The irony of the World Wide Web lies in its complexity. On the one hand, the innovation has radically altered the world as we know it, facilitating greater access to information and bringing us closer together on an unimaginable scale. On the other hand, we are needlessly forced to adapt to its rapid advancements, having to relearn operational skills with every new development. While the Internet serves as a tool to make our lives “better”, it has certainly made things more complicated.
As a matter of fact, it is not only the end-user that must constantly readjust to the modern world but even more so businesses and organizations. Given that a corporate website is already difficult to maintain, the advent of mobile technology has generated a plethora of communication platforms including apps, mobile versions of websites and social media. Since the tendency for most organizations (in particular multinationals, government agencies and public services) is to provide as much information as possible to the general public, content –be it online or mobile– becomes a double-edged sword: easily accessible yet thoroughly complex.
At the 14th edition of CreativeMornings Utrecht (31 May 2013), information architect Marrije Schaake is convinced that the best way to move forward is to take one step back. As co-owner of user experience design agency eend, she and her team are on a quest to (re)design a more user-friendly web and the by-products thereof. Equally important to the end result is the creative process itself, whereby problem solving is accomplished through the most basic of means.
In order for organizations to streamline their online information, websites and their mobile versions must be designed from a user point-of-view. Obvious though this may seem, the technical process is made even more complicated when a number of stakeholders are involved. As a result, designers and strategists must strike a balance between improving user interaction and fulfilling their client’s long list of demands. Nevertheless, what seems like a daunting task can easily be resolved with an open mind, a pair of scissors and a few sheets paper.
“Overcoming the fear of starting is very valuable,” Schaake says. “[You need to] jump in somewhere [and] just get started.” Her unorthodox method of website rehabilitation and mobile version creation is simple enough: print out the individual web pages (size: 200%), cut out all actionable content in each page (navigation, related content, social media plug-ins, etc.) and rearrange these pieces into a single, linear column which fits onto the screen of the smallest mobile phone. By doing so, only the necessary information is retained, forcing the designer to make clear content choices.
Before running the risk of acting on the client’s behalf, it is important to note that designers should not do it on their own. Instead, this approach directly involves the stakeholders themselves, collaborating as a group to achieve a better outcome. “As adults we are under the impression that we have to come up with the answers ourselves,” Schaake admits. “Your role as a designer is changing,” from pixel pusher to facilitator of collaborative discussions. “If you work in a group like that, you immediately see the value of cutting things into little pieces.” Each shred of content is taken individually and enforcing reasonable constraints eliminates the avoidance of making decisions.
“If you keep the atmosphere light and playful, you will end up with a lot of things,” Schaake claims. According to her, collaboration on this scale has several advantages: good work leads to good energy and both designers and stakeholders come to a shared understanding. Moreover, the team is committed to the necessary outcome, creating and designing meaningful content from a user point-of-view.
During the process, Schaake emphasizes that it is very critical to keep asking questions. “Asking ‘why’ is very important as you work with bits of paper. Why is this here? Why do we need this? Do the users need this?” Every bit of information that remains should only serve a logical purpose to the end user – a cardinal rule that stakeholders most often ignore. “Always keep in mind who we are trying to help. What are we trying to do?” reminds Schaake. The ultimate goal is to create content that is less intimidating and more user-friendly.
Drawing the method to a close, designers can now focus on presentation, streamlining the actual content and modifying the final layout. Testing is also an integral part of the procedure, considering the fact that one test is better than no test at all. “It’s such a challenge, moving from content to what you actually publish,” Schaake confesses. Still, designers should lend a helping hand and go through the process with their clients, to define a clear message and improve their site’s usability.
No matter how complex the task at hand, taking a few steps back may be the perfect recourse. With all the technological tools at our disposal, sometimes it is much wiser to write things down and talk things over. In the end, the age-old adage holds true: the best solution is often the simplest. Going backwards is definitely the way forward. ✌
☞ For more information on Marrije Schaake, eend, CreativeMornings Utrecht and CreativeMornings™, visit the websites listed below: