Let’s start out and define Information Architecture.
One definition of Information Architecture is “the organization, labelling and structuring of data for content-based applications such as websites.
This emerging field has become more prominent in recent years as websites have grown increasing complex and users demand more friendly navigation systems.
Information Architects organize content, such as text, labels, graphics, and shopping carts, so that users can understand the site’s content and do things faster on the site.
Have you ever asked yourself: “How do I find that page again?”
Well, that site could probably have used a spoonful of Information Architecture medicine.
The role of the ‘Information Architect’ is similar to a traditional Architect. For example, before building a house an Architect will create a blue-print, work with the builders, plasters, and electricians and oversee the construction.
Lack of ‘architectural planning’ in web development is very expensive as large portions of the site may need to be improved (i.e. totally re-written) to correct areas that were overlooked in the haste just to ‘get something out there’.
An Information Architect also gives the Financial Controllers a better grasp of costs and contingency figures; improvised site designs frequently run over budget.
Defining Sites Goals
Companies that wish to develop a commercial website have specific business goals in mind. The Information Architect captures these areas (not unlike the business requirements phase) and circulates them to all team leaders.
Large-scale websites often use Market Research and Focus Group testing, the results of which become incorporated into the site development plan.
Analysis and Requirments Gathering
Tools such as Visio, Word, and PowerPoint are used to prepare the site structure, labels the content sections, and defining content into hierarchical groups.
To achieve all this, the Information Architects will:
• Interview the client and note their business priorities.
• Organize Focus Group tests.
• Make Competitive Analysis.
• Benchmark competitor sites.
• Examine functional requirements.
A Design Document is then prepared which highlights critical risks and success factors. This also involves mapping the site structure, organizing the content on pages, and designing navigation systems.
During the development process, the Information Architect establishes key deliverables and milestones — usually in conjunction with the Project Manager — to assist the client and team leaders in keeping the project on track.
At each major stage, the client is sent mock-ups of the work in progress. It’s also essential to brief the client as the site develops to help them understand what they are paying for and what areas are in development.
Any presentations should be in line with the client’s level of understanding. Most prefer to see diagrams on both paper and PC’s to see how the site will function.
In defining the site layout, the following areas need to be covered:
1. Site Maps — flowchart the navigation and main content sections to illustrate how users navigate, e.g. from the Catalogue to the Shopping Cart.
2. Content Maps — identify the content appears for each page and how it cross-references other groups.
3. Page Schematics — the Graphic Designer illustrates the page layout and categorize the links, content, advertising space, and navigation on each page. Schematics also highlight priority and hierarchies.
4. Storyboarding and Prototyping — prepare mock-ups to demonstrate how the site will perform.
When clients fail to grasp the long-term value of planning, the Information Architect will explain the benefits of concentrating on this area before any coding begins—and the potential risks that may occur by avoiding such steps.
Before evaluating a website, you need to examine the following:
• Target audience — who will use the site
• Business goals — what are the site’s objectives and critical success factors
• Technical constraints — what technical requirement need to be examined
• Future plans — considerations for future expansion and scalability
The Information Architect is responsible for exploring the project’s goals and objectives — it’s the client’s responsibility to ask about costs, timeframes and contingency plans.
Content needs to be gathered quickly. And as it could be stored in different file formats and media formats, it needs to be made ‘web compatible’ and also formatted for other web channels, such as WAP and DTV.
After designing the site structure and navigation system, you can map content to different sections. You also need to label content for cross-referencing in databases and file sharing. Well-organized content enables the user to find things quickly and encourage them to stay on your site.
Use the 3 Click Test — if it takes more than 3 clicks to find something, design your navigation paths again.
Once you have gathered the content—or at least sufficient content to start—begin refining the content groups.
Every section requires specific content. Each of these groups needs to have the correct content and cross-references to other relevant groups. Refine the groups to get an equal distribution of content across all sections, so that the site is not over-populated in some sections and ‘under construction’ in others.
Divide large content groups into sub-groups. In this way, users can retrieve data swiftly and will not get lost is a sea of links!
Combining Visual Design and Content
Remember, visitors want three things on your site:
• Fast downloads
• High-quality content
• Ease of use
Your content should drive the site. Graphics enhance the content, not replace it. The exception is probably entertainment sites where content and imagery are very closely tied together.
During the design phase, keep returning to these Big Three mentioned above. Successful websites provide as much information as possible with the least clicks. Select the color schemes in accordance with the company’s branding guidelines and business goals.
Future of Information Architecture
Information Architecture will play an increasingly important role in the success of large-scale websites, intranets and e-libraries. As more content gets produced, it needs to be labelled correctly, and structured for rapid access by users with different levels of experience.