Core Activities of Digital Experience Architecture

February 28, 2018

In a digital era of constant change, teams will find themselves playing “catch up” with user behavior and technology trends. However, as human behaviors evolve and trends come and go, there are four digital experience architecture activities that are here to stay.

Rise of the User Interface and Experience

Due to the economies of scale and the need to manage corporate risk, most enterprise businesses tend to own the core aspects of their technology infrastructure. As this happens, these organizations have little choice when it comes to operating like a technology company—even when they are clearly not. And now, with the focus on customers’ digital experiences, it’s become essential for technology strategies to consider the business impact of digital user interfaces.

In the last two decades, the practice of user experience design has helped to demonstrate how interface interactions can be improved by anticipating a broader range of human factors and the impact on a user’s personal experience. Today, user interfaces are entrusted to act as mediators in the relationships that we have with customers and employees; they serve as vital channels for generating billions in online revenue; and they are essential to countless hours of business-operational tasks.

Corporations have traditionally outsourced the strategy and design of their user interfaces to technology consultants or digital agencies. But, that will change. Since human-digital engagement is becoming more ubiquitous by the day, maturing organizations will have to adopt solid models for effectively owning their expansive digital ecosystems that serve thousands of employees and possibly millions of customers. If not, they stand the risk of becoming stifled in their response to the challenges of digital evolution that is redefining the way companies do business.

Core Activities of Digital Experience Architecture

Together, the design of a user interface (UI) and its underlying technology infrastructure contribute to users’ experiences. As organizations mature and embrace a broader view of digital transformation, this perspective will be essential to managing growth and complexity.

The sooner teams adopt a model for digital experience architecture the better off they will be to handle scale and complexity. My model for digital experience architecture is comprised of four core activities.

  • Context Analysis
  • RTS (Research, Testing & Analytics)
  • Design Architecture
  • Infrastructure Architecture

These activities serve as “guide rails” for discussing a wide range of tasks that converge to address architecturedesign, software engineering, and maintenance. The following is a brief description of these four activities.

Activity: Context Analysis

Context analysis is a practice of understanding the primary activities that set the natural constraints, dependencies, and scope of an intended interactive solution. Dependencies become more extensive the larger an organization becomes.

For example, in startup organizations or programs (within a larg organization), the objectives and constraints can be as simple as getting a working product to market as a way to get feedback and test value assumptions. Eventually, with continued validation, the product will have to align with revenue expectations or other measurable business expectations. More complex digital engagement can create relationships that extend into all aspects of a business. As this happens, it’s important to stay abreast of these relationships with /sound architectural modeling.

Information architects, experience architects and systems architects reliable critical thinkers that help teams to model the context of business, user, and technology infrastructure respectively.

Activity: Research, Testing & Analytics (RTA)

A foundation to architecture and user-centered design is the ability to understand the signals that are emitted from user activities and interpret such signals to make improvements to strategy and execution. Thus, research, testing, and analytics are key inputs for effectively improving the design benefit of a digital experience architecture. Each offers a unique value proposition.

  1. Research – Research is an activity that is either primary or secondary studies human behavior. They generate qualitative observations and interviews with users, customers, and owners of a system.
  2. Testing – Testing requires architects, designers, and other contributors to validate their implementations through the actual use of prototypes and interfaces that may be in production.
  3. Analytics – Analytics encompasses the measurement of user behaviors in the use of a system. Analytics reveals the use of interface objects and technical resources.While the output is purely data based, user intent can be inferred or hypothesized by observing patterns generated by thousands to millions of users. Such analysis is unfeasible for most primary research methods. Further, real-time analytics can be leveraged by algorithms and predictive models to prompt immediate interface feedback.

Activity: Design Architecture

Design architecture is focused on human-digital engagement as an enabler to business objectives.

Design architecture represents the strategy and implementation for complex digital user interface environments. The keyword is “environment.” For example, design architecture distinguishes itself from design thinking and design with the primary act to “see the forest from the trees” so that a target system can be rationalized and sustained.

As interfaces evolve into complex interactions that integrate with even larger information environments, understanding how “the forest” of digital interactions, owner objectives, and targeted user experiences are interconnected becomes essential in order to affect change on any part of that system.

Design architecture activities ensure digital user interfaces are grounded with coherent conceptual structures and accountable alignment with business needs and expectations. Activities within design architecture are:

  • User Experience Planning
  • Information Architecture
  • Visual Design
  • User Interface Design
  • Content Publishing & Strategy

At scale, each discipline requires specialization and a comprehensive architecture that contribute to the enterprise’s design architecture. It’s important to note that design architecture activities have been maturing in the last two decades within the practice of user experience design. Seasoned practitioners that possess architecture, design, technology, and business saavy make for ideal leaders of design architecture.

Activity: Infrastructure Architecture

Infrastructure architecture is focused on technology enablement through the use computer science.

Infrastructure architecture comprises software engineering and physical information systems, and includes the activities to ensure effective deployment. Infrastructure architecture is the most tangible aspect of a digital experience architecture. It’s the code, software, transmission, physical servers, and devices.  If there is no infrastructure, it doesn’t exist! Major activities of infrastructure architecture are:

  • Front-end Code
  • Database Design
  • Back-end Software
  • Hardware

At scale, each discipline requires specialization and a comprehensive architecture that contribute to the enterprise infrastructure architecture. It’s important to note that infrastructure architecture activities are rooted in the more comprehensive practice of enterprise architecture.

An Evolving Practice

Digital experience architecture and its core activities establish a new approach to best connect business goals with the factors of human-digital engagement. As the most complex digital environments still remain ahead, the core activities of digital experience architecture will be important to how we collaborate and produce value in complex digital landscapes.

The Architecture Risk Principle

February 28, 2018

If you are a digital product manager, UX architect, or design architect, it’s important for you to consider what I call the architecture risk principle (ARP). ARP correlates to a widely known statistical probability, called the Pareto principle. The Pareto principle, commonly referred to as the 80–20 rule, states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Likewise, the architecture risk principle asserts that architecture activities for any given project represents 20% of the effort, but effects roughly 80% of the subsequent collaborative efforts for design execution.

This means that sound digital architecture activities can mitigate up to 80% of a project’s risk—leaving design resources responsible for the remaining 20%.



Why Complex Projects Struggle or Fail at Execution

Design activities must naturally confront certain risks that architecture activities are unable to mitigate. Hence, architecture oversight must give way to design managers who coordinate domain-specific processes and their respective practitioners as they bear the remaining 20% of a project’s total risk.

However, when teams forego formal architecture activities and lead with iterative design execution, the responsibility of risk that’s placed on design managers and their staff (including software developers) increase by 400%; the crushing weight of this assumed responsibility is why projects fail.

This is a drastic and unrealistic transfer of responsibility that usually goes unacknowledged. The “canary in the coal mine” for a project often as tense exchange between team members to gain clarity and direction while simultaneously attempting to articulate a solution under fixed time constraints. Consequently, a significant portion of team resources are redirected to activities and documentation that fall into the realm of architecture.

“…the responsibility of risk that’s placed on managers, designers, and developers actually increases by 400%; the crushing weight of this assumed responsibility is why projects fail.”

When formal architecture activities take a back seat to design and engineering activities, talented managers, designers and software engineers will instinctively close essential architectural gaps while others go unresolved. As a result, the architectural gaps that are addressed during the design process create a patchwork-like architecture and likely fall short of being a reliable foundation for future complexity and scale.

Common Warning Signs of Architectural Gaps

  • An architecture lead is not assigned
  • No one has been assigned the responsibility to model the UI structure (information architecture)
  • Team members find it difficult to identify firm objectives
  • Ambiguous scope creates more questions than answers for designers and developers
  • Lack of UI- and UX-specific key performance measures
  • Absence of a shared vocabulary

Architecture Promotes Clarity

Architecture is an act of establishing a frame of reference for which owners, designers and technology teams collaborate to render an optimum solution. Translating owner intent and documenting a synthesized rationale across a wide range of factors are essential skills of a design architect.

Architects maintain the systemic view of understanding to effectively guide design teams and keep them on task. They are the most senior advocate of design and planning.

While hiring a design architect is not required on every project, organizations must do a better job at determining when to employ them. When senior UX designers assume an architecture role—which will happen more often that not— it’s important for them to acknowledge their assumption of this extended responsibility. In this way, when the team is faced with a future environment that warrants an exclusive architecture resource, the team and owner will be familiar with the value of the role.

What is a Design Architect?

If the “design architect” sounds like a new term to you, it’s because I’m proposing it here:

A design architect is a seasoned facilitator of experience strategy, design and management of complex application user interface environments. They are relied upon to help rationalize the phases of user engagement and expertly promote scope alignment in preparation for architecture, design, and engineering activities.

I’ll go into further detail about the design architect in another post. For now, let’s just review some obvious candidates for the position.

  • Senior Information Architects are a natural fit as design architect because they have the requisite skills for evaluating owner objects and modeling the domain and constraints that inform design and engineering. Their attention to detail, clarity, and actionable documentation are precursors to their keen ability to collaboration. If they do not have the creative and/or operational prowess to facilitate design, they are highly effective at partnering with design and product leads to ensure solid design execution.
  • Senior User Experience Strategist and UX Architects with extensive knowledge in leading teams are ideal prospects for the design architect role. These practitioners bring a strong focus on users, but understand how to balance their empathy for users with pragmatic business objectives. They consult with information architects and researchers to pitch vision and meaningful engagement, and are comfortable with immersing clients and teams in collaborative workshops to generate alignment.

Overall, the design architect is not the champion for the users; they are the champion of the business (owner) and the user. Striking a sustainable and equitable balance between the two is the strategic responsibility of the design architect.

A design architect is a seasoned facilitator of experience strategy, design and management of complex application user interface environments.

In Summary

The cost of poor architecture is real: Teams lose valuable time iterating over ambiguity, design and engineering contributors become over extended, and features and entire products meet their untimely demise due to major gaps in systemic thinking.

However, when architectural discipline is incorporated into the process of designing application user interfaces, organizations will improve time-to-market cycles, bring greater focus to team contributors, and see their systems of human digital experience deliver sustainable user and business value.



An Information Architecture Value Chain

Information architecture is widely associated with navigation and content organization. However, information architecture’s value extends well into other critical aspects of digital environments, products, and services. 

When Explaining IA, Consider Your Audience

When attempting to position the value of information architecture, you may be lucky enough to have to explain this to only a single individual. If you’re not so lucky, your audience might span a team of business stakeholders, product managers, UX strategists and designers, a technology group, or a disparate UX team of interaction designers, visual designers, and developers.

As a result, never go into a meeting armed with only a definition of information architecture and expect everyone to drink your Kool-Aid. With multiple perspectives in the room, defining something like information architecture is always a matter of debate. Instead, approach your audience with more concrete, actionable concepts by explaining the value of information architecture to the final interface design and to the other professionals who are involved with a project. This will move the conversation forward in a more productive manner by focusing it on the gaps that the practice of information architecture fills.

Finally, to prepare your value proposition for the appropriate audience, make sure that you know who will be present. Of course, since you never really know who may actually show up to a meeting, it’s always best to plan for a full house, with all viewpoints represented. When you embrace the information architecture value chain, your message has a better chance of resonating with everyone in the room. Now, we’re ready to proceed.

For any Web user-interface design project, you can group the interests of the entire team into the following four segments of an information architecture value chain:

  • strategy value
  • design value
  • user value
  • technology value

Information architecture must address each of these segments with a solid value proposition. I’ll summarize the IA value propositions and list of what I describe as key areas of interest that you can use to support each claim. I will not review each area in this post. I would encourage you to explore them on your own.

The Strategic Value of IA

Proposition: Information architecture contributes systems thinking that improves synthesis, strategic alignment, and solutions framing.

As Figure 1 suggests, a successful IA strategy fosters alignment across many business-related concerns, which helps establish solid intention.

Figure 1—Alignment on intent

Alignment on intent

Business owners, product managers, and design strategists think in terms of the big picture. Business owners obsess over the budget, objectives, and key performance indicators. Strategists wax poetic over North-Star visions that provide guidance to the design and development teams. Similarly, sound information architecture activities establish coherent objectives and bring clarity to IA goals that naturally contribute to the overall product or project strategy.

Key areas of interest:

  • planning
  • performance
  • context mapping
  • visioning
  • synthesis
  • understanding

The Value of IA to UI Design

Proposition: Information architecture improves the relevance of and expectations for information by probing issues about content, context, and users.

As Figure 2 implies, we can achieve greater design value when meaning and relevance are apparent to users. Users may experience a user-interface design not only through a device, but also through an interplay between physical and digital spaces.

Figure 2—Delivering meaning and relevance across contexts

Delivering meaning and relevance across contexts

A Web user-interface design is the most tangible artifact to which every design, communications, and development discipline on a team must contribute. This design includes content strategy and authoring for all types of media, information architecture, visual interface design, interaction design, and front-end development. Each discipline or specialized function contributes to the experience of the user interface.

Information architecture contributes by probing to learn about and justifying why, what, how much, and when to deliver information to a Web user interface, with targeted meaning and relevance that resonates with users. Whether the Web user interface is static, responsive to various presentation modes, or traverses the boundaries of physical and digital space, information architecture is invaluable in understanding the nature of the appropriate information interactions.

Key areas of interest:

  • content modeling
  • information interactions
  • sense making
  • place making
  • information environments
  • experiences

The Value of IA to Users

Proposition: Information architecture simplifies how people navigate and use information that connects to the Web.

As I’ve highlighted in Figure 3, we realize value for users when wayfinding techniques and logical information connections improve a user interface’s usability.

Figure 3—Wayfinding, connections, and ease of use

Wayfinding, connections, and ease of use

Everyone involved in the design lifecycle for a Web user interface must contribute to user value, because user value is product value, and product value is business value. Assuming that user and business value are aligned, there should be nothing in the design lifecycle that doesn’tcontribute to user value.

The value of information architecture to the user has been clear for nearly two decades. By simplifying how people navigate and use information in complex Web environments, information architecture gives users the chance to achieve their tasks and goals with greater precision. Businesses typically associate information retrieval, or search; labeling; and the formal organization of content with the interests of information architecture. However, the methods for enabling their flexible use and maintaining a coherent, manageable Web structure represent additional value that also rests within the domain of information architecture.

Key areas of interest:

  • navigation
  • organization
  • metadata
  • Web structure
  • segmentation
  • information

The Value of IA to Data Modeling

Proposition: Information architecture improves the resilience of database structures through sound conceptual modeling.

As Figure 4 shows, by endowing data with intrinsic value, information architecture assists in the planning of data architectures that are becoming larger and more complex.

Figure 4—Transforming information into meaningful data

Transforming information into meaningful data

Nothing on the Web happens without the magic of information technology. Period. Everything that we do in information architecture and UX design resides within the realm of abstraction, so our value is realized only when developers and other computer-science experts implement technology solutions in software, systems, and physical devices. The expression “garbage in, garbage out” typically refers to the quality of data. However, it has another meaning in the area of database modeling. A bad data model will produce a failed physical database structure.

Thus, because Web user interfaces rely on database-driven content management systems, the underlying database models that they leverage require the sound conceptual and ontological modeling that strategic IA documentation delivers. This is a more advanced information architecture activity that provides crucial input for database designers who must design logical and physical data models and engineer sustainable data architectures. As the information domains that we design increase in complexity, these will be the kinds of conversations that we must be prepared to have to demonstrate the value of information architecture.

Key areas of interest:

  • concept modeling
  • ontology
  • semantics
  • communication
  • information modeling
  • information theory

Whether you perform information architecture tasks as a UX designer or an IA professional, be sure that you consistently communicate the value of information architecture. This is all of our responsibility to the field of information architecture.

Further, senior-level proficiency in many of the areas of interest I’ve listed in this column can take several years to acquire. So, don’t be intimidated by the breadth of information architecture. Just keep learning. The most practical path to growing your IA skills is to start at the top of each list of areas of interest and work your way down. If you gravitate more toward strategy and theory, start at the bottom of each list and work your way upward.


Information architecture is widely associated with navigation and content organization. However, information architecture’s value extends into other critical aspects of digital products or services, and is a foundational part in digital strategy, product design and technology enablement.

When in doubt, hire an information architect.