The user experience iceberg

I am currently working on a redesign project. A big one. I’m part of a team (a working group, in fact) made up mostly of web designers, drawn from across the EBI. Our work covers a whole range of UX design activities, and it needs to fit in with the work being done by other working groups involved in the redesign project. I’m there to coordinate that work, and to help our working group interact with others that are part of the same project.

Iceberg (by Slaunger on Flickr)

Initially, we were asked to deal with visual design, but obviously, that is just the tip of the UX design iceberg. In fact, we we need to start deep down below the surface, with the content, then we can work out how all of that content is structured. We also need to work on layout of pages and the visual design of aesthetics of what you can see at the surface. Quite a bit to be getting on with.

The elements of user experience

The UXers amongst you might recognise that this stack that we’re dealing with is nothing new. More than a decade ago, Jesse James Garrett authored “The Elements of User Experience“, in which he proposed a number of layers that make up what we think of as user experience design:

Jesse James Garrett's elements of user experience

It’s a book I dip in and out of frequently – there is so much good sense in it! With that in mind, I’ll give an overview of how this working group will approach this particular iceberg.


Something we are adamant about as a group is that we should start dealing with the content first, not least because this is a big redesign of a static content (i.e. lots of static HTML pages) that will at some point be migrated to a CMS.

What have we got? What is important to our users? Who is responsible for it? Is it out of date? What content should we be promoting? Before we can do anything, we need to answer those and other questions.


Once we have got our head around that, we will look at the existing structure of the site; the information architecture. We know that there are lots of pieces of content that just aren’t where our users expect to find them; there are lots of cases where the labelling leaves a lot to be desired; the links between one section and another sometimes aren’t clear, or have been ignored for some reason.

So we will need to work on a new information architecture, and test that as it is being developed.

Layout and Aesthetics

At some point, we will work on layout, and the “look & feel” of individual pages. Of course, we already have ideas about this, and I’ve been working with some colleagues to begin sketching out how we might make improvements.

We will focus our design activity on key “epicentre” pages, and the ones our users often land on from outside. This involves producing wireframes and mockups for various page types, as well as working on typography, icons and colours.

We can work on the “mico information architecture” of pages; something along the lines of what Leisa Reichelt has dubbed “strategic wireframing“. We hope to produce something robust and responsive; something that can be adapted to future changes in requirements, and as we go along, we will continue to work with developers, our managers (the stakeholders!) and our users.

Refinement – adapting to change

UX design layers - Content, Structure, Layout, Aesthetics

All of this is going to take quite a while, I expect, and that’s before we look at reproducing the content in Drupal, our chosen CMS. Phew!

Actually, I’m hoping that this will be more like the start of a long-term website refinement project, and produce a change in the way that we think about the website. An important thing that we are trying to achieve is “cross-brand” consistency, to borrow a marketing term, for the various areas of the EBI website. This is an on-going activity.

I hope that much of the work we do now will set the scene for ongoing work in the future. For example, we need to regularly review content, and make sure that what we provide is not out-of-date; we should also regularly mine our analytics data for user activity information, since that tells us how users are navigating around the website and what they are searching for, amongst other things.

All of this can be used to tweak content, and make sure that what we offer is consistently useful and usable. Although the site might not change superficially, what it provides will be refined, honed and adapted to the needs of its users.


2 thoughts on “The user experience iceberg

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