A User-Centered Approach to Selling Information Architecture

A User-Centered Approach to Selling Information Architecture

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In: Columns > IAnything Goes

By Jeff Lash

Published on February 20, 2003

One of the most popular topics for discussion among those practicing Information Architecture is “selling IA.” There is a constant struggle to show the value and benefits of including information architecture techniques on a project.

The most common approach to selling IA involves introducing the basic concepts, along with explanations and examples of what deliverables are produced, and some discussion of the benefits. At that point, usually the client will comment, or ask about how these procedures can fit in to a specific project.

This is antithetical to the mantra of user-centered design, which says that the needs of the user should be understood before the design begins. How can one design a sales approach before understanding the needs of the client? The proper approach should be to figure out what the goals and needs of the client are before ever starting to try and sell Information Architecture as a possible solution.

If you got a problem, yo, I’ll solve it

The bottom line is that no one wants a Web site. A Web site is just a way to help someone get whatever it is that they really want.

The problem with “selling information architecture” is that too often it is assumed that people want Web sites, or that people want wireframes, or a content matrix, or a taxonomy. People don’t want any of these things, even though they say that they want them or might think that they need them.

What people do want is a way to decrease abandoned shopping carts, to increase inquiries gathered through the Web site, to reduce calls to customer service, to increase ad impressions, or to provide information to help employees become more efficient. Almost all of the time, people want things that will lead to increased revenue or decreased cost. Having a Web site, and having information architecture involved in that Web site, is just a means to an end.

Selling site maps or user flows or personas focuses on the means. Sure, to the client, personas look neat and seem useful, but if their goal is to increase the size of the average order through their Web site, it wouldn’t matter if you used paper prototypes or Harry Potter style magic, as long as you met that goal.

Normally, a sales pitch for selling information architecture shows the client all of the possible techniques and the benefits of each. That requires a lot of work on the client’s part. First, they need to have the time to listen to the whole pitch. Secondly, they need to make the connection between their goals and all of the techniques with fancy names of things that are being introduced to them.

The name itself shows the problem with it—a sales pitch. A sales pitch requires someone to “catch” that pitch. You’re making them —the catcher, the client, the user—do too much work. You’re leaving it up to them to make the connection between what IA can do and what their site needs. Make the connection for them. Focus on their needs and goals by adopting a user-centered approach to selling IA.

I’m going to have to check with my manager

Many lessons about selling can be learned from salespeople that nearly everyone has had to deal with—a car salesman. While not all car salesmen are good, and certainly their entire sales process is not worth copying, the ability for a successful car salesman to focus on the customer (user) and meet their needs is key to their success.

A good car salesman doesn’t show you every car on the lot and then see what you’re interested in. He will find out what your goals and needs are and then figure out what cars are best for you. Your needs might be to commute to and from work, to have something that will carry and protect your children, or to impress potential dates. Your needs dictate what he tries to sell to you. He doesn’t bother mentioning all the great features of the 2-seater convertible if you’re looking for a something to transport your 5 kids to after-school activities.

Similarly, he also doesn’t explain how pistons work, or how the windows get tinted. He doesn’t tell you the tread depth on the tires or the dB levels of the stereo. He focuses on the high-level needs, and mentions only the things that may be relevant to those needs, without getting bogged down in irrelevant details.

Think about how this applies to the information architecture sales process. An IA shouldn’t show all of the dozens of techniques that are possible before understanding what the client might need them for. There is no need to explain that the wireframes will be delivered as PDFs or that the personas can be /files/includes/print.cssed out large enough to post on walls.

A good IA should act like a good car salesman and work with the client to understand what their needs are. Find out what the bottom-line goal is. Almost always it’s to increase revenue or decrease cost. Next, find out what their intermediate goals are, which could include more page views, more orders placed, higher conversion rates, or decreased calls to the help line. Then see what can be done to reach those goals, and lastly determine what IA techniques can help.

An exemplary performance

Now take this from theory to practice. For example, a potential client who is interested only in a visual redesign of her ecommerce site may in fact just be disappointed with the low revenue generated and think it has something to do with the look and feel. Further conversation may reveal that there is an abnormally high percentage of users abandoning their shopping carts, which is leading to poor sales. After suggesting that some work be done to understanding why so many potential customers are leaving empty-handed, she is definitely interested but wants to know how much it will cost.

At this point in the process, the client has been sold on the idea of information architecture without ever being told what information architecture is or how it can help her. By also not mentioning any specific techniques, there is still the possibility of approaching the problem in many different ways. If scenarios or contextual inquiry had been mentioned earlier on in the conversation, she might have decided that those would solve her problem, regardless of whether or not they are appropriate for this particular situation.

In some cases, the client can’t be sold on anything other than exactly what they want. However, these are few and far between. If you can get the opportunity to talk with them about their goals and needs, before trying to pitch your services, you usually are able to show them your value and convince them otherwise.

Nobody wants you, but I do

Remember that no one ever wants a Web site, nor do they want a search engine, a taxonomy, or a paper prototype. Everything that they “want” is really just a driver of their bottom-line goal. They’re focusing on the trees, not the whole forest. Take a step back and help them understand that there are multiple ways to reach their goal, and that you can help them.

Instead of explaining all of the things that you offer and then seeing what they need, find out what their goals are, see what needs to be done to reach those goals, and then determine what IA techniques can help them reach those goals.

Related Topics: User-Centered Design (UCD), Information Architecture

Jeff Lash is a User Experience Designer in the Health Sciences division of Elsevier. He is a co-founder and Advisory Board member of the Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture (AIfIA) and has also written articles and tutorials for Boxes and Arrows and WebWord. His personal website is jefflash.com.