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Archive for June, 2005

Visio and IA tips – set up before drawing

Tuesday, June 28th, 2005

At the moment, I’m working on large Visio files – a big site map, a set of page description diagrams and a wireframe for each page. When working with large files that use many repeated elements, it is worth spending time preparing your files and workspace. Believe me, it will save a lot of time later.

Visio has plenty of limitations when it comes to managing big documentation sets, but these tips will help to smooth the project at least a little.


For these types of projects, backgrounds are your friend. Visio allows you to set up a number of pages as ‘background’ pages. These can be applied to any foreground page, with all elements on the background page automatically appearing on the foreground.

Backgound pages can be nested, so with a bit of thought, you can save a lot of work with a series of backgrounds. As long as you have designed before drawing, you should be able to spot places where a background would be useful.

I set up one with a header and footer containing page title block, company details and version number. This is used by all pages in the set, with additional backgrounds for different, repeated layouts.

For an example of background use for wireframes, see Victor Lombardi’s wireframe templates, available from the IA institute.


There are a number of tools I use frequently but aren’t included in one of the standard toolbars. These include the align & distribute tools, and the layers tool (the one that lets you easily assign shapes to a particular layer). It is very worthwhile having these at my fingertips rather than behind menus, so I add them to existing toolbars or a custom toolbar.

I’m getting a lot of practice customising my toolbars, as I can’t seem to retain my toolbar settings between Visio sessions. I have resorted to ‘attaching’ them to a visio file that I open first, dragging them to my toolbar and then opening my files. Clumsy but better than re-setting everything every time I open a file.

Text styles

If your drawing contains a lot of text that needs similar appearances, set up text styles for them. As in other programs, this saves you from having to remember what font and paragraph settings apply to your text. This is pretty straightforward.

Keyboard shortcuts

Get to know your keyboard shortcuts. Dan Brown’s visio mousemat looks fabulous, and I will buy it shortly, but in the meantime, here are my most commonly used shortcuts:

  • ctrl+g: group
  • ctrl+shift+u: ungroup
  • ctrl+w: show whole page
  • F2: edit text (very handy for editing inside a grouped object)
  • F8: align
  • F4: duplicate/repeat last action (easier than ctrl+y)
  • ctrl+shift+select area: zoom into selection

I’m sure there are plenty that I’m not using. I’ll update this as I find other indispensible shortcuts.

Visio and IA tip – design before documentation

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2005

This tip is probably more of a note to self than a useful tip, but I have to keep reminding myself, so may be of value:

Visio is a documentation tool, not a design tool. The design happens elsewhere – in your head, on paper, on a whiteboard, in a team meeting. Only when you have figured out what your design looks like should you sit in front of the computer and try to document it.

When I find myself staring at the screen wondering what is meant to happen next, it is usually because I haven’t thought about what I am trying to draw. I get up, go to the whiteboard or paper, draw it (or at least list the components or workflows I need), then come back to the computer, set up shapes etc and draw.

Or I go for a walk…

What would you like to know about Visio and IA

Friday, June 17th, 2005

I’m likely to be spending most of the next month buried up to the eyeballs in Visio, and thought I might write up some short articles/posts about IA deliverables and Visio as I work.

If there is something that has frustrated you, that you have done inefficiently or that you would like to know more about, please let me know (via a comment or email) and I’ll attempt to come up with a good answer and some tips as I work through this project.

(and if you’re reading this because you’d like to know more about Visio, Dan Brown has some great posts over on

I feel like a new IA

Wednesday, June 15th, 2005

Today I started a project with a new client (my first freelance project).

I realised something quite interesting – for my entire IA career I have been working on a fairly narrow range of sites, primarily large, content-heavy websites and intranets for government. In these projects my focus has been on user research, getting the content groupings right, finding the right labels and designing broad navigation. Quite top-down, quite high level, not very detailed. All necessary, all important, and I’ve been pretty good at it.

But I always felt that I was missing something – I’ve never had to think hard about detailed content modelling and relationships, my diagrams were always quite simple, and the level of interactivity and complexity was quite low.

My new project changes all that. The domain (which I won’t mention) is about as far away from my previous experience as is possible. The high level IA has already been done (and is fairly obvious) so the project is about detailed IA and layout. I’m working with a creative team with very strong visual design skills. I’m having to think much harder about deliverables and how they communicate concepts and detail.

I feel like a new IA all over again! Yay!

New features

Thursday, June 9th, 2005

I just noticed two new, incredibly useful, tagging features from

The first is a list of all my tags beneath the form. The second is a ‘suggestions’ that shows suggested tags based on my existing tags. This is a fabulous addition – I now no longer need to wonder whether I usually tag as ‘prototype’ or ‘prototyping’ and have to clean up inconsistencies.

A beginning means an end

Thursday, June 9th, 2005

A beginning: From today, I am a freelance information architect and interaction designer. Naturally, I’m very excited about this new adventure. However, every beginning…

… means …

An end: This marks an end to my work as a consultant for Step Two Designs, a job that I have been doing for the past 21 months. Naturally, I’m sad about leaving a great consulting business.

So how can I be excited and sad?

I’m sad because I’m leaving a great bunch of people who are doing innovative and interesting work. It was my decision to leave, and I did so as there are some things I want to do that don’t really fit into the model of consulting with a high-profile business.

I’m hoping to do some deeper IA work and more detailed interaction design, and to have the freedom to change direction without imposing on anyone else. I’m hoping to concentrate on of my university studies more and think deeply about some IA and design ideas.

Janice gave me some great advice: don’t start anything without signing a contract, and be careful about the first few jobs as they will shape what follows. I’m feeling blessed – next week I start a website project on a site that is out of my domain experience, within my IA experience and different enough to feel stretched.

Wish me luck!

Should I keep reading Lakoff

Wednesday, June 1st, 2005

I have been struggling to read George Lakoff’s ‘Women, Fire & Dangerous Things‘ for well over a year now. I found the information about prototype theory and basic level categories very interesting and have been thinking hard about the implications for IA. I recently had a slight paradigm shift when I realised that the underlying paradigm of computing is based on the classical concept of mutually exclusive categories with clear boundaries, which doesn’t match the way categories work in the real world.

Right now I’m slogging through the second half of the book about philisophical implications. I’ve read 60 pages and not understood a lot, and am wondering whether this half is worthwhile.

So, if you have read it (all of it), let me know whether you think it is worth continuing or whether the first half is enough for me in relation to IA.