Fourteen years ago, in my first job where my title was “Information Architect,” I clashed with a designer. We were working at a large advertising agency that was known for stunning design work. The art directors wielded a level of power at the agency that I have never seen anywhere else, and the result over the decades was a portfolio of gorgeous print and TV ads. The design-first method had worked well for this agency, winning them awards and a long roster of Fortune 500 clients, so they naturally decided to use this approach in their newly launched web department, too.
Things went well for a while, until I attended a kickoff meeting for a new website project. The designer came to the meeting with an already completed graphic design, before any information had been provided about who the site was for or what it would do. This designer had been at the company longer than me, and she had been happily designing sites without an information architect for several months. As far as she was concerned, this was a process that worked well for her, and why shouldn’t it? She had complete control of the site, her designs looked lovely, and they were not in any way influenced by user needs, site goals, or reality.
What followed was a long, drawn-out battle for control of the site between me and the designer. This battle usually sounded something like this, played out again and again:
Me: And when you click on this button where does it take you?
Designer: I haven’t worked that out yet, but it’ll be fine.
At the time, I thought I had encountered a particularly obstinate designer, but in fact I had just bulldozed my way into the biggest challenge in information architecture (IA): navigating the line between beautiful design and usable IA. Because this was early in the web world, the agency had yet to learn about this balance between usability and design, and I hadn’t either. And in the intervening years, things haven’t changed much. Designers still want to make things beautiful, UXers still want to make things usable, and those two goals are frequently at odds. What has changed for me, though, is the approach I now take to working with designers.
1. Get the Right Designer on the Project
We don’t always have the luxury of selecting the designer who will bring our wireframes and prototypes to life, but on occasion this happens. All UXers should have a roster of designers who are UX-friendly who they can call when the opportunity arises. More and more frequently, I have clients who either ask us to handle design or ask for designer referrals. When this happens I always feel like I’ve won the lottery. I have a collection of designers I’ve met over the years who are great at working with highly functional sites; if you have the opportunity to influence the designer selection, you need to be ready to jump in with names and portfolios.
2. Don’t Just Throw Wireframes over the Fence
Last year, I worked on an unusual project where the timeframe was so compressed that there was no time for wireframes. Instead I spent many, many hours each day on the phone with the designer discussing the interface, working out where each element should go and exactly how it should function. While I wouldn’t recommend this process as a rule, the end result was a beautiful working relationship and an interface that we were both thrilled with.
Many agencies are structured such that designers are just handed a stack of wireframes and told to execute on them. The end result tends to be either a site that looks like a very pretty version of the wireframes, or one that is only very loosely based on the UX design. To strike the right balance that prevents designers from either taking an overly literal interpretation of wireframes or from developing their own new interaction models, designers need to be involved early and often. As soon as you’ve got a few wireframes done, pull your designer in to start mocking up a visual design so you can work together through anything that needs to be rethought.
3. Give Designers Space to Do Their Thing
People go into design because they want to express their creativity, to play with shapes and color, and to have fun doing it. In some ways, information architects just come in and rain on designers’ parades by imposing structure and preferring the obvious over the unique. But there are designers out there—more and more all the time—who look forward to working with information architects because working off of wireframes makes their jobs easier. These designers still want to play and have fun, and (in the right place and time) new and interesting designs and interactions can make people happy, so it’s a good idea to include a design-centric section on sites that warrant it, where the information architecture takes a back seat to the design. This works for areas of a site that needs to provide a visceral feel for a brand, or portfolio sections of sites that need to showcase work or case studies. If you respect the designers’ need to create something beautiful, they are more likely to respect your need to create something usable.
4. Don’t Discount the Importance of Design
It’s important to remember, as Don Norman has famously said and Dana Chisnell recently reiterated, that beautiful design makes people happy. Good UX design is the backbone of good visual design, and one cannot exist without the other. Back when I was engaging the designer at my first IA job in thermonuclear warfare, I did it because I only barely registered design as something that mattered to the user experience. But the joy inherent in beautiful design is important as well, so sometimes when a designer overrides your UX design on aesthetic grounds, the designer is right. UXers need to weigh the pros and cons of all design decisions very carefully in order to determine where visual design should triumph over UX design, and vice versa.
There are still struggles, of course, and there are projects where designers want to go one direction and the UX team wants to go another. But I do seem to encounter fewer and fewer all-out wars between design and UX teams. When designers and UXers work well together, the ultimate winners are the users, who get a product that is not only easy to use but lovely to interact with.