Stuart Maxwell is Lead Information Architect at REI, where he focuses on site structure and navigation, metadata schema design, and taxonomy / ontology modeling. He has a Masters in Information Management from the University of Washington’s Information School and has taught information architecture at the School of Visual Concepts in Seattle.
Stuart has presented talks at the IA Summit in 2015 and 2016, and was the Experience Director for IA Summit 2017. He led the planning team that brought World IA Day to Seattle in 2015, and was a founding organizer of the Seattle Mind Camp unconference.
IA Summit 2015
Topic(s): navigation and politics
For years, REI.com’s global navigation existed in a relatively stable equilibrium. It balanced the need to sell products and services, provide access to educational content, and inform visitors about unique aspects of the company. But a recent agency-led redesign threatened to disrupt this stability. Suddenly, a whole host of assumptions around the proper role of site-wide navigation were exposed. As REI’s in-house IA, I had a front row seat to watch merchants, marketers, designers, and business managers wrangle over their competing expectations of REI’s global nav. My job was to influence opinion and try to restore a healthy balance in the navigation while still supporting a new design direction for the site.
This talk will be a case study of the unexpected political struggles that were revealed during the design process. I’ll attempt to fairly portray the full range of perspectives on global navigation, from customers to business owners, from agency designers to in-house designers, from accepted practice to emerging trends. I’ll talk as candidly as I can about the discussions that took place throughout the redesign process, and where we landed on some fundamental questions about navigation: Who should we design for? Who should care about the global nav? And, particularly, what is IA’s role in the creative process? In short, when politics enter the design studio, who wins?
- IA choices are political. IA choices have consequences.
- All companies struggle with the right way to organize and present information. The answers aren’t easy or clear, nor is it clear who should make the final call.
- I’ll share what we know about why our customers visit our site and what they’re primarily there to do, and what we think that implies for navigation design.
Stuart Maxwell: 77 years ago Lloyd and Mary Anderson, were a couple of avid amateur mountain climbers in Seattle. Lloyd was looking for a high quality climbing axe, that didn’t cost a day’s wages. He found what he was looking for in this, the Austrian Akadem Pickel.
After importing and selling a handful of these to his climbing buddies, he, and Mary, and 21 of their friends started a cooperative, so that they could sell more high quality climbing gear to other amateur climbers. They named this cooperative, Recreational Equipment Incorporated, REI.
In the 1970s, REI expanded its offerings from climbing and backpacking gear, to other outdoor activities. They opened their first retail store and became what they are today, a national retailer of outdoor gear and apparel, with over 140 physical retail stores, and a thriving online presence.
While REI has expanded to sell kayaks and stand up paddle boards, running shoes, car racks and luggage, the company’s always acknowledged its roots in climbing, which is why climbing axes are installed as door handles on almost all of REI’s retail stores, distribution centers and headquarters buildings.
Which is why in 2014, some customers and quite a few employees were surprised to learn that “Climb” had been moved as part of an A/B test on REI.com from the main global navigation to a sub-menu. This is an actual comment from an actual REI customer.” What happened to ‘Climbing’ as a category in the top navigation? Are you kidding?”
It seemed perfectly reasonable at the time to consider, to test moving “Climb” from the global nav. The analytics show that it doesn’t get as many hits as many of the other options. And since space is at a premium, why not test it and see if we can make room for something else?
But you know, we’re a company that has climbing axes on all of our doors. Removing “Climb” from the menu sent a message, however unintentional, that maybe REI’s priorities had changed. Maybe we didn’t care as much about climbing anymore. Our customers, at least some subset of our customers and many of our employees, too, didn’t care about the analytics. They cared about their beloved activity. They cared about tradition.
Now the A/B test is over and “Climb” has been restored to its rightful place in the global nav, and all is right with the world. But this event foreshadowed the story that I’m going to tell you today.
It’s a story of a major redesign of REI.com and the six big lessons it taught me about the politics of navigation.
Lesson one, “I’m political and so are you?”
When I say “Politics,” I mean it the way Kevin and Michael Munger define it. Politics is choosing and acting in groups. If you think of politics as this, or if the word Machiavellian springs to mind, or if you think of the backstabbing and manipulation of office politics? Well, join the club.
That’s how I usually think about it too, and it really turns me off. I’ve spent most of my life thinking I’m not a political animal, and trying to avoid politics at all costs. Reading the Mungers definition, has reframed politics for me. It helped me see that, “Yeah. Of course I am political.”
In fact, I cannot be political. Politics is a political debate of course, but it’s also a design meeting, and it’s a one on one. Politics is how we make decisions, in groups. It takes a lot of forms, including some pretty mundane ones. If we want to be good information architects, we need to embrace politics.
Not to manipulate for any sinister reason, but to persuade others that what we have to say is worth listening to, that what we suggest is worth doing. Let me set the stage for you, so that I can explain how I came to this way of thinking. Let’s go all the way back, to February of 2014. Remember those days kids, we were so young.
Stuart: Barack Obama was our president, and the Seattle Seahawks had just won the Super Bowl.
Stuart: It’s almost like I’m there, all over again.
Male Audience Member 1: Seahawks?
Stuart: Yeah. Those were happier times, February of 2014. This was the global navigation of REI.com. When the website was first launched in 1996, it looked like this. We’ve got a few links over on the left hand side, that link off to our product catalog and so on.
Flash forward to today, and it’s the same idea, just a bit more complex. Essentially the site today is what it has always been, a paper catalog translated for the web, with the great tabs and the global navigation, basically mapped to business lines.
Digital retail sells products, and REI Adventures sells trips, and outdoor programs sells classes and events, and so forth. Content is side loaded in these tabs as well. Of course we have some links between content. Basically if you want to find a how to article, you go to the Learn tab. If you want to find a blog post, you go to the Blog tab, and so forth.
There are occasional rumblings about radical rethinking of the navigation, but nothing ever comes of it. The fact is that although the navigation is far from perfect, it works for the one person that really matters, our customer. In 2013 REI drove $2,2 billion in revenue, and the online….yes.
Stuart: Wow. It was a good year. The online division accounted for, a little less than a quarter of that. We’re also the fastest growing part of REI, so we must be doing something right. The navigation is also successful, from the standpoint of internal politics.
Every customer facing internal group is represented in the global nav. Everybody has got their slice of the pie. Sure, some slices of pie are smaller than others if you count how many clicks they get, but at least they’re all represented.
But back in February of 2014, we’ve also got a new CEO and a new brand identity. It’s clear that we need to do some things differently, because not only does REI sell great outdoor gear and clothing, we’ve also got a lot of great articles and videos that tell you how to get the best use out of all that gear and clothing. We also offer classes and adventure travel. In fact, it’s in our mission that we’re supposed to inspire and educate people about the outdoors, not just sell you products.
Unfortunately, our website just isn’t as good at the inspire and educate part as it is at the selling you things part. Customers who take a class or who go on a trip with us or even just read a how to article — these are some of our best customers. The website makes it hard to serve those customers really well.
Senior leadership calls for a site redesign to address these challenges. In July of 2014, a design agency is hired to conduct the redesign. Their mandate is to envision a future REI.com that differentiates us from our competitors, that breaks down the silos of content on the site, and that supports our mission to inspire and educate as well as outfit.
At this point, I’m assigned as the information architect on REI’s internal team working with the agency. My job is to represent the in house perspective on site structure and navigation.
Early meetings with the agency are really positive. They’re creative and intelligent, and it seems like a match made in heaven.
But in September of 2014, after several weeks of stakeholder interviews and brainstorming and primary research, the agency returns to REI to present their proposal. Among other things, the agency proposes a new navigation that’s drastically stripped down, with most functionality moved off to a hamburger menu shown here as this gray blob.
This would be our global navigation for desktop and tablet, and it would adapt to the smartphone breakpoint. There’s no mega-menus. All of the heavy lifting that we depend on our current global navigation to do would have to be done elsewhere. We’re going from this to this.
The agency does offer an alternative with a limited number of menu options, but this just raises more questions, like, “What’s going to be in these place holders here?” As you can see, the agency didn’t decide. They just figured out that we could eventually figure out what the six best items were to represent who we are and what we sell.
Now I’m starting to get a little concerned, because what I thought was going to be a straightforward and kind of fun assignment was starting to make knots form in my belly. I was partly responsible for the navigation of the site that does upwards of $450 million a year, and we were talking about making a radical change in the primary way our customers find products on our site.
Instinctively, I thought that the new navigation options were too restrictive, too far from where we were, but at the time I wasn’t able to articulate why.
But I pushed back with the agency anyway. I said, “Can’t we talk about this? Can’t we expand this out to maybe 10 or 12 items?” They dug in their heels. They really believed that zero was the right number of menu options for us. They thought that six was a compromise. They were never going to go for 10 or even 12.
So look, we’re the client, right? Whatever we say goes. But the problem is, as the client, we’re actually a lot of voices that have to speak with one voice, and as we’ll see later on, there just wasn’t enough agreement internally at REI to push back against this proposed navigation.
It dawned on me that if I had any hope of averting a potential disaster, I was going to have to develop my take on the navigation, and have some really good reasons for objecting to it. I’d have to start persuading and influencing my colleagues at the agency and at REI. In other words, I was going to have to get political.
Lesson two, not everybody thinks like an information architect. Our small internal team at REI begin poring over the design and trying to understand its implications. I’m mainly going to discuss the desktop and tablet nav from now on, so if you’re wondering about the smartphone nav, just rest assured, we were doing a mobile first design, but we had very little disagreement on the shape of the smartphone nav.
But tablet and desktop are still really important breakpoints for us, and that’s where a lot of the most interesting discussions took place.
We’re reviewing the design, and I’m truly conflicted about the proposed navigation. I mean, I love shiny new things. I want new toys. I’m a fan of minimalist design.
But I’m also a pragmatist. I know that our customers come to our site to find things. And the main way they find things on our site is through the navigation. During stakeholder interviews before I saw this proposed navigation, I told the agency this. I said, “We know that 60 percent of our customers navigate when they come to the site. They don’t use site search.”
During the holidays, when like a lot of companies, we do a big part of our business, that number is actually 80 percent. Furthermore, we know that when customers visit REI.com, about, about 30 percent of them tell us they’re just browsing with no intent to purchase that day. And that only 11 percent say they know exactly what they’re looking for when they come to the site.
So 90 percent of our customers don’t have a well articulated finding task. We’ve got a broad product catalog. We sell about 20,000 products on the site at any one time, but they’re in about 2,000 different categories. We need a navigation that supports that breadth.
Of course, we need to present inspiration and educational content as well as products, because that’s what we’re all about as a company.
The majority of our customers depend on the navigation in order to find stuff on the site. The agency had this information, so why were they insisting on this slimmed down navigation? Why couldn’t they see that the new design would force us to narrow the possible entry points to the site, and probably impact sales?
Why did they think that it was OK that the REI perspective was missing? I mean, if the ice axes on our doors represent who we are as a company, then so does what we choose to put in the global nav. Why didn’t the agency see this like I did?
They weren’t looking at it like an information architect, for one thing. They were approaching the problem from a different perspective. I needed to figure out what that perspective was and start finding some common ground.
Over the course of several meetings, I was able to tease out the assumptions behind this proposed navigation. What I figured out was that support for this minimalist nav was based on two primary misconceptions.
One was that hiding navigation options somehow automatically simplifies the experience. This is one I hear from visual designers a lot actually, and I understand where they’re coming from. In visual design, just like in good writing, concision is considered state of the art.
Many visual designers, especially those working in a modern design idiom, look to eliminate lines and colors and clutter, to reduce things to a streamlined and minimalist style. It’s just natural that they’d see text as a lot of ugly squiggly lines. They’d think, “Well, let’s just get rid of some of that.”
They’re not thinking of the text as functional. They’re thinking of it as a design element. They argue that taking away this text makes the design simpler.
But there’s a difference between aesthetic simplicity and functional simplicity. Aesthetic simplicity is the domain of visual design. That’s all about white space and lack of clutter. Functional simplicity is the domain of usability. That’s the idea that an interface can be easy to understand and use.
Aesthetic simplicity can help reduce an overly complicated interface to something that’s more usable, but I think there’s a crossover point, where the interface has been so pared down that it becomes harder to use.
In the eyes of visual designers, long lists of navigation options like this are just so much visual clutter. But as an information architect, I think long lists of navigation within reason, of course, and when properly grouped, are just easier to use.
The balance point between aesthetics and function is what we’re striving for in the navigation design. The agency had made the design simpler visually, but they had not made it easier to use.
The other misconception that was often used to justify visual design decisions was that customers who didn’t see what they were looking for in the nav would just use site search instead.
That would be nice if it were true, but I just don’t think it is. We didn’t have to look much farther than our own analytics to start debunking this one.
Remember this slide? Sixty percent of our customers browse the site. They don’t use site search. During the holidays, that number is 80 percent. It’s not hard to figure out why that might be. During the holidays, our customers are shopping for other people, a lot of them, so they don’t know exactly what they need to find.
Maybe they’re looking to be inspired. Maybe they just don’t know the exact term to search for. Like Peter Morville and Jeffrey Callender point out in their book, “Search Patterns,” search requires that we know what we want and have the words to describe our needs.
So during the holidays, when a lot of our customers don’t know exactly what they want, they use the navigation. The idea that site search could somehow make up for a lack of navigation is just a nonstarter.
I want to be clear that it wasn’t just the agency that had these misconceptions. There were also a lot of people within REI that had the same kinds of concerns. I needed to convince them as well. But now at least I had identified the major points of contention. I just needed to get the rest of the group to see things my way.
I needed to figure out the political pressure points where I could make my case and steer the global navigation decisions the way I thought best.
Which brings me to lesson three, “Count the votes.”
It’s October of 2014. We’re in a big meeting room. The biggest one on campus and it’s a few weeks after the agency has presented this minimal nav. Now they’re back at REI headquarters to present the new design to a group that includes our division VP and directors and managers from other divisions.
The agency delivers a killer presentation. The site’s beautiful. It’s different. Everybody is justifiably excited about the new design. While the agency shows a preview of the visual design, every time they show the navigation, they show it just like you see it here. Just as the abstract concept.
One by one people are going around the room, giving their feedback. Of course, I’m attuned to issues with the nav, so I’m picking up on what they’re saying about the global nav.
The site merchant speaks up first. This is the person who’s responsible for the things that get sold on the site. She depends on navigation to prompt customers to move down a purchase path. She says, “Are people going to be able to find our products with this new navigation? How do we promote new things, new products we want to feature?”
This is a marketer. He’s obviously concerned with the company’s image. He says, “I’m nervous that we’re changing the way REI represents itself. This new navigation — it’s one of the first things you see. Are new customers going to know what we’re about?”
The market researcher’s done a ton of research on who our customer is and how they shop. She says, “The navigation will appeal to hardcore gear heads, but some of our customers want more context. They want a richer experience.”
The senior leader doesn’t take a strong stand on the navigation specifically, but he’s concerned that the design won’t go far enough. He’s concerned that we won’t stand out among our competitors.
The web analyst says, “We can remove some of these navigation links. No problem. They get very little traffic. But some of these get a lot of clicks. We’re probably going to hurt conversion if we do this.”
The visual designer claims, “I just want this to look great. We’ve got too many lists. Too much blah, blah, blah. We need more white space.”
Stuart: The UX designer says, “So we won’t know if this works until we test it. Let’s just put it in front of customers and see if they know where to click.”
The SEO points out that if we remove the mega-menus, we could see a sharp drop in natural search traffic, because Google won’t understand what our site’s about and how to rank our pages.
The developer warns, “You know, I’m not sure how we’re going to do this, this year. We have a lot of technical depth.” And then there’s me.
Stuart: I’m all like, “What the what? No way are we going to put a hamburger menu in the global nav. Get out of here!”
All right. I didn’t really say that. I thought it.
Instead, what I said was something like, “I’m not convinced that this hamburger menu’s going to work. You’re asking the rest of the navigation to pick up a lot of slack.”
This meeting was a revelation for me. I had thought of myself as the person responsible for the global nav, and then I realized so does everybody else. In that moment, I realized that my job wasn’t just about doing good information architecture. It was also about playing politics, so that I would have the opportunity to do good information architecture.
I started to wonder, “How can I convince my team to push back on the agency and advocate for some major changes to the redesign?” So I went back over the meeting in my head, and I counted up the votes. There were four of us who were against the proposed navigation. One strongly for it and five who were neutral.
The thing is, those folks who are neutral might as well have been for the navigation, because they weren’t motivated enough to push for any changes.
But at least the case wasn’t hopeless. I just needed to convert two or three people to my side and I’d have a shot. I had thought that my colleagues working with me on the internal redesign team would take my point of view, but they were either split or indifferent.
The folks from marketing actually turned out to be unexpected allies. I had figured that they would care more about visual design than about functionality, but they turned out to be pretty insightful about the utility of a robust navigation. Their opinions carried a little less weight than some others in the room because they weren’t sponsoring the project, but their arguments gave me some ammunition.
I just needed to come up with a bit more evidence, and I’d have a strong case, which is what I did in Lesson Four, “Information Is Power.”
One of the persistent arguments I had to counter was the idea that REI should copy some design element from another site. I use this tactic myself. For instance, I wanted us to try something like what Lowe’s does with their navigation. They’ve got this really nice, streamlined, task-based navigation that basically asks the customer, “What are you here for? You’re looking for products? Click the shop tab. If you’re looking for how-tos, we’ve got you covered.”
Like us, they’ve got a lot of products to sell and a lot of non-product content, so it looked like they were trying to solve the same problems that we were. The problem was I heard through the grapevine that maybe this navigation wasn’t performing to their expectations, and they actually might be considering a redesign. So it didn’t make a lot of sense for me to put a lot of weight behind this, but it did lead me to this insight. Just because a design is published doesn’t mean it’s performing.
I kept coming back to this one over and over again during the design process. A lot of the discussion about design direction revolved around designs that somebody observed out in the wild. Of course, this is a great way to get inspiration, but it’s not OK to look at these designs uncritically because, unless you’ve tested them or you’re looking at the analytics, you don’t know if they’re actually being effective or not.
There’s a corollary to this observation, too. Just because a design is effective in one context doesn’t mean it’ll be effective in another. REI’s got a broad product catalog, a lot of service offerings, and a variety of non-product content. Not every site is like that.
For instance, here’s a site that one of our designers sent around saying, “We should do what these guys do. Look at this really simple navigation.” Betabrand is a boutique clothing site. Looks really nice, but let’s just go to the men’s jackets page and see how many men’s jackets they sell. It’s easy to count them up. I can do it in just a minute. It’s 24 men’s jackets.
How many men’s jackets do you think REI.com sells? Want to take a guess? You could read the slide I guess. It’s 558. 558 men’s jackets in 8 different categories, and some of those categories have subcategories.
Look, Betabrand is a really cool site, but they’re just not an example for REI.com. A company with a smaller and narrower catalog can get by with a different navigation approach.
It’s up to us as IAs to point this stuff out, because this is not a design discussion. This is about information design. If all you’re concerned with is how the site looks or how it’s laid out.
If you can ignore the realities of your inventory or tell yourself that the search box is sufficient for way finding, basically if you can ignore the realities of information-seeking behavior, you can design some sites that are beautiful but that might not work. So it’s up to us as IAs to address these kinds of issues head on so that our sites are beautiful and smart.
In November of 2014, support for the minimalist navigation was picking up steam, and I was becoming increasingly convinced that it was a bad idea. I thought we needed at least 12 to 15 navigation options in the global nav in order to proceed.
I had been gathering research over the past month to help me make my case, including conducting our own research. We used Optimal Workshop’s tree jack test to analyze three variants of our nav, and we found out that there was actually a slight uptick in overall success using the variant with the most navigation options. Furthermore, that expanded navigation dramatically outperformed the default navigation for 4 out of the 10 test tasks.
Let me just underscore that. The more navigation options we showed to test users, the more successful the nav was.
All this research finally helped me articulate some overarching principles of navigation. I reckon that the global navigation does three things. It lets customers find stuff, of course, but it also tells customers what they can find. At REI, this is really important because we sell a lot of different stuff. We cater to a wide range of skill levels. Not every person is going to know whatever’s in the category when they come to the site.
Finally, the global navigation asserts a perspective. It defines a mental model about the information space. It says, “This is how REI thinks about the world of outdoor activities.” Whatever decisions we made about the navigation would have to support these principles.
If information is power, now I had some. I had my point of view and I had my evidence and just needed to play a little politics to make the case for the global navigation.
Lesson Five, “Influence Early and Often.”
Politics is about how we make decisions in groups and, to get a group to coalesce around a point of view, we need to use persuasion. We need to influence each other to see things a certain way.
Here’s the truth. Over the course of nine months in all these meetings about the redesign, I had an opportunity at every one of them to have influence about the design and about navigation in particular, but I often failed to do so because I didn’t understand the principle of influence early and often.
In these meetings, somebody might say something like, “There’s too much text,” or, “Let’s get rid of lists,” or, “No left rails.” I actually heard that one. Each time these statements went unchallenged, the group point of view about information architecture solidified a little bit more.
Later, when it became time to try to change these opinions, it was harder because they had already formed a foundation of the redesign, and there was already a house that was being built on top of that foundation.
Eventually I learned to speak up at every opportunity. It didn’t have to be challenging or confrontational. Sometimes I just needed to ask a question, just, “Why?” “Why should we get rid of lists?” “No left rails, huh. How is that going to work?”
When I did that, one of three things would happen. Either I’d just get an opportunity to counter a misconception or my colleague’s arguments would start to collapse because they had no foundation under them or I’d hear something I hadn’t heard before, I hadn’t thought of, and I’d get a chance to work on my point of view.
It would take time to make my case doing this over and over. It became a game of patience and, to play it, I drew from two pieces of advice I learned from Mike Auzenne and Mark Horstman of the “Manager Tools” podcast.
Not every argument has to be resolved right away. Sometimes it’s enough just to challenge a point of view. Auzenne and Horstman call this the shot across the bow, and the term comes from naval warfare.
When two ships are in the same area of the ocean and one fires a missile so it just goes barely across the bow of the other one, it sends a message. The message is, “I missed you on purpose, but I’m within range, and I can hit you anytime I want.”
Stuart: In the politics of navigation, it works like this. The visual designer says, “We need to get rid of long lists,” and I say, “I actually think long lists are important. We’ve got a lot of things we have to sell, and we have to show that.” The visual designer says, “You need to come up with shorter lists. Just combine some categories or something.” Now I’ve got a choice to make.
If the conversation’s being productive, I can continue, but I don’t have to. I can just not argue, just smile and let the conversation move on. The important part is that I didn’t let the assumption pass unchallenged. I delivered the shot across the bow. I can press the point at a more strategic time.
The other trick for influencing your peers is something Auzenne and Horstman call prewiring the meeting. The idea here is really simple. Don’t wait until a big meeting to discuss potentially contentious topics. Instead, look for opportunities, formal or otherwise, to discuss your point of view with your peers.
This one really works for me because I’m an introvert, and I do a lot better in one-on-one or small group discussions than I do in big discussions. So as I got more sophisticated about the politics of the redesign, I’d find opportunities to have hallway conversations and lunch chats and one-on-ones with my peers to bend their ears about the navigation.
It’s like counting up the votes in Congress so that you don’t bring a bill to the floor until you’re pretty sure it’s going to pass. Prewiring the meeting just means knowing what to expect when you walk into the room.
Eventually, I started making headway. In December of 2014, I convinced the project owner and the members of my team that the minimal nav needed to be replaced by something more suited to our needs.
Finally, Lesson Six, “Strive for Consensus.”
In January of 2015, the agency called a meeting to hash out our disagreements about the navigation once and for all. Honestly, the meeting went just about as well as I could have hoped. I had prepared the ground by continuing to speak up about navigation early and often in meetings with the agency, and of course I had been paying attention to internal politics to build a consensus point of view within REI, and it paid off. At this meeting, my REI colleagues were often making my points about the navigation even before I could.
To their great credit, the agency really listened to us, and they heard our arguments, and later they returned with a much improved take on the navigation, one that met our requirements and showed us some things that we hadn’t thought of before. It was ultimately a triumph of consensus-driven decision-making.
In their book, “Choosing In Groups,” Michael and Kevin Munger say that there are two reasons to use voting as a means of decision-making. The first is to get better information about the decision, and the second is to lend legitimacy to the decision. Voting and consensus obviously aren’t the same thing, but I think they’re close enough to share some similar benefits.
The drive for consensus flushed out the various opinions in the group and required each of us to present convincing arguments for why we believed the way we did. We shared information and changed minds as a result.
I even softened my stance on the hamburger menu in the global nav because, I heard the arguments, and I examined the alternatives, and we aren’t using it as the only method of navigation. I can wholeheartedly agree with where we ended up.
Here is where we ended up. This is our new navigation up top. This is what it boiled down to for the global nav. 13 items in the global nav instead of 8.
On the surface, it seems like that’s a pretty minor thing to put so much energy into arguing over, but I actually think it’s pretty significant, not least because 13 was the number that we believed in. Eight was an arbitrary number chosen by the agency to justify an aesthetic choice. Thirteen was well-researched and tested and reinforced by our previous experience and our understanding of our customers.
Here we are today. The new navigation design coming into production later this year is a mix of old and new. Is it going to survive in the real world? I do not know, but I’m as confident in it as I can be at this point. It is time to put it out there and give it a try.
One of the reasons that I love the ice axes on REIs doors is because they imply that there is a journey ahead, one filled with challenge. At REI, we’ve always believed that those challenging journeys in the real world are well worth the effort.
While hardly as heroic, I believe that the challenges of negotiating the politics of navigation are also well worthwhile, because the navigation on our site says something about us. It says something about how we look at the world.
It can say we’re comprehensive but siloed, or that we’re coldly efficient, or that these are the things that are important to us, and these are the things that we know are important to you, our customer.
Getting the navigation to say something meaningful to wrangle all of these voices into one non-verbal is a political struggle. Politics doesn’t have to be Machiavellian, and it doesn’t have to be sinister. It can be thoughtful, and it can be civil, and it can be empathetic. But it has to happen, and you have to be a part of it because politics is happening all around you all the time whether you choose to engage with it or not. Better to engage with it on your own terms, don’t you think?
Find your allies and hold them close, and influence the rest at every opportunity. Gather your information and drive for consensus. As an IA, you’re a necessary and vital player in the politics of navigation. I wish you luck in negotiating your own political challenges, and thank you very much for listening.
Stuart: Thank you.
Male Audience Member 2: How did you and your group reconcile REI’s dedication to teaching and travel with a top nav that was seemingly focused around product grouping?
Stuart: That’s a great question. I appreciate you asking it, because it’s something that I wanted to talk about in the body of the talk, but didn’t find a good way to work it in.
I’m looking at the whole redesign through this really small lens of just the global navigation. And of course, there was a whole body of work going on around a whole system of navigation.
What we decided was that our point of view was around activity. We assumed that the customers’ point of view at any particular time when they have a finding need is around activity as well. So clicking on one of these activities in the global nav would send them on a path that would expose them to not just products but to the inspirational and educational content that we have as well.
It’s not obvious that that’s what we do right from the global nav, but it is something that we intend to permeate throughout the rest of the navigation, including we are having a mega-menu, and so it’s one of the first things you see in the mega-menu is links to classes and events and how to articles and so on and so forth.
Thanks for asking that. Any other questions?
Female Audience Member 1: My question is, I could see how potentially if you had played it wrong, you would have looked like that crazy guy who just can’t stop talking about the nav. You know what I mean?
Stuart: [inaudible 33:28] anyway.
Female Audience Member 1: Probably not, but are there some things that you did in how you went about these things so that you didn’t look like that guy?
Stuart: It’s OK to be passionate, and I am passionate when I talk about the navigation. It’s important. So like, “Not heated.” Some of these conversations could get heated, but I’m really lucky to work in an environment where we’re all professionals.
I don’t have to be in like the hardcore political wrangling with people, but I do have to be passionate, because the people that are in my group are also highly professional and highly passionate about their point of view. I wasn’t afraid to just say what I believed and to say it in a forceful and respectful way.
But I think there’s also that shot across the bow idea, where hopefully I knew when to back off, when the point had been made and it wasn’t up longer productive. Like one of the things that I find that happens in meetings is people try to save face. So if you’re in a room with a bunch of people and there’s an argument that breaks out over some religious debate, nobody really wants to back down in the moment, in front of everybody else.
But often when you get outside of that and you get in your one on one or you get in your lunchtime chat with somebody, they’re like, “Yeah, you’re right. You know? I thought you were right. I just didn’t want to say it.” Or they’re at least willing at that point to be convinced.
Female Audience Member 2: This is tangential, but I’m just curious if what you guys learned as an internal team coming out of this process, did you take away anything that changed how you guys work together now moving on?
Stuart: Yeah. That’s a great question. A lot of things changed. One thing is this was the first time actually that information architecture had been involved right from the beginning alongside UX and visual design.
Also it might be the first time that we actually had a member of the business on the team as well. I might not be right about that, but certainly for information architecture. Hopefully, one of the things we proved is that as a group, we all work together really well. We each bring a different point of view to the design process, and it’s something that’s needed.
I need the business person’s point of view and the visual designers and the UX person’s just as much as mine. That was one thing.
The other thing that we learned was that we need a team in an ongoing fashion in order to think about the big design issues overall. We don’t currently have that team, and we’re hoping that the team that worked on this redesign might morph into something like that.
Male Audience Member 3: Did the visual designer change their mind?
Stuart: Yes and no. I’m continuing to have these same kinds of conversations over and over. A lot of times it’s with the same people. Also, for most of the redesign process it was the four of us or maybe a slighter larger group at times who were talking about these issues.
Of course, the agency’s work is done. And now it’s gone out into the rest of the company. Of course, these questions are coming up all over again. So we have to continue to have these talks.
I hate to pick on visual designers, but I find that because they have the control over the final pixels that get put on the screen, that’s often where I just found I needed to press.
Again, I’m fortunate. Everybody’s professionals and we actually listen to each other and heard each others’ arguments. So fortunately, yes, they did finally come around. So there’s a happy ending. Yay.
Thank you guys very much. I would love to meet all of you and talk with you more. Thank you.