Is UX just another name for IA?

The squillion dollar dilemma… A lot of people seem to be talking about user experience (UX) these days. User experience is a very blurry concept. Consequently, many people use the term incorrectly. However, UX depends not only on how something is designed, but on lots of other aspects. It’s a very common misconception that we’re just a new breed of Information Architects – which to some degree we are – if it is equal to information architecture (IA): site maps, wireframes and all that it narrows UX to something less than what it really is.

We don’t JUST do I.A because it’s too subjective. Putting the user at the heart of what we do is really the best way to get near-perfect results. The general consensus is that user experience is the umbrella term that encompasses a wide array of interface-related fields (a term more-or-less established as “Human-Computer Interaction” in academia).

To me, user experience (the tasks, not just the term) is mostly about the qualitative research inputs that inform I.A, I.D and Visual Design. It tells us about all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with a company, its services, and its products. If a website is:

  • 10% Look – visuals, layout, colors, etc.
  • 30% Feel – menus, buttons, controls, etc.
  • 60% User Task Goals – workflow, navigation, objects and relationships, etc.

Then UX as a fuzzy piece of the digital industry is about helping to define the 60% (you might argue that I.A is about defining the 30%). Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.

UX is NOT…

…user interface design
…a step in the process
…about technology
…just about usability
…just about the user
…the role of one person or department
…a single discipline
…a choice

UX is the sum total of lots of parts which helps inform any design work from a purely user-centred, objective point of view.

The 5 principals of UX

  • Interacting with a product or service should feel like a good conversation
  • Before you make something, learn about the people who will use it
  • People like and need different things
  • The user is not you, so don’t design for yourself
  • Find out what the user really wants or needs (user research).

So what EXACTLY does UX encompass for me as a practitioner (this is what I sell to our clients as a department within an agency):


  • Swot review
  • Stakeholder interviews
  • Literature reviews
  • Heuristic reviews
  • Secondary research

There are 7 types of interaction in todays digital world and UX helps us and clients define what approach to take with a project & ultimately makes sure money is spent in the right areas:

  1. Brand presence (internal & external)
  2. Marketing campaign
  3. Content source
  4. Task-based application
  5. E-commerce and e-learning
  6. Social networking applications
  7. Mobile & on-the-move interaction (urban digital)

Competitive Analysis

  • Identify competitors
  • Identify comparators
  • Auditing
  • Evaluation of structure, segments, ease of use, quality of content, unique features
Competitor analysis has several important roles in strategic planning:
  • To help management understand their competitive advantages/disadvantages relative to competitors
  • To generate understanding of competitors’ past, present (and most importantly) future strategies
  • To provide an informed basis to develop strategies to achieve competitive advantage in the future
  • To help forecast the returns that may be made from future investments (e.g. how will competitors respond to a new product or pricing strategy?

I would define competitor benchmarking as the following:

  • Who are our competitors?
  • What threats do they pose?
  • What is the profile of our competitors?
  • What are the objectives of our competitors?
  • What strategies are our competitors pursuing and how successful are these strategies?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of our competitors?
  • How are our competitors likely to respond to any changes to the way we do business?

User Research

  • Ethnographic research
  • Surveys
  • Contextual inquiry
  • Diaries and portraits
  • Intercept interviews

Information Architecture

  • Content inventory
  • Content modeling
  • Card sorting
  • Taxonomies
  • User journey mapping
  • Site blueprints (high and low fidelity)


  • Low fidelity interaction design
  • Appearance definition

It’s simple really… design software and websites that people don’t hate… that’s what we all want to do:

“In a world where data bits flow abundantly, our minds have developed filters to sift through the overflow of useless and badly designed information. While design must appeal to our sense of aesthetic, it must not stand in the way of delivery, cause complications or introduce stumbling blocks. Rather, the presence of design should simplify and facilitate our everyday life, enable us to accomplish our tasks more effectively and help us enjoy them along the way.”

It’s important to understand that what UX achieves is the ability to take the Business Needs and the User Needs and create a set of simple principals and guidelines that designers can use to ensure they don’t need to go back and re-do work multiple times. It’s cost effective business analysis built on qualitative research, pure and simple. Love us or hate us we’re still part of the design process.

Usability Testing

  • Think aloud
  • Task based testing
  • Paper prototype
  • Remote testing

From a usability point of view you should be assessing and measuring:

  1. Success Rates
  2. Time On Task – How productive is your website?
  3. Are your visitors successfully completing what they came to do?
  4. Was their experience efficient?
  5. Comments & Suggestions – What do users say about your website?
  6. What do they suggest for you to improve the overall experience?
  7. Net Promoter Score – After using your site, would users recommend you to friends or colleagues?
  8. Click Heat-maps – Where do users actually click while trying to search for something?
  9. Do they recognise links easily and intuitively?
  10. Are users finding the content they are looking for based on the current categorisation you are offering on your site?

…and the list goes on really… but that’s not a list of I.A tasks is it? That’s a list of usability objectives… so already you can see how UX differs from just straight up I.A. The scope of UX is directed at affecting “all aspects of the user’s interaction with the product: how it is perceived, learned, and used.“


  • Paper
  • HTML
  • Axure
  • Swipr
  • Intuitect
  • iRise
  • etc…

There are 5 metrics in usability and prototyping shows us if they work for a project:

  1. Learnability
  2. Efficiency
  3. Memorability
  4. Errors (reducing them!)
  5. Satisfaction


  • Wireframes
  • Task flows
  • Functional Specifications
  • Personas
  • Scenarios
  • Storyboards
  • etc…

Business needs + user needs = Design Principals

Business success is always defined by the quality of the overall customer experience. Websites that are hard to use frustrate customers, forfeit revenue and erode brands. Good design is the most important way to differentiate ourselves from our competitors.

In some cases the apparent cost of involving User Experience early and throughout a product-development process becomes a series of hidden costs, resulting from project delays, incomplete requirements, and less than optimal products that result in higher error rates and reduced efficiency for users.

Think of UX not as the final painted version of a masterpiece, but more the underlying principals that create the masterpiece. Good design is not decorative, good design is problem solving.

What we see is visual design, but what we don’t see behind any good design is:

  • Skeleton (Interface design, navigation design, information design)
  • Structure (information design, information architecture)
  • Scope (functional specs, content requirements)
  • Strategy (user needs, site objectives)

All sounds quite Utopian doesn’t it? That’s because as a principal weaved into our industry it’s pretty embryonic. We’ve only been out of the closet for a couple of years (the modern, ubiquitous internet is still less than 10 years old, so it’s not as bad as all that) and its going to take agencies and clients a while to get out of the mindset of UX being just IA. Try thinking of it a different way:

  • Information architecture defines the structure of information.
  • Interaction design enables people to manipulate and contribute to that information.
  • Visual design communicates these possibilities to people and creates affinity to them (desirability).

To summarise in a way that big-dogs might understand

Struggling to get the accounts teams & directors of your agency to buy into a UX approach to digital business… try this argument, they’ll probably sit up and take a bit more notice:

If information architecture has a value to your agency by charging you out at a daily rate with a mark-up… and user-experience as a discipline (as defined in this article) is actually made-up of 7 different areas, I.A being just one of them, then as an agency you can make 7 times more money from UX than you can from I.A. Simples.

Let’s finish with something pretty:


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