19 Oct 2010 by Gene Smith
Mind Your Inward Paths

United Airlines

My trip to San Francisco last weekend was delayed by an annoying business practice of United Airlines: overselling a flight so that economy passengers must check-in early to claim a seat–or risk getting bumped to a later flight.

United doesn’t tell passengers in advance which flights are oversold, or what they can do to make sure they get a seat. And so, while standing at the United kiosk with a helpful agent who was trying to figure out whether I was looking at a six-hour or ten-hour delay, I decided I would call United to complain. (What else was I going to do with all that time?)

But you can never get an agent on the phone, so I navigated my way through the IVR menu to the refunds section. There the helpful voice told me that I could file a claim on their website at united.com/refunds. So I tap “united.com/refunds” into my iPhone. But instead of the refunds section I’m redirected to home page of their mobile web site.

And guess what? Nowhere on the mobile site could I find a link to refunds. There’s a link to the full site, where you can try to find the refunds section. But any web address you type in just redirects you to the mobile home page.

Inward Paths

One of the better “big ideas” to come out of the information architecture community recently is Are Halland’s Core + Paths framework.

Core + paths is holistic way of thinking about information architecture that connects your valuable content (your core) with your customer’s inward paths (how they find your content) and outward paths (what they do once they’re there).

Here’s why this is a great way to frame up information architecture:

  • It explicitly distinguishes between valuable, core content and everything else. Not only is this essential for doing meaningful IA work, but it can also tie back to your content strategy.
  • It accommodates a multi-facted view of findability that’s connected to your efforts in other channels. Navigation, search, advertising, signage, word-of-mouth and IVR systems are all possible inward paths.
  • It opens up a discussion about your customer behavior–what’s next after someone sees your product, web page, photo or video? How does your content shape their next action?

I’ll be honest. Core + paths wasn’t the first thing that came to mind as I tried, repeatedly, to get to united.com/refunds from my iPhone. But after the ticket agent had booked another flight and soothed me with a generous travel voucher, I was able to see this situation for what it was: a design problem.

So What Did United Do Wrong?

United Mobile

The United mobile site.

United’s phone system provided an inward path to their website. In fact, it provided many inward paths–almost every menu item contained a reference to the website. But when I tried to access the site from my phone, I simply couldn’t get there.

Instead of a helpful path, United led me to a dead end.

This is a surprisingly common occurrence with mobile sites, which are often thrown together in the name of providing mobile users with a “good experience”–a simplified, mobile-friendly interface. But when you break the inward paths to your website–the links between your online content and your other touch-points–you’re tearing apart your service ecosystem.

Mind Your Paths

Increasingly, planning the structure for a website means considering all the possible ways your customers can find content–not just focusing on taxonomies and in-site navigation. Core + paths is a great starting point for a more holistic approach to web design.

Here are some suggestions for getting started with core + paths:

  • Look at how your content is connected to your other touch-points today. Map out those paths if you have to–under no circumstances do you want those to break.
  • Is your most connected content–the stuff with the most inward paths–also your core content? If not you might need to re-focus your site, and the way your site connects with the world around it.
  • No website is an island. Mapping paths is good way to open up a dialogue with your marketing, customer service and facilities teams. We now live in a world where all these different business functions must work together seamlessly and consistently, online and off.
  • You might be able to use this model to reframe your role from “designing a website” to “designing inward and outward paths.” This can help focus the conversation around your site to access and outcomes–the things that really make a difference to your organization.

And my last tip: if you fly United make sure you check-in early. That’s one thing you can do right from their mobile website.

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