Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Websites as Socially-Constructed Space

An interesting article today on "A List Apart," on how cartography can inform website information design:

The conception of web designer as information architect depends upon a vision of cyberspace not unlike the vision of physical space held by René Descartes (1596-1650). To him, and to most of Western civilization for hundreds of years, space was a void, a preexisting grid which remains empty until points are identified and paths plotted upon it. (Think of the digital plains depicted in the movie Tron.)

In the 1970s, however, Henri Lefebvre’s work The Production of Space turned this view on its head, arguing that space is produced through the enactment of social relations. Space, according to Lefebvre, is created by the flows and movements of relational networks—such as capital, power, and information—in, across, and through a given physical area. A building, in Lefebvre’s reading, is a map of the interactions of the people who inhabit it; an architect is not a builder in an otherwise empty wilderness, but an observer, chronicler, and shaper of the networks that exist around her—in short, a map maker. Websites informed by a Lefebvrian conception of cyberspace rather than a Cartesian one would provide truly user-centered design, by recognizing that it is the users themselves whose actions produce the website; the web designer merely facilitates that creation.
The author -- Aaron Rester -- uses this insight to draw a very practical conclusion for website design, both at initial launch and during the period of ongoing maintenance:
Instead of imposing an architecture upon users from above, we should use the flow of their interactions with the site and with each other to determine the form of this memory map.
It's a good point. If we take our audience seriously, we need to closely observe not just what information they are accessing and sharing, but the paths they are taking in doing so. That information should then feed back into the site's relaunch or redesign, in order to shorten paths and empower users by making their site actions quicker and more effective.

An example: a site I recently worked on has, as one of its primary missions, the goal of assisting visitors with problems they've encountered in using the company's product. The site includes both user forums and an FAQ section that contains how-to content. From the beginning we were aware of a possible split in our audience into two similar streams: those who come to our site to look for troubleshooting documents, and those who head to the forums to ask other people for help. Inspired by the article above, I now see possibilities for uniting those streams. Why not build the FAQ page so it's easy to get from there to highly-rated forum posts? Why not build out the forums so that FAQ content is linked persistently somewhere on the page? How about setting up the FAQ content along a wiki model, so that users can expand it and improve it?

Of course, these ideas are based on my presuppositions about the way visitors will travel through the site, and that's presumptuous of me. To fully embrace the cartography model, you would have to look at actual traffic and bring site analytics to bear. Once the site is launched and people are coming online with their questions, where do they go first? Once they come into contact with actionable information, what do they do with it and where do they go? Are there long paths that can become short, or short paths that miss important steps?

Then there's the brave new world: actually allowing users to recreate your site architecture. In a sense, wikis already allow this, in that visitors can create any link they want pretty much anywhere they want. And you also get a small measure of this feature in automated widgets that note the most popular links (and thereby make them more popular still). But what would a site look like, and how would it have to operate, if its information architecture were truly fluid?