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Apple stores as information architecture

I don't mean to write so much about Apple (I posted earlier this year about the iPhone as information architecture), but I think they are a uniquely prominent purveyor of experience and information design in the broadest sense: designing with user experience and information in mind, starting from the very foundation (structural / architectural level) of a service / product.

Fortune magazine is running an article today on Apple: America's best retailer (via Waxy Links), about how successful and profitable Apple stores are. It's an interesting read on a number of levels.

But, in particular, there is a great description in the article of how they prototyped and designed the Apple store. One of their insights is an excellent example of what user experience / information architecture is about—how they "re-categorized" the layout of the Apple store:

"Ron [Johnson] and I had a store all designed," says [Steve] Jobs, when they were stopped by an insight: The computer was evolving from a simple productivity tool to a "hub" for video, photography, music, information, and so forth. The sale, then, was less about the machine than what you could do with it. But looking at their store, they winced.

The hardware was laid out by product category - in other words, by how the company was organized internally, not by how a customer might actually want to buy things. "We were like, 'Oh, God, we're screwed!'" says Jobs.

But they weren't screwed; they were in a mockup. "So we redesigned it," he says. "And it cost us, I don't know, six, nine months. But it was the right decision by a million miles." When the first store finally opened, in Tysons Corner, Va., only a quarter of it was about product. The rest was arranged around interests: along the right wall, photos, videos, kids; on the left, problems. A third area - the Genius Bar in the back - was Johnson's brainstorm.

So, Apple stores sell computers, software, devices, etc. But, those products are traditionally organized in stores based on product category information, e.g. group computers with computers, and software with software, etc.

The user experience / information architecture level insight was recognizing how people can relate to these products by "interest" categories, and not just product categories. And, the information architecture level of design of the Apple store is in it's organization around those interest categories.

So, this is very much like what we do with information architecture for websites—through models, prototypes and insights, we find the way to organize the contents of your website to match the wants and needs of the people who use it.

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