An Introduction to Information Architecture

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Information architecture (or IA) is the science — some would insist art — of defining the structure, organization, navigation, labeling and indexing of a Website. It is the role of the information architect to decide how a site should be structured, what kind of content it should host, and how to accommodate future growth. In short, information architecture defines the backbone of a Website.

The Forest for the Trees

Many sites start off small, with a handful of pages and not much in the way of structure. What happens when such a site grows? Often, pages and links are stuck pretty much anywhere. The organizational scheme that makes sense to one person may not, however, make sense to another. Consider the classic example of the tomato — is it a fruit or a vegetable? Should you file it under fruits or vegetables? Will your customers find it there? One way to resolve this problem is to think of where you’d find it in the supermarket.

In many cases, the current model of a Website cannot successfully accommodate the multiple mental models of users, and the growth in scope and size of the site itself. If you’re working on an existing Website, you are probably saddled with an overgrown beast that neither you nor your customers can make much sense of. Here’s where IA helps you take a look at the big picture — the primary goal of your Website — and achieve that goal by effectively organizing your site. Let’s take a look at the various ways in which IA does this.

Clutter Clearing and Organizing

In organization lies the difference between customers finding the right pair of jeans on your Website or leaving in frustration. There is more than one way to organize information.

Imagine your home library. You could stack all the books in order of increasing size from left to right, or even by color if you so choose. You could organize your books by author, by title, or even by subject. What’s the best way to organize your books? The right answer is: it depends. Certainly, organizing by size or color is not practical for a public library. The point is that, on the Web, everybody’s library collection is public, and you have to be concerned about organizing your information so that it can be found easily.

The classification scheme you use will depend on variables such as your business goals, the size of your Website, its future growth and expansion plans, the audience(s) you target, and more.

Turn Left at the Third Link

In the real world, people tend to find their way by use of landmarks. On the Web, there are no landmarks and no spatial clues. How do people find their way around a Website? Navigation is the only clue that users have in the virtual world. Consistent and persistent navigation, along with helpful hints like using breadcrumbs and creating homepage links through the logo, all help to keep the user oriented.

The navigation system at ivillage presents its users with a clear mental model of the site by organizing its contents in a directory style. Users are familiar with this style of organization (which is also used at the library, the grocery store, etc.), in which the information at the top level indicates what the sub-levels might look like. While the visitor to the ivillage Website may choose follow the various featured links, the main navigation on the homepage remains a constant.

Whichever model you use, make sure that your navigation scheme fits into that model seamlessly. Again, let us refer to the goal of your Website. For example, browse or buy. Do you want your users to stay a while and browse your collection of recipes, or are you more interested in rushing them through the checkout? Let your navigation scheme direct users accordingly. The top-level navigation, combined with sub-navigation, can help give the user a sense of how your site is laid out and what’s important. The sitemap is another visual aid to help orient the user. Make liberal use of these roadmaps to your Website.

You say Potato, I say Potahto

Before your users call the whole thing off, it is absolutely essential you understand who the Website is for, and what the goal of the Website and its users is.

If your Website is designed for the end user, do not include engineering or marketing jargon in the copy — this will only serve to alienate your users (at best). Labeling must also be clear and consistent throughout the site. In a recent Website redesign, the client had created different content areas for individuals and corporate users. The problem? Users thought the word "individuals" smacked of personal use and, ultimately, they all clicked on the corporate content area. Of course, the "individuals" didn’t find a service plan that interested them.

Here’s a lesson for you: make sure your target audience understands the labels you use. HP, on the other hand, neatly puts a label on its users to provide them with targeted solutions.

Search Me

Search systems are very simple at the interface level. All you need is a text box and a button, and you’re ready to go. But, it’s a whole different story at the back end, where the information architect has to define a vocabulary of keywords for the site, which will serve as the dictionary for the search. Every time a user performs a search, the keywords in the search will be checked against the keywords in the dictionary, and the results will be displayed to the user, based on the match(es) found. Again, it’s a good idea to know your users and understand how they use your Website.

The best example of search, of course, is google, which lets the users get away with all kinds of atrocious (did I spell that right?) spelling. Amazon does a good job by displaying results close to the word you key in if it doesn’t get an exact match (it displayed results with the word "toys" when I typed "Toyys"). Ebay, however, did not understand that when I typed in "Toyys", I was in a hurry and had actually wanted to search for "Toys". Remember: having a search that does not meet the standards set by the others in the industry may only frustrate your users. For smaller Websites, you might not need a search system.

How it all Fits

We know now what IA is, but how does it fit into the Web redesign cycle? Since IA defines the stucture of the site and basically determines its content, it has to be done at the very early stages. The best phase in which to create IA will be right at the beginning.

The Requirements Gathering phase will give you the goals and the scope of the (re)design. With this information in place, you can create a structure for the Website, perhaps in the form of a site map and/or wireframes. Navigation and labeling can be addressed and keywords for the dictionary can be defined at this point. During the visual design and production, the interface is further defined and adjustments can be made to the structure of the site at this point.

Usability testing then reveals any flaws in the architecture, navigation or labeling of the site, if any, and these can be fixed prior to launch.

The information architect is solely responsible for (in small Websites), or, in medium to large Websites, leads a team of people that are focused on delivering some or all of the following:

  1. Competitive Analysis
  2. Site Requirements
  3. Site Goals with the help of all stakeholders
  4. Personas
  5. Wireframes and /or Use Cases for task flow
  6. Navigation and Labeling
  7. Prototype
  8. Vocabulary (if any)
  9. Sitemap
  10. Usability Testing of prototype and wireframes
What about Usability?

Information architecture is a vital component of defining the user experience. Considered architecture and sound planning improve the overall usability of a site. There are several things to consider as regards usability, but it all begins with well-structured information. The best kind of integration between the user interface and the site architecture occurs when the user is completely unaware of anything other than a wonderful experience on the Website — the user experience should be seamless.

Usability involves ease of navigation and the ability to find information quickly and easily among other areas/elements of the site. Information architecture solves these problems at the root instead of at a superficial level. However, the interface that’s presented to the user should itself be intuitive and take advantage of the improved site structure if the site is to be usable.

Conclusion

Information architecture is all about looking at the big picture, then breaking it down into manageable bits of information for your users. Don’t think of information architecture as a separate task if it scares you. Just think of it as a little planning that will go a long way in ensuring that users find your Website organized, and that they can easily navigate to the information that interests them.

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