Practical information architecture

10th June 2002

User Vision gives some useful and practical tips to help create effective information architecture and improve users experiences.

Can’t find what you’re looking for on your favourite website? The chances are that the site isn’t structured in a way that matches your own mental organisation. A good Information Architecture (IA) should put this to rights, says Chris Rourke, as he provides some tips on making your own website more in tune with your users.

When you search for something on your favourite website, do you easily find what you are looking for? Can you quickly understand the basic structure of the site and is information located where you expect it to be? If not, then the Information Architecture of the site may need to be improved to better match the mental model of you and other users.

Information Architecture (IA) is the science of designing the labelling, navigation, organization and search systems to help people find and manage information more successfully. A core part of traditional information management positions such as librarianship, IA is a discipline that pre-dates the popular use of the web, but it has grown increasingly important in the past few years as web use has grown. Why? – because if web users can’t find the information or product they are looking for, they’ll give up on the site and not return, regardless of how impressive the graphics and cutting edge technologies are.

IA is closely aligned with web usability and its importance to large scale website design is increasing as more and more information is stored on servers and a wider range of people use the web. Within the scope of web development, information architecture involves the logical deconstruction, labelling and categorising of the mass of information you have on your site.

Getting the right category

Underlying the need for IA is the fact that everyone organises and labels their information world slightly differently. Have you ever tried to find a file stored in a colleague’s computer file directory? Their organisation system usually differs from your own, preventing you from finding things. When you eventually call them to ask where it is, they may say “Its simple, I filed the invoice under the directory Work (activity) > Training (work type) > 2001 (year) > June (month) > Acme (client name)”. It’s a perfectly logical system for that person. However, you may not find it because your logical mental model is based on a broader, shallower information architecture such as Acme > 2001 > Training, and you struggle to find the file. A similar thought process happens in large bookstores – if you are looking for a book on meditation do you go to the section on religion, health & fitness, psychology, philosophy, new age….? Very often you end up asking the store attendant (the search engine).

What’s in a name

In addition to the categorisation quandary, another challenge to overcome in organising information is labelling. Items can have more than one name. Is it a video camera or a camcorder? Soft drinks, fizzy drinks or non-alcoholic drinks? The challenge is even greater with an international audience using the same language: are they nappies or diapers? If the user does not relate to your labelling system they are likely to go away unsatisfied.

Practical IA measures

Many techniques are available for improving the IA of web sites. One of these is to develop a controlled vocabulary set and taxonomies so the same things are consistently labelled throughout your site. It’s also useful to organise the information the way that the user sees it, which may not necessarily be the same as the way the business behind the website sees it. A large organisation may have grown very used to the fact that they have distinct business units and cost centres called A, B and C. However, the average consumer may just see them as a company with product ranges X, Y and Z instead, which may not necessarily coincide with the business units. A good way to explore how your potential site users would organise and categorise your site is to use the card sorting methodology.

Card sorting is a useful technique used to explore how people group items and is appropriate when you have identified what you need to categorise. For an intranet 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 Have each test subject name their groups and explain why they are grouped
  4. 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.

Another important part of IA is indexing the content of the individual web pages so that the search engine is more successful in returning what the user wants. It is often helpful to look at your site search logs and find out what your customers are actually looking for. You can use this information to revise the meta-tag indexing on pages so users are more likely to get back relevant results. It may even be worth building a specific page for the results of a search on certain terms if they are very popular with your users.

In addition to categorising a site better, the Information Architect can also help create logical, well-organised web pages. They will help determine the contents of the navigation and whether it is worth helping the user understand where they are within the information space through a breadcrumb trail or by highlighting the current section on the navigation bar. IA’s will often produce basic wireframe versions of web pages to ensure the same type of information is shown in the same place consistently as the user browses the site; a type of “informational handrail” to guide the user. This type of discipline will help make sure the web development team does not implement aesthetic flourish at the expense of practical function.

In the US the role of Information Architect is well established, and most medium and large-scale sites will have someone who is responsible for this area. It is a growth area for successful web design in the UK, and people with a solid background in usability, library studies and information management often make the best candidates since many of the techniques are the same.

Various evidence seems to be justifying the increased demand for IA in web design, including abandoned shopping carts and angry emails from frustrated web browsers. If you are in doubt whether to make efforts to improve the information architecture on your current web project, just think back to the time you tried to find a file on your friend’s computer.

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This article was written by Chris Rourke. Chris is the Managing Director of User Vision, a usability and accessibility consultancy that helps clients gain a competitive advantage through improved ease of use.

The power of the web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect

Sir Tim Berners-Lee.