Thursday, January 5, 2017

Information Architecture

Information architecture is simply the practice of structuring information and is most often put to use when designing large websites. It is a term used to describe the organization of a web site and includes aspects such as navigation, functionality, content, information, and usability.

Designers of large and complex websites are particularly concerned with information architecture and the formal processes that it involves. In fact most of the larger web design companies have established information architecture departments. However small business website owners/designers can also benefit from some elements of the process and here is an illustrative example.

Let’s say you are an up-market antique jewelry store owner and are planning a website.

The first thing you would do is determine your website’s goals. As a store owner this is quite straightforward because the goal is simply to sell your inventory of antique jewelry. However you can imagine that in a large organization there will be multiple goals. For example the human resources department will want to advertise vacancies, the PR department will want to communicate with the shareholders and so on for all the various stake holders within the company.

The next thing to do is determine who the audience will be (your target market). Given your experience in the store you may decide that these will be couples who are soon to be engaged or married, collectors and people looking for a gift to mark an anniversary. There will be other audiences but this is a simplified example.

Now that you have a clear idea of your site’s goals and who the audience is you can compile a list of what it should contain. That means simply write the headings not the content itself. When you have an exhaustive list of headings you can group and label them.

After you have decided on the content groupings and labels, use them to define the major sections of your site and the names of each section. The sections will become the basis for your site structure.

(Information architects will at this point produce architectural blueprints or visual representations of the site structure. These are simply diagrams showing how elements of the site are grouped and relate to one another. If the site is large they will make several architectural blueprints starting with an overview and working toward diagrams with a finer grain within the site).

Next create the site structure by arranging the sections from broad to narrow. Here is a simplified diagram of how it might look.

The idea here is that given the overall theme of the site (Antique Jewelry) you move from broad (Periods, Types, Makers, etc.) to narrow (Edwardian, Victorian, Regency etc.) to specific. Specific is in this case your inventory. The structure resembles a pyramid with your home page at the apex and your inventory at the base.

So for example the ‘Tiffany Co. three stone Edwardian engagement ring’ will be found easily and naturally by someone looking for Edwardian jewelry, or someone looking for an engagement ring or by a collector of Tiffany jewelry. Site linkage is done from top to bottom (downwards) with the minimum of linking across the width of the pyramid.

There are many other possible structures but ‘pyramid theming’ has many advantages, not least that if you add content to your site (which you should do regularly) it is easy to see where it should placed for maximum benefit.

Once the site structure has been determined you can see what sort of functionality will be required and then the site navigation will just fall logically into place. (At this point Information Architects will construct a model and conduct cognitive walkthroughs. This is simply a review technique where expert evaluators role play the part of a user working within the navigation system on particular ‘tasks’ i.e. they are ‘walking through’ the interface. Any problems with the navigation can be picked up before the site is built).

You may want to use some of these ideas when building your next website or working on a redesign.

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