Information architecture tips

5th April 2001

Chris Rourke answers a reader's question in Scottish Computer Headline.

Question

Your last article mentioned that good information architecture improves website usability. We are developing a large intranet site with a variety of information and we realise users may have trouble finding things. What can we do to investigate and improve the information architecture during design?

Chris Rourke's response
Information architecture is an important field closely aligned with usability. It involves the design of labelling, navigation, organization and search systems to help people find and manage information more successfully. On a broad level the steps you should perform are:

  1. Identify the site’s mission and goals.
  2. Establish a consensus across departments about what makes a good site.
  3. Develop a “wish list” of everything that could be included at the site.
  4. Define the site’s audience, ranking specific audience groups in terms of importance, then identify the three most important information needs of each.
  5. Create a “content inventory” that identifies groups of information to include in the site.

This will help ensure the site is user-centred. For the last step, a useful technique to create the foundation for your site navigation and structure is called Card Sorting. Its purpose is to explore how people group items and is appropriate when you have identified what you need to categorise. For intranets this may include resources and information such as phone lists, department contacts, reports and other company specifics. The basic procedure is:

  1. Identify the comprehensive set of information items in your site
  2. Write each item name on a 3×5 index card
  3. Ask at least six individual test subjects to group the cards into categories that make sense to them
  4. Have each test subject name their groups and explain why they are grouped
  5. Examine and analyse the groupings in a spreadsheet

You will find that patterns and common groups emerge which should help form the basis of intuitive navigation for your site.

This is just one of many techniques. There are several sources on the web for further information, but the most comprehensive are the sites for Argus and The Elegant Hack in the US.

The course was extremely interesting and very useful. It has clarified a lot of dark areas on Usability and IA and really inspired us to go out there and start applying new techniques with our clients and educate them on the importance of IA and Usability testing.

User Vision training delegate.