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Podcast 2: Information Architecture

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Jan2010 05

There are certain buzzwords that once coined take on a life of their own. For us, information architecture is definitely one of them. We remember years ago when we first came across the term we thought about it and it made sense but we really had no idea what it meant and certainly never realized how much we would come to rely on it and just how important it is to the success of any website.

Information architecture defined

A quick search on Wikipedia gives us the following definition: “Information architecture is the art of expressing a model or concept of information used in activities that require explicit details of complex systems.” OK, so that isn’t the clearest definition but at least it gets us on the right track. This notion of expressing information in a complex system, though a bit vague, does speak directly to the role information architecture plays on a website. The website is our complex system made up of various types of content and the organizing of this content is the expressing information piece. This organizing will largely define the layout of our pages and the navigation scheme our website uses. To put it succinctly, information architecture is the foundation upon which the website will be built.

Information architecture and user experience

If the information architecture is the foundation then it is critical that this foundation can support our website (and our website users). It is not enough to simply build a page for this content and build a page for that content and use this layout here and that layout there. Quite frankly this is how websites used to evolve. What happened back then was that the website soon had too many pages and these pages weren’t properly organized and the website quickly became difficult to navigate. In such a scenario the user experience suffered. And this is the critical component that information architecture brings to any website – enhancing the user experience. If your user can’t find things on your website, well the website (and your business or organization) will suffer. Today any website designer will gather all the types of content your website needs to display and organize that content before the website is even built. This is a critical step. Tedious? Sometimes. But definitely critical!

Good information architecture in practice

Because information architecture is rather nebulous, let’s look at a website where excellent information architecture is apparent. CNN is a very content heavy website that is updated every few minutes. Let’s take a minute to look at their website. What we want you to notice is the organization. The placement of every section on this website, the structure of the navigation, the design of each page – all of these are the result of a clear and well thought out information architecture design. This ensures that CNN always has a place for any type of content not matter how diverse and that this content is well organized, easy to navigate and laid out in a clear, succinct manner. And this connects back to the user experience we mentioned earlier. That experience is much better now. OK, now most websites don’t have nearly as much content as CNN but looking at their website as an example we can practically see the information architecture in place.

Laying the groundwork for a solid information architecture

Now that we have your attention and you’ve thought through all the different types of content you need on your website – Now what? How then do we ensure we have a strong information architecture? Well, for me, the first part is sitting down together and grouping the content. And when we say content here we are not talking about finished copy. This is far more high level at this point. Now everyone has their own ideas about the best way to accomplish this grouping but we have found that a good old deck of blank index cards, a sharpie and a large table is all we need. We start by writing the title of each content piece needed for the website on a card. Depending on the size of the site we may have 20 cards, we may have 100 or more but when we’re done and all the different types of content are accounted for we can then start organizing the cards into logical groups. Some cards are deleted, some are combined, some are added. The end result of this exercise is a document defining the pages and navigation scheme for the entire website.

Keep in mind that you as the client will know what information your website should have and your website designer will know the best practices for logically grouping this information for the purpose of the website. Information architecture is largely about taking these two inputs and establishing a result that will benefit – you guessed it – the website visitor by enhancing his or her user experience. It certainly is a collaborative effort.

Why is information architecture so darn important?

Strangely we often find that folks don’t find this part of a project to be all that important. Some have actually asked if we could simply skip it and just build the website. But if content is the most important piece of any website if follows then that finding this content and presenting this content in a clear way is critical. This is why information architecture is so darn important. If your navigation and page layouts are confusing your website is doomed. If your navigation and page layouts are logical and well presented your website is much more likely to be a glowing success. It sounds simple but without working through the information architecture exercises we would never have arrived at our glowing success of a website.

Conclusion

We often use the analogy of building a house when talking about building a website. Any house (and any website) needs a solid foundation. For a website, information architecture provides this foundation. Everything that comes after this step – defining page layouts, navigation schemes, placement of design elements, programming interactions – all are founded on the information architecture. With a solid information architecture in place your website is on its way to delivering visitors an excellent user experience where they will be able to easily navigate and quickly find the content they seek and that content will be presented to them in a well designed layout. They’ll be happy and that will make you happy as well.

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