An IA designer, a UI designer and a UX designer walk into a bar. The bartender asks them what they do for a living. Twenty minutes later, he just smiles and pours them a drink, still not sure of what they said.
These three roles in digital product design get confused all the time. To add to the bewilderment, in most cases a single designer might wear the hats of all three, but that doesn’t mean all three aren’t important. Good IA, UI, and UX can mean the difference between a viral hit and a complete flop.
Information architecture: the bones
Amazeballs digital products all start with information architecture (IA), so let’s cover this first. Whether it’s a mobile app, a website or even a video, IA is where it begins. The Nielsen Norman Group defines information architecture as “the underlying organization, structure and nomenclature that define the relationships between a site’s content/functionality.” Clear as mud, right?
Basically, IA is the half-art-half-science process of deciding how the content of a digital project will be organized and labeled. Great IA comes from having a profound understanding of the project itself and its intended audience. An IA designer is tasked with organizing and labeling all of the content in a way that a customer can locate and access it easily.
Determining the structure or blueprint of the project occurs at the beginning, but the person in charge of IA is usually involved throughout the life of the project. That person often acts as a liaison between the coding tech nerds and the creative graphic design types. It’s the IA designer’s job to make sure the entire team understands the blueprint.
You’ve probably encountered great information architecture hundreds of times but never realized it. When IA is done well, it’s seamless. When it isn’t done well, customers notice. Have you ever spent way too long on a website looking for something simple like a direct phone line? (I’m talking to you, Netflix). Maybe you tried to answer a user question yourself by looking through site pages and tutorials, but you couldn’t find anything that pertained to your issue. Maybe you’ve even seen it before, but now you can’t get back to that page. That’s poor information architecture, and it’s frustrating.
User interface: the skin
IA is very much a behind-the-scenes discipline. The front line of any digital product is the user interface. This is the part of the machine that interacts with humanity, sort of like the terminators for Skynet but hopefully with less death and world dominance.
User interface (UI) design encompasses everything from the accessibility and usability of a product to its graphics and typography. Accessibility and usability may sound like we’re back in IA territory — and there is a touch of overlap — but they’re different. In UI, accessibility is about how readable and understandable the screens are. Usability encompasses things like finding the next button to click.
Good UI is all about function and beauty. Customers need to be able to accomplish tasks easily and intuitively. They don’t want to read pages of instructions – or any instructions, really. They want to be able to figure it out on their own. Aesthetics are secondary to this, but they’re still of vital importance. A beautifully designed site or software is a joy to use, but only if the customer can figure out how to use it.
User experience: the heart
The end goal of great IA and UI design is the overall user experience, or UX, which is all about the emotion that people feel while using the product and, by extension, how they feel about the company.
Darren Northcott at UX booth defines it best. “Essentially, UX designers work to make things more profound, targeting their users on an emotional level.” The emotion that a UX designer strives to create depends on the product, service, or goal. For example, a website that seeks donations for orphans in Afghanistan will aim for a starkly different emotion than, say, the next Angry Birds app.
User experience can have a profound impact on an overall product. Great user experience is why people stand in line for hours to buy the newest iPhone or to see the latest “Star Wars” installment. It’s not really about the tiny differences in screen size and weight between models, or that J. J. Abrams made a crossguard lightsaber. That lightsaber was impressive, though.
The reason that both of these products inspired such adulation is that the designers cashed in on previous products’ user experience. People remember how they felt while holding and using their last iPhone, just as they remember all of the great times they had while watching “Star Wars.” In short, it’s the feeling that stuck with them and made them loyal to the franchise. That's what awesome UX is.
So there you have it. Information architecture, user interface and user experience are three separate parts of an overall product, even though there is some overlap. Great designers understand how all three parts work together and how to use them to create digital products that reap high downloads and impact the world.