If design is like the pictures, IA is like the articles.

We had a client once who defied all of our efforts to please her. No matter how hard we tried, no matter how many brand and design workshops we did, we could not get her to articulate her expectations regarding her site’s visual design. And as a result, we completed iteration upon iteration before gaining her approval and sign-off on a final design.

This situation is nothing new to anyone in the design business (or any customer service business). Most of us at one point or another have had a hard-to-please client or customer. We did what anybody would do in that situation. In front of her, we blamed ourselves for not asking the right questions or anticipating her needs. Meanwhile back at the office, we ranted to each other about what a loony she was. (We designed five home page directions. The statement of work called for three. Why couldn’t she just pick one?) At the time, both positions were valid; she was a loony and we were failing her. Looking back on it now, the drama seems too commonplace to matter in the grand or not-so-grand scheme of things. But there was something about it—something about her—that has stuck with me all these years.

Loony Lovegood (not her real name) said, after rejecting all of our proposed design directions and asking for more options, “It’s like porn. I know it when I see it.” Those two sentences dissolved any tension between us, she the client and we the design team, sitting on opposite sides of a conference table in a sterile board room. She was likeable, so we worked it out. But I’ve often replayed this sentiment in my mind and wondered if she was right.

Harry Gordon Selfridge would say, of course, “the customer is always right.” But I’m not convinced she was. For starters, it’s an imperfect metaphor. She implied that our design directions would evoke the same feelings for her as viewing porn. She thought she would experience some instant emotion (shock, horror, trepidation, titillation, joy, wonder, embarrassment) and cry out, “Yes, that’s it!” Perhaps she should feel that way. Perhaps the right design direction is like that perfect pair of jeans. You know how it goes. You swore you were only window shopping; you saw them hanging just inside the door and had to get closer; there was one pair left in your size so you had to try them on. You put them back on the rack, headed for the door, then turned around, grabbed the jeans, and found yourself standing at the checkout with cash in hand. You took them home, put them on, and refused to take them off until there’s nothing left of them but tattered patchwork.

But selecting a design direction is not about love at first sight. It’s about experiencing a design over time, getting to know it, and appreciating it for the lasting impression it creates.  More often than not, you have to try on a half dozen pairs before finding the right fit. Okay, I am not really suggesting that choosing a design for your Web site is like shopping for jeans–except that I am. When you shop for those jeans…hmm…I can’t really speak for you the reader or the general populace, can I? Warning, what follows is a totally unresearched, unvetted, un-scientifically unproven metaphor. So, when somebody somewhere shops for a pair of jeans, she usually has a set of requirements in mind: waist size, length, cut, color, etc. Those requirements are based on one or two things and sometimes both of them. The first criterion is the shopper’s personal style, because, after all, a pair of jeans is not just a pair of pants; jeans are an expression of a consumer’s personal brand. A pair of jeans says a lot about who she is as a person: trendy, hipster, timeless, sophisticated, practical, or confident. Purchasing a pair of jeans can also be an expression of an occasion. A special date, casual-Friday jeans, and weekend-at-home jeans: sometimes they are the same pair; sometimes they are not. It depends on the customer. Once the shopper has narrowed the selection down to that one pair she thinks will make the final cut, she must take a look at the bigger picture. The final purchasing decision is as much about how the jeans fit as it is about how they make her feel and what they say about her.

In the design world, we would describe those three criteria as the functional, emotional, and self-expressive benefits of your jeans or your Web site design. Sometimes the jeans you need are not the pair you set out to buy. Sometimes you bring friends along to provide a second opinion. Occasionally the perfect pair jumps off the rack and into your hands, but more often you will take them home and wear them around the house for an afternoon with the tags still on them before committing fully.

In the case of Ms. Lovegood, she was focused too intently on the emotional benefits and couldn’t see the bigger picture. She didn’t understand that the directions we presented met her functional and self-expressive benefits—the self-expressive benefits of her consumers, because after all, the site was not designed for her. The site was designed for the students at the university she represented. This is where design options get tricky. Ms. Lovegood wanted a site that made her feel good, one that appealed to her emotional side. But the site needed to appeal to her target audiences.

This is where we look not to Selfridge but instead to Steve Mulder who wrote The User is Always Right, the definitive book about using personas in the creative design process. Ms. Lovegood may have been our customer, that is she was footing the bill for our services, but she was not the end user for whom we were designing. So, Mr. Selfridge, the customer is not always right. The user is.

This is where I consider myself the lucky winner. My design team constantly makes compromises that go against their years of experience, design sensibilities, and better judgment. I hear things like “Sure, we can tweak that color” and “Of course we can make the logo bigger” all the time. And most of the time they make those changes whether they want to or not. But as the in-house information architect, when our clients as me questions like “Can you move the registration to another part of the page?” I get to say, “No, because [insert the vetted, accepted usability rule here].”

Maybe Ms. Lovegood is right to a degree. Our design presentation can be very much like porn (especially after weeks of my boring wireframes). Maybe it’s not like the full-on X or even R-rated stuff. But they are definitely like serious PG-13 eye-candy.

In contrast, good IA is noticeable only in its absence. If it’s done right, you never think, “Wow that was some good IA.” But if it’s done poorly, you think, “Where is…?” and “Why can’t I…? and “Man, this site sucks!” Well-designed information architecture is like the glue that holds the user experience together, the part you have to do to get to the good stuff. If your Web site was like a porn mag, the graphic design is like the pictures and the IA is like the articles. You have to write the articles to call it a magazine, but nobody’s reading them.