Archive for August 2008

Frameworks are the Future of IA: A Case Study and Example

August 20th, 2008 — 7:43am

Sep­tem­ber in Ams­ter­dam approaches: in addi­tion to the inevitable mix of clouds, rain, more rain, and tiny sliv­ers of sun­light, Sep­tem­ber means EuroIA 2008, where yours truly will speak about design frame­works.
In case you can’t make the con­fer­ence, here’s a text only sum­mary of my talk. Pic­tures will fol­low the pre­sen­ta­tion — promise!

It’s a DIY Future
The Web is shift­ing to a DIY [Do It Your­self] model of user expe­ri­ence cre­ation, one where peo­ple assem­ble indi­vid­ual com­bi­na­tions of con­tent gath­ered form else­where for expres­sive, func­tional, and (many) other pur­poses. The rapid growth of wid­gets, the resur­gence of enter­prise por­tals, the spread of iden­tity plat­forms from social net­work des­ti­na­tions to blog­ging ser­vices, and the rapid increase in the num­ber of pub­lic APIs syn­di­cat­ing func­tion­al­ity and data, are all exam­ples of the DIY shift.

Archi­tects of the Future
For design pro­fes­sion­als, the defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of DIY future is co-creation: the par­tic­i­pa­tion of a broad spec­trum of peo­ple in cre­at­ing expe­ri­ences. In this new world, the role of design­ers is to define the tools co-creators use to assem­ble expe­ri­ences for them­selves and oth­ers. These tools will increas­ingly take the form of design frame­works that define the mod­u­lar com­po­nents of famil­iar struc­tures such as social net­works, func­tional appli­ca­tions, col­lab­o­ra­tion plat­forms, per­son­al­ized dash­boards, and man­age­ment con­soles.

Why Frame­works?
Frame­works are the future for three rea­sons. First, every­one can cre­ate sophis­ti­cated infor­ma­tion struc­tures now, and design­ers no longer serve as a gate­way. Sec­ond, the def­i­n­i­tion of frame­works allows design­ers to con­tinue to pro­vide valu­able ser­vices and exper­tise in a cost effec­tive man­ner: It’s some­thing design­ers can sell in a com­mod­i­fied dig­i­tal econ­omy. Third, design­ers have an good com­bi­na­tion of human insight and archi­tec­ture design skills; this hybrid way of think­ing can serve as a dif­fer­en­tia­tor and strength.

One exam­ple of the sort of design frame­work infor­ma­tion archi­tects will cre­ate more of in the DIY future is the Por­tal Build­ing Blocks sys­tem described herein. Prov­i­den­tially, this design frame­work addresses many of the prob­lems inher­ent in the cur­rent archi­tec­tural schema for DIY self-assembled expe­ri­ences.

His­tory Repeats Itself: The Prob­lem With Por­tals
The rise and fall of the Web 1.0 por­tal form offers a use­ful his­tor­i­cal les­son for cre­ators of the new gen­er­a­tion of design frame­works under­ly­ing DIY self-assembled expe­ri­ences.
Despite early promises of util­ity and con­ve­nience, por­tals built with flat portlets could only grow by expand­ing hor­i­zon­tally. The result­ing expe­ri­ence of low-density infor­ma­tion archi­tec­tures was sim­i­lar to that of nav­i­gat­ing post­war sub­ur­ban sprawl. Like the rapid decline of many once-prosperous sub­urbs, the incon­ve­nience of these sprawl­ing col­lec­tions of portlets quickly over­whelmed the value of the con­tent they aggre­gated.
The com­mon prob­lem that doomed many very dif­fer­ent por­tals to the same fate was the com­plete lack of any pro­vi­sion for struc­ture, inter­ac­tion, or con­nec­tion between the self-contained portlets of the stan­dard por­tal design frame­work.
Look­ing ahead, the co-created expe­ri­ences of the DIY future will repeat this cycle of unhealthy growth and sprawl — think of all those apps clog­ging your iPhone’s home screen right now — unless we cre­ate design frame­works that effec­tively pro­vide for struc­ture, con­nec­tion, and inter­ac­tion.

The Build­ing Blocks — An Exam­ple Design Frame­work
The build­ing block frame­work is meant to serve as a robust archi­tec­tural foun­da­tion for the many kinds of tools and func­tion­al­ity — par­tic­i­pa­tory, social, col­lab­o­ra­tive — that sup­port the vision of two-way flows within and across the bound­aries of infor­ma­tion struc­tures. This means:

  • Allow for rapid growth and struc­tural change
  • Estab­lish a com­mon lan­guage for all co-creation perspectives
  • Encour­age con­struc­tion of scal­able, reusable structures
  • Cre­ate high-quality user experiences
  • Enable shar­ing of assets across boundaries
  • Enhance social dynam­ics, such as 2-way con­ver­sa­tion flows

The Build­ing Blocks frame­work defines two types of infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture com­po­nents in detail — build­ing blocks (or Con­tain­ers), and nav­i­ga­tion com­po­nents (or Con­nec­tors) — as well as the sup­port­ing rules and guide­lines that make it pos­si­ble to assem­ble com­plex user expe­ri­ence archi­tec­tures quickly and effec­tively.
The Con­tain­ers and Con­nec­tors specif­i­cally pro­vide for struc­ture, inter­ac­tion, and con­nec­tion at all lev­els of the infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ment; from the user expe­ri­ence — visual design, infor­ma­tion design, inter­ac­tion design, infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture — to func­tion­al­ity, meta­data, busi­ness rules, sys­tem archi­tec­ture, admin­is­tra­tive processes, and strate­gic gov­er­nance.
Case Study: Evo­lu­tion of an Enter­prise Por­tal Suite
The Build­ing Blocks began life as an inter­nal tool for low­er­ing costs and speed­ing design dur­ing the course of sus­tained por­tal work done for a For­tune 100 client. Over a span of ~24 months, the Build­ing Blocks pro­vided an effec­tive frame­work for the design, expan­sion, and even­tual inte­gra­tion of nearly a dozen dis­tinct por­tals.
The design frame­work evolved in response to changes in the audi­ences, struc­tures, and con­tents of por­tals con­structed for users in dif­fer­ent coun­tries, dif­fer­ent oper­at­ing units, and sev­eral orga­ni­za­tional lev­els.
The por­tal suite went through sev­eral stages of evo­lu­tion and growth:

  • Exper­i­men­ta­tion
  • Rapid expan­sion
  • Con­sol­i­da­tion & integration
  • Sta­bil­ity and continuity

Lessons In Design­ing Frame­works
Suc­cess­ful co-created expe­ri­ences — Flickr (com­mer­cial) and Wikipedia (non-commercial) — com­bine delib­er­ate top-down archi­tec­ture and design with emer­gent or bottom-up con­tri­bu­tion and par­tic­i­pa­tion in a new kind of struc­ture Kevin Kelly calls the “hybrid”. Frame­works sup­port hybrids!
Hope to see many of you in Amsterdam!

Comment » | Building Blocks, Dashboards & Portals, Information Architecture

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