Sunday, January 23, 2011

What is wayfinding?

According to Wikipedia, wayfinding is "all of the ways in which people and animals orient themselves in physical space and navigate from place to place." defines it as, "signs, maps, and other graphic or audible methods used to convey location and directions to travelers."  An example of wayfinding could be "you-are-here" style maps in malls or amusement parks, augmented by color-coded trails to help you navigate.  If you have ever been to Disney World then you have seen great wayfinding in action.

One of my favorite examples was in the admin building of White Oak Semiconductor.  In this building, hallways were painted specific colors to indicate their purpose.  One color indicated that the hallway was used to transition from the outer corridors into the cubicle areas, while other colors indicated that the hallways led to stairwells to transition between floors.  White Oak also adopted a convention to locate restrooms in the hallways that transitioned from common areas or corridors to cubicle work areas.  These simple yet functional wayfinding techniques were easily adopted by the building inhabitants and eased navigation throughout the facility.

What's missing in both the definitions above is virtual wayfinding in the context of web site or application navigation.  To me, wayfinding is a key component (if not the component) driving usability engineering.  Unfortunately, wayfinding is missing in many web designs.  It really is as simple as adopting conventions that are intuitive for users to understand and retain.  Some wayfinding techniques are common to many successful applications (such as bread crumbs) while other techniques are specific to the application and users that the application serves.  However, without wayfinding, users not forced use your application will not return to your application or web site.  This leads to development waste and lost revenue.

To me, there are many ways to build wayfinding into your web site, but understanding your user base is the first stop.  As a designer or architect, you need to understand the whys of your application.  Using well-defined and universally accepted internet navigation standards should be your next stop.  Personalization is also a good idea.  The reason while web portals are so successful is that they allow users to customize their return experiences while utilizing standard techniques for navigation and information presentation.  Regardless of whatever techniques you decide on you should document those standards so that future changes to your web site also follow the same standards, until such a time as they become outdated and counter intuitive.

Wayfinding is meant to help answer questions for your customers/users while they use your web site to get what they need and give you what you want.  Some of these questions are:
1. Where am I, am I there yet?
2. Am I on the right site, in the right place, for what I need or want to do?
3. Where do I go next, or how do I get back to where I was?
4. Is this best choice for me?
5. Did I already see this?

While on your web site, users need to find what they want while also avoiding what they do not want.  If you do not engineer that ability into your web site then you are doomed to mediocre results.

Lead, or get out of the way!

Recently I ran into an ambiguity while planning a lesson for a course as part of an MBA curriculum.  I soon realized that I had more questions about this upcoming assignment than I did answers.  The assignment was to have my students create a 3-sigma control chart to chart the statistical samples/observations of processes, and make decisions based on the charted data.  I have taken descriptive stats, and I retained enough to handle teaching this topic.  However, the observations were stratified into multiple defect types and it looked like I might have to teach multivariate analysis.

Since this was the first time I taught this assignment, I needed more clarification on the direction of this topic.  The course had strict course guidelines and grading rubrics, but this particular assignment was unclear to me.  Since there was a course lead identified for the course, I contacted him.  I spent 30 minutes carefully crafting my question to him and my request for help.  I tried to imply as best as possible that I was not punting on this assignment, but I genuinely needed help.  I contacted him only after I spent considerable time attempting a conclusion on my own.

My email request to him was a couple of paragraphs.  His response was a one liner, " the syllabus."  I had read the syllabus.  I am not an idiot, and I know how busy professors can be.  I would not have contacted him if I didn't have to.

If he is the course lead, then he should lead, or give up the responsibility to others more capable of providing leadership.  Leading implies coaching and mentoring.  It implies directing, encouraging, and facilitating.  He had the directing part down.  A manager does that as well.  Maybe we should call him a course manager instead.

Anybody who knows me knows that I do not believe in trying to motivate others, even though many leadership texts espouse motivation as a key leadership skill.  Instead of motivation, I believe in encouraging and facilitating others who are already motivated.  I was motivated to develop the lesson plan and be able to teach the topic so that the my students would succeed in stats assignment.  I was not looking for a handout, just a little more guidance.  Since this was an MBA course, multivariate analysis was not completely out of the question.  He chose to direct me to a source that I had already exhausted, one that I had already indicated to him was not enough for me to understand the assignment.

It was another missed opportunity to lead, to encourage, to facilitate learning by a peer.  I immediately wondered if he interacted with his students in the same indifferent manner.  I am not long out of school and I know what it is like to have a professor that just does the minimum to get by.  The students suffer.  Sure, some take the initiative to bridge the gap on their own, but value is lost in the pedagogical exchange.  I felt bad for his students, but in a whimsical manner, I felt that his under achievement would make the rest of of look better.  I decided to teach the course as I interpreted the course guides and ask forgiveness when my choices diverged from the implied direction.

So, I submit, if you hold yourself up as a leader to others, then be one.  Be there when others need you, and understand the additional duties that are implied by the position and inferred by the ones you are charged to lead.  Or...just get out of way and let others do the job as it needs to be done.

Doing Work Through Serial Accidents

A couple of decades ago (yes decades) while I was serving our great country, I was told by a drill sergeant that he did "more work on accident than I did on purpose."  For the longest time, I took that to mean that he was a harder worker than I, he had a more defined direction than I, or he was at least more motivated.  At the time I thought it was a clever quip, and I have been known to use it myself from time to time, mostly when identifying laziness in others.

However, as an IT architect, I have overtime developed a new appreciation for this maxim.  It now describes to me the failure of poorly designed applications and poorly defined information architectures. As Wodtke and Govella wrote in Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web we need to ask, "Why Does Your Business Need You to Make a Web Site?"

Do we even ask that question?  I have been in many design sessions where everyone in the room thought they knew why the business (or customer) needed the web site.  However, the "why" is not a monolithic entity that is easily understood by one designer, or defined by the actions of one user.  To me there is actually a taxonomy of "web site whys", and these whys need organized in a cohesive manner.  Just as objects in OOAD,web site whys need a overarching cohesion (much like this blog entry, stay with me).

Business web sites provide process automation to internal and external customers.  Web site whys drive the processes that developers and designers implement in these web sites.  The collection of processes that are automated need to relate to their individual whys as well as the top why in the taxonomy.

Along with cohesion, automated processes need to be underpinned with intuitive user experience design and information architecture.  How a process is defined in a web site includes how easy the process is to complete in the web site.  This is where "wayfinding" comes in, but more often where web site design breaks down.  If the customer cannot find their way in your application or web site, then their success or accomplished work may be the product of serial accidents. Serial accidents provide little value and more often lead to lost productivity, and inevitably lost revenue.

Monday, January 3, 2011

More Teaching - Spring 2011 at VCU

It looks like I am scheduled to teach INFO 202 at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) for the Spring 2011 Semester.

Strayer University Provost Circle Again

I have been teaching for Strayer University for just over three years.  Last year they implemented the "Provost Circle" to recognize adjunct professors for their contributions and reward them for "commitment to excellence in instruction."  I was selected into the first Provost Circle for 2010.  For me it meant peer recognition, resume fodder, and additional incentive pay per each course I taught throughout the year.  Today I was notified that I was again selected to the Provost Circle, 2011.  This came as a complete surprise to me as I was unaware that they were continuing the program this year.