structure that allows users to "get around" intuitively especially over time as more and more "streets and buildings" are added to the site.
Website sprawl â€“ the university website
A good example of a website that has grown over time into a convoluted structure is the typical university website. Because of the "grass roots" approach to most university sites, content that is "owned" by a particular department, will often get "cross-linked" from one main area to another. These frequent cross-linking occurrences cause the structure to become so jumbled that a visitor doesn't know whether they are coming or going.
At other times content gets duplicated in multiple areas of the site. Aside from the obvious inefficiency of this approach, it causes data to become out of date, more broken links, and confusing search engine results. This approach compounds problems by establishing pages with incorrect information that not only misinform the viewer but conflict with correct information elsewhere on the site.
Sites do grow over time. New sections and features will be added. But if we want to avoid the problems of websites that are structured like Boston, we need work through all the information design issues at the outset. While we may not build every feature from the start, we do want to have a solid plan for how new content and features will be added later. Working through a grayscreen prototype prior to design and development allows for effective communication with clients thereby overcoming the many barriers inherent to web development. This approach offers a way to work through the information design process in a comprehensive way without incurring the expense of actually building out the final content and functionality of a site.