Even in Texas

by on May 11, 2006

I was in Dallas last week. It’s a big place – it has the second largest airport in the world in terms of square mileage. Even the city is so big it gives you a feeling that hardly anyone’s there. We went there to observe some user testing of a prototype I’d created, and to conduct some marathon meetings with the client. We discussed, amongst other things, the juicy subject of how we’re to engage with the build team, etc.

It struck me once again that this was not information architecture; I should be above having to dirty myself with discussions of annotating wireframes and how to communicate the design. But that was the jetlag talking. IA in my experience, and for better or worse, is 10% inspiration and 80% perspiration, or at least grunt work of some kind. Doing anything less means that while you may be able to come up with a fantastic design and a perfect rationale for it, it’ll stand a snowball’s chance in hell of being realised unless you’re prepared to see it through the nitty gritty.

Far too many IAs really accept this, and you hear people saying (only half in jest) that they don’t like looking at sites they’ve designed because things they specified won’t have been implemented. That strikes me as at least odd, if not actually a dereliction of duty. To lash together some precious ideas, even some originality, with masking tape and string before launching it rudderless into the frothing rapids of integration, and hope that it will come to be faithfully realised as a working system is pretty lame. Yet it seems to be the norm.

I tell myself that I’m at least going to try to stay on board my raft before it gets to the other side, even if I can’t keep some bits from floating away. They won’t dare to launch torpedos if they can see somebody on board, will they?

But enough of the rafting analogies!

One thing we did discover in the course of the conversations with the Texans was that, quite surprisingly I thought, the project sponsor was adamant she needed to be able to see all the content in the new page designs as soon as possible once the designs were signed off, and in any case certainly before the projected end date of the CMS integration. She would not be persuaded otherwise. This is because her boss, and many others responsible for signing off the content would refuse to do so on the strength of naked text. They needed to see the visual context. And who can blame them? For almost an hour she harangued her development team about it, but no solutions materialised. I resolved to see if we could suggest something once we got back to the UK.

After some brainstorming with the tech lead, we hatched a plan: produce MS Word DOT files for all the page templates and give these a modified version of the CSS we’re going to give the client’s dev team. Each page on the site is then given its own Word file, which looks as near as dammit to the real thing – only its in editable form using all of Word’s standard stuff (including styles). Stakeholders can then alter content as they see fit in these Word files and email, print or do whatever they want with them for the purposes of review and signogff. The CMS integration can meanwhile continue in the background until its ready to take the content from the Word files. At that point, via the Voodoo that is Sharepoint and other things, the content can be ripped from the files and plonked into the CMS.

That, at least, is the theory. We need to look into the practice a bit more, but with perhaps an extra week’s work diddling with the Word-specific CSS it should be easy, I’m told.

If so, then I’m cautiously exited. We’ll be getting lots of good stuff out of this approach: content meeting design nice and early and at a time when changes to either will have comparatively low impact. We’ll have a relaxed client, and I think we’ll stand a good chance of seeing what we designed actually fulfilled in the way we imagined.

Fingers crossed!

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