Search icon Looking for something?

Five Lessons Learned from our Information Architecture Project
2009, Q2 (July 21, 2009)
By Elaine Abousalh, Penny Ferry-Leeper, and Kristie J. Phillips, Carolina Chapter Members

Screenshot of Home Page
Screenshot of Home Page

We met last August at the Bishop's House on Duke University's East Campus. It was the first evening class of the Technical Communication Professional Certificate offered by Duke University's Continuing Studies Program. The program is a ten-month overview of technical communication and covers topics such as writing and editing, outlines and content plans, information architecture, tools, and project management. The final requirement is a capstone project where students put into practice everything they learn during the program.

Our first major class project, "Study Skills for Adult Learners", was a website with practical advice on how to develop and maintain good study habits, with a focus on adult learners. We started it as an outline and content plan in the Technical Writing Workshop, and later restructured the material and put it in website format for the Information Architecture class. Developing this project gave us a chance to practice the principles of information architecture we were learning in class and taught us about the importance of having a good system for circulating information when working in a writing team.

Here are the top five lessons we learned by completing this project:

Lesson 1: It's all about the audience

Our original content plan focused on study skills for adults going back to school. Initially, we tried to make our manuscript directly into a website, but it didn't quite look or feel right. So, we re-examined our outline and our target audience. We realized that most of the advice we provided could be useful not only to adults returning to school but also to adults trying to learn in a variety of situations: doing training for work, taking online classes, or studying on their own. We decided to broaden our audience and removed most of the references to returning to school. Redefining our audience drove a reorganization of the website.

Lesson 2: Chunk and re-chunk

In the first version of our project, we had organized our content into three thematic areas: preparing to return to school, finding the confidence to do it, and managing your student life. But once we redefined our target audience, this organization didn't make sense anymore. So we got rid of the major headings and moved up subheadings to become the major topics. We ended up using almost all of our original content, but we reorganized and re-chunked it into seven main links on our navigational menu. The result was a website that felt more balanced and focused on our broader audience.
Developing this project gave us a chance to practice the principles of information architecture we were learning in class and taught us about the importance of having a good system for circulating information when working in a writing team.

Lesson 3: Set your standards and follow them

Standards are essential, and following them consistently is just as essential. As new technical writers, we didn't realize how much work a complete standards guide can be. For example, words such as website can be spelled in different ways. Is it website, web site, or Web site? Different spellings of the same word can confuse readers and distract them from the content. Where questions like this arose, we chose to deviate from guides such as the Chicago Manual of Style and follow most prevalent usage — so for us, website it is!

Lesson 4: E-mail can only get you so far

We relied heavily on e-mail to circulate information about our project. The reason for this was mainly practical — we all live apart and it was not easy to schedule meetings as often as we would have liked. However, when it came time to brainstorm ideas, we found out that nothing can substitute for face-to-face interaction. E-mail is too sluggish when you need to bounce ideas off each other or build upon someone else's thoughts. What our experience taught us is that it's better to stick with face-to-face meetings in the conceptualizing stages of a project. E-mail, on the other hand, is an information exchange tool better suited to the later stages of a project.

Lesson 5: Name your files consistently

With all the file exchange going on through e-mail, keeping track of different file versions was an organizational challenge. We found that each of us named the updated files for our documents differently and this caused considerable confusion. Sometimes we added the date to the file name, sometimes our initials, and sometimes the number of the update. We learned that a team needs to agree on a system for naming updated files before the project starts. This is an important step for an efficient flow of information.

Our Conclusion: The process matters

We learned how to develop and complete a project by developing and completing a project. We acquired a better understanding of how the process happens and what it requires. And we were able to apply these lessons when we tackled our capstone project, a guide on how to use wikis for novice users. But that's the subject of another story...

Elaine can be reached at elaine dot abousalh at gmail dot com.
Kristie can be reached at kphilli44 at yahoo dot com.
Penny can be reached at pennyferryleeper at gmail dot com. End of article.

More articles like this...
Comments powered by Disqus.