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Bulletin, October/November 2010

IA Column

It's Just a Garden

by Thom Haller

This past spring I invited a landscape architect over to my home. We had met online when he presented landscaping ideas to the board of directors for the condo building where I operate my studio. I liked the way he had presented ideas to our board and how quickly we moved from design notes to a completed garden.

He dropped by and we took the tour (which, frankly, isn’t much of a tour when you live in a Washington, D.C., townhouse). We chatted about problems and visions for the space. I stressed my vision – I needed help improving the soil and reshaping the garden space from its present Addams Family style to one that was more welcoming. 

The process was slow, but so was I. I didn’t rush proposal development – and neither did my landscape architect. By mid-May, new “business factors” had emerged and intensified my need for results. “I’m getting married at home in early August,” I told him. “I need our project complete.” In other words, I was telling my landscape architect, “build me a product.” 

As a client, I had a few expectations – a visual rendering, information on cost and price points and a place where I could see the flowers online. 

Weeks passed. Summer was upon us.

Finally, a grand blueprint arrived. An architecture, right? But I didn’t have information on costs or how I might change the design. “What does this cost?” I asked my architect.

More weeks passed. (Summer has only so many weeks to pass … I was becoming antsy.)
I feared the fancy blueprints would result in a high price, which turned out to be true. I tried (and failed) to understand his pricing, so we entered into several rounds of e-mail conversation to discuss options for building the product. 

Finally I asked, “Will all this be completed by August 5?” 

“No,” responded my architect. “We have a lot to do. I’m thinking …. fall.” 

With some anxiety, I typed an e-mail. “Do you think you could put some flowers in the soil and make it look festive for my events in August?” Then I waited. 

I finally received a reply.

“What do you mean by festive?”

What Went Wrong?
With a little analysis, you can see why the project failed. I was a client who wanted a product. My contractor focused on the plan. 

I was a client who didn’t participate fully. I didn’t work with the contractor to lay out a structure for accomplishing what we needed to accomplish. I didn’t push for an iterative design cycle. Nor did I specify any dates when I needed planning documents to support our process and final outcome. 

“I don’t have time,” I figured. “It’s just a garden.”

Just. I am reminded of all the bosses and business leaders who try to understand the invisible work of information architecture, but think, “It’s just a website.” 

What Did I Want?
As I reflect on this now, I realize it wasn’t just a garden that I wanted. I wanted guests to come to our door and be welcomed by happy, healthy plants (instead of weeds struggling to stay alive). I wanted the experience of sharing our happiness with neighbors. And I wanted to improve our neighborhood’s curb appeal.

Fortunately, my adventure in gardening turned out OK. I reconnected with a friend of a friend who’s a landscaper. “Use your artistic vision,” I told him. He completed the project within days. I remain delighted at the outcome.

In the end, I discovered that I wanted a product (and that’s what I got). And I wanted the experience that my garden provides (and I love it). But did I need to spend time and money on the architecture? Maybe not. 

But when I think about providing information architecture services, maybe I’ll listen better to hear if it’s just a product my client wants. And maybe now I understand client needs a little better.

Thom Haller, the Bulletin’s associate editor for information architecture, is a speaker, writer, user advocate and teacher of principles of performance-based information architecture and usability. Since 1998, Thom has taught classes on architecting usable web/Intranet sites. As a teacher, Thom enables students to structure information so people can find it, use it and appreciate the experience. He can be reached at thom<at>; thomhaller<at>twittercom