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Information Architecture

Last updated Oct 17, 2003.

In today's fast-paced society where first impressions can make or break a Web site, information architecture (IA) works to make the user experience a positive one. IA is the process of figuring out what the site will do and how it will work. In their book Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville describe the role of the information architect:

  • Clarifies the mission and vision for the site, balancing the needs of its sponsoring organization and the needs of its audiences.

  • Determines what content and functionality the site will contain.

  • Specifies how users will find information in the site by defining its organization, navigation, labeling, and searching systems.

  • Maps out how the site will accommodate change and growth over time.

It's the information architect's responsibility to build the foundation of the Web site. The IA process involves defining the audience, creating a site map or the blueprints showing a hierarchical relationship in organizing the site, designing the navigation based on the site's organization, creating a labeling system clearly illustrating the meaning of the site's navigation labels for the links, and building information design wireframes.

Inherent in the development of a site's architecture, IAs also have to be fortune tellers—understanding how the site may grow and change over time. Sites that are not well-planned initially create long-term headaches for both designers and users. IA should be scalable to account for inevitable change.

Whew, and that's not the end of it. They also work with usability and content. Additionally, when faced with a redesign, many IAs are confronted with additional challenges of a ten-headed hydra: a site that grew without a plan. In such a case, they may have to develop an entirely new architecture and include all the content elements that the users demand.

Although the rule is that a Web site should be usable without resorting to search, many arrive at Web sites through a search engine. Search engines are a lifesaver, but they create nightmares for Web sites because the visitor can land anywhere within the Web site. Imagine arriving on a page with an article, but no links to the main page or elsewhere. Savvy Web surfers play with the URL when they get in this situation. The rest of the crowd is confused and instead clicks on the BACK button to return to whence she came.

Information chunking has been around long before the Web and is essential for Web content. Readers scan chunks of information until they find what they're looking for. Unlike the newspaper or other print resources, the information on the Web is rarely read in sequence. Organizing information is common sense for the most part. A paragraph discussing an idea or concept might have a term supporting the idea that is new to readers. Rather than devoting another paragraph on the term, link to it. Those who know it won't have to read it or face more text. Those who don't know it click on the link. This puts the user in control.

Controlled vocabularies ensure that we speak the same language and understand something to mean the same thing. Create lists of words and phrases to form labels and search terms and organize them in a controlled way. This process helps with the navigation scheme and tagging items. Use a metadata matrix to begin discussion of controlled vocabulary. The matrix typically includes the term, description, and examples. Based on time and budge, the IA determines the priority of the vocabularies.

Good information architecture helps users find what they seek, whether they want to execute a search query, browse a hierarchy, or contact a human to ask for help. IA works to guide the user in a large confusing site by orienting him through good navigation design. It can help him deal with information overload by filtering out low-quality content. Good information architecture is essentially invisible. If you're struggling with a Web site, you know the IA is not well done.