Information Architecture

I had reason recently to discuss the concept of Information Architecture with a client. In its broad context, as it applies to web, It was readily apparent that this client’s world view, the definition that they pursued was limited to the site navigation and page layout in context of a classic sitemap. Whilst I can understand that most IA’s are referred back to a site map diagram – a trap of the industry – it has occured to me that the definition as interpreted by my esteemed work colleagues who rank developers, project managers, digital strategists and designers (conceptual) is in an entirely different area of focus and emphasis. However, we’re often left with clients that need to understand just what in the world we are talking about. So where is the disconnect?

As is always the case when in doubt, I fall back on the Trusted Wikipedia definition of Information Architecture as a starting point:

“Information architecture (IA) is the art of expressing a model or concept of information used in activities that require explicit details of complex systems. Among these activities are library systems, Content Management Systems, web development, user interactions, database development, programming, technical writing, enterprise architecture, and critical system software design. Information architecture has somewhat different meanings in these different branches of IS or IT architecture. Most definitions have common qualities: a structural design of shared environments, methods of organizing and labeling websites, intranets, and online communities, and ways of bringing the principles of design and architecture to the digital landscape.”

Quite a formal definition that needs bearing in mind if we are to dessiminate the underlying definition in context of the Web world.

When building a website lots of people, including both clients and practitioners make the mistake thinking that it’s easy. It’s not. A well built website considers factors that are the summation of different areas of endeavour for the business or organisation in question. Everyone has a vested interest to ensure that this pesky website thing works – the sales force, corporate comms, IT & IS, HR, executive, products group etc. Ultimately, they are there to support the activities in communicating to the site’s end users, both actual and intended and the intended function of the site in turn supports the business goals being focussed upon.

What is overlooked on a regular basis by both clients and so called ‘expert’ practitioners is the need for us to have an understanding of those other audiences on the business side who have a vested interest as well as the same understanding as it relates to the user side. The often subscribed to view is that managing or eliciting such involvement from other stakeholders internally can uneccesarily stymie the progress of the project. And in contrast, assessing the audience both intended and actual is often just ‘too big a task’ by most peoples standards. Involvement in such activity extends to the IA and how it impacts on the User Experience (UX). IA by our own industries definition is not just the site structure from a page relationship point of view, however the problem is that we often don’t communicate this terribly well to our clients, who are more focussed on the commercial outcome of what the end result will be. And rightly so, as they are the ones ‘paying’ us to deliver results. Succinctly, IA involves not only the navigation and the hierarchical arrangement of the pages, but also encompasses the below aspects.

Who is the audience? Are they going to be myopically challenged (as mentioned below) or have the attention span of a butterfly
Content Layout – Priority and scaling of content in relation to context and intended purpose. The concept of a great tract of text 750 words long doesn’t faze most people – until I point out ‘Would you read that?’ Both clients and practitioners are guilty of not thinking in this area nor offering advice and alternatives. How to solve this? Heading 1, followed by heading 2 byline, followed by 30 word summary, followed by introduction paragraph, use of tabulated data to present data (not to break up data), dot points and cross referencing. If you can’t deal with all that in 250 – 300 words, breakout the massive slab into a PDF Whitepaper, with that as a specific topic.
Images – Either overused (way to large), underused (way to small) or cliched, out of context. How many product sites have I gone too where the images are tiny? Too many.
Use a breadcrumb! Highly underated. This trail and visual cue of where you are in the site gives relevence to the hierachical order of information.
Font Size – Again highly underated. How many sites have I found where the audience is 40+ male white collar workers…. who are probably wearing glasses. Have at the least a font size button which can scale the site up and down.
Information Hierarchy – specifications, instructional guides, price lists, high level description, sizing etc
Print version – like it or not, people still print pages. It’s gotta fit on the A4/Foolscap sheet and is useless if it gets cropped. Savvy website owners will also setup their print variants to have pre-formatted pages with company logo, contact information, the page location within the site, print date and possible cross linked information.

Good User Experience yields ease of access and allows people to fall into the natural rhythm of finding the information they are looking for and if it is done correctly, it is self feeding in that it yields data back giving you insights into your web audience. The key things is that good IA starts at the design stage and should be encompassed in the Wireframes and the Site layout. Excellent IA is the result of good consultant activity at the Pre-Sales / Client Definition / Discovery stage of the project and should take into account a site visit whereby you can ‘soak up’ the atmosphere of the client in question.

All the above needs to be determined before a good IA can be setup and they all impact on the overall User Experience of how site visitors will interact with your site. The current line of thought extends to the notion that interactivity with your site is a reflection of how a client interacts with your brand. Brand as a touch point is every single interactivity they have with your organisation – products, service, phone call centre, printed material, customer interaction, your staff, your sales force, the words being portayed in popular media…. and your website.