The 3D HLX Process:
Terminology and Rationale
This section explains the components and concepts behind 3D HLX.
3D HLX In a Nutshell
The 3D HLX is a prescribed method for constructing web sites in an effective and efficient manner. The method consists of dividing the whole process into three phases: design, development, and deployment. Within each phase the work is further divided among three layers of web content: hypertext, layout, and expression. When followed, the three phases help ensure a minimum of wasted time and effort. The layers make it possible to divide the work among teams or team members. Each layer focuses on work that individuals with different skill sets can excel at. Each phase begins with a preparation step, followed by a step where the work is divided among the three layers, and ending with a wrap-up step. The beginning and end steps are joint activities that people working on any or all layers can participate in. The middle step in each phase can be divided and co-ordinated among individuals.
Proper Application of 3D HLX
Use of the 3D HLX method relies on several factors to be truly effective. First and foremost the client must understand their role in the process in relation to the audience and project team. Educating the client without talking down to them can be tricky. Without understanding the importance of catering to the audience, most of the 3D HLX method may seem a waste of time.
Some clients will not be interested in taking web development seriously, they are looking for a quick fix. 3D HLX is not a "web site in a box" approach. The overhead required in planning and hand off makes the method impractical for such applications. 3D HLX is designed for the creation of web sites that will be maintained until the need arises to re-design the site. Even when this methodology is not idea for a given project, it is certainly possible to take concepts, practices and steps from 3D HLX out of the greater context and apply them to other types of projects, including quick fix web sites.
Another important factor in making 3D HLX work is understanding that every decision in the process is like taking a variable in an equation and assigning it a specific value. As each variable is locked in the flexability remaining in finding a solution that will work is reduced. The important decisions have to be made first, otherwise the project team will paint itself into a corner. Similarly there are some variables that are beyond the project team's control. Audience expectations are one variable that must be carefuly measured and understood, but can never be changed. If the project team has a wildly unrealistic interpretation of what the audience wants, or ignores the audience alltogether the equation will be off. The result of the equation in 3D HLX reflects the quality of the product in the eyes of the audience. The goal is always 100% and the actual result of the equation depends on how acruately the project team measures the variables that cannot be changed and balances the variables that can.
The Design Phase
The design phase consists of the bulk of planning, information architecture, and visual design for the site. The leg work performed during this phase will prevent a lot of wasted time and duplication later. All aspects of the site are considered: technical, visual, functional, and many more. At the end of the design phase a through and detailed proposal for the web site can be produced as a deliverable. In general, the design phase involves the expertise of information architects, subject experts, and graphic designers. Technical staff, maintainers, and audience advocates should also be involved in the planning.
The Development Phase
The development phase covers all aspects of producing the raw materials to build a web site. This phase actualizes all of the planning and prepares to take the web site live. Graphic markups become real HTML, systems are bought or developed and implemented, and training materials and documentation are prepared. Development can be longer or shorter than the design phase depending on the complexity of the site, issues encountered during implementation, and how many "out of the box" products are used. The development phase primarily involves the subject experts and techinical staff. Information architects, graphic designers, maintainers, and audience advocates should all monitor the implementation.
The Deployment Phase
The deployment phase takes the web site from release to end of life. The web site changes hands from the development team to the party responsible for maintenance. Content is usually generated or migrated during this phase and training is also common. Deployment is the longest phase since it continues for the the life of the site. By the deployment phase most technical staff, graphic designers, and information architects are moved to a reactive role and are primarily involved with support and updates. Subject experts and maintainers run the system in production with occasional intervention from audience advocates.
The Hypertext Layer
The Hypertext Layer is the functional content contained within the site, the information the end-user is seeking. This layer includes text, meta-data, and markup used to convey semantic meaning and embedded hyperlinks in the content. The hypertext layer also includes images and other media that are part of the content. Markup used to organize the site or control the presentation of the content is not included in this layer.
The Layout Layer
The Layout Layer consists of the structural grouping of documents through the design of the interface, organization of navigational links, and the arrangement of pages in the file system. This layer uses HTML, media, and scripts to organize the site in ways meaningful to the the end-user. Layout asscoates content to URLs and other units of content.
The Expression Layer
The Expression Layer dictates the visual presentation of the site. This layer ties together the hypertext and layout to create a coherient document and helps ensure a consistant appearance among documents in the site. Expression can even be device dependent, so content is presented in an optimal format for different media.
This is the group of individuals working on the site. It may be as few as one and as many as hundreds. There are an infinate number of ways this team can be divided and sub-divided. For the purpose of this process there will be occasional refferences to teams correlating to phases and layers (such as the Design Team, or the Layout Team), but this does not imply actual teams should be organized this way.
The client for a given project is the party in need of a web site. The client may be the same group that comprises the project team, a related group, or a completely separate entity. It is important to note that even though the client has the need for a web site, that site is not necessarily intended for the client's use on the web.
This is the group of people the web site is ultimately for. The web site should meet some demand placed on the client by the audience. If the web site is an intranet the audience may very well be the client. For most internet sites the client and the audience are two separate groups. It is not uncommon for internet and intranet sites to be paired such that both are tied to the same content. In this case, the audience for the intranet side might be the client, but the audience for the internet side would be some portion of the general population.
Information Architecture is the science and art of organizing information in relatively intuitive, easy to learn, user-centric schemes. It is a very complicated discipline drawing on a wide variety of fields. Information Architecture is an offshoot of Library and Information Science, which is concerned with understanding how people use information systems.
More Information on Information Architecture
The topology of a web site is a conceptual model that describes how various chunks of information are defined and related. Topologies include the surface interlinking between documents (hypertext links) and other meta-data relations such as content intended for the same audience or about the same product. Any useful relationship between units of information in the site could be part of the topology.
Content is information and can be found in the form of text, images, audio, video, or any combination of media. Individual units of content are most often combined to form co-herent documents. Similarly, any document can be considered a collection of content units or chunks. The granularity of these content chunks is arbitrary from the end-user's point of view, but may make a big difference in how a web site is created and maintained.
Content management is a method or system for creating, editing, destroying, versioning, classifying, and indexing information into useful chunks. It is often tied to one or more packages of software that make these tasks easier and coordinate them among multiple people. Content management may also be a set of practices and procedures, a human work flow, that layers on top of such software or in place of it.
Content that can be used by people with diverse physical, mental, and technological capabilities is accessible. Web Accessiblity is the practice of making a web site accessible so that users with various forms of disabilities can use the web site with the aid of assistive technology. Accessiblity is a requirement for usability.
Usability & Web Usability
Usability is the study how a product can be best suited to a target audience. Making products more usable might mean specialzing them for a very specific niche audience (Specialized Usability) or keeping the design more general for a broader audience (Broad Usability).
Web Usability is the application of usability principles to web sites. Web Usabilty includes both meeting the expectations of people familair with using the web and making use of the site as easy as possible for less web-savvy users.
For intranet sites, or internet sites targeted at a specific audience, specialized usability should be geared towards that audinence. Internet sites for the general public, or broad demographics should use broad usability. Both types of sites should maintain web usability and web accessiblity.
Actualization is the process of taking ideas for a web site and converting them into web deliverable forms including but not limited to : HTML, Server Side Scripts, CSS, Images, PDF, Audio, Video, and Flash or other Plug-in files.
Repurposing & Reuse
Repurposing is the process of taking materials designed for one medium, such as print media, and converting them for use in another medium, such as the web. Repurposing often involves moving content from one software package to another.
Reuse is the methodology of using the same content among many different deliverables on one or more medium. Content designed for reuse has all information for such transformations embedded in the content itself, little or no editing should be required if content is truley resuable.
Functional and Non-Functional Content
The information architects in a project team are responsible for ensuring that the information is presented clearly and is organized in a manner that is intuitive to the audience and easy to learn. Scalability of the site, speed of use, and success rates are some of their primary concerns.
The subject experts in a project team are often either writers (often technical writers) that are heavily involved with a particular field, or non-writers that have a lot of first hand knowledge of that field. Their function is to ensure that information is presented accurately, appropriately, and is kept up-to-date.
The graphic designers focus on making the site meet a certain aesthetic goal. These project members have to take the contraints of the information architects, the advice of the subject experts, the desires of the client, and the expectations of the audience into consideration.
The technical staff for a project consists of the programmers, system-administrators, help desk, and other technology support that make the production and delivery of the web site possible. Some technical staff are only involved in the design and development of a web site. The staff that supports the site after deployment might be the same or a different staff associated with client.
The maintainers receive the site during hand-off and keep the site going by updating the content as needed. Maintainers might be technical writers, journalist, secretarial assistants, technical staff, or any employee depending on the type of site. In an ideal situation the maintainers work with the subject experts, if they are not subject experts themselves.
The audience advocate is a project member that keeps the needs and expectaions of the audience, as best as they are understood, in mind during all design decisions. The site is ultimately made for the audience and cannot not be built strictly acording to the client's agenda. The audience advocate acts as a bridge between the client, project team, and audience to ensure that the site is designed with the audience in mind, not the client or the project team.