Information Architecture – A Proven Approach to Building Better Websites

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Effective websites have good content that is well-organized, so people can navigate intuitively and find what they need. Information Architecture is a proven, structured approach to organizing, identifying, and presenting content for users. It enables websites to meet the business goals of the organization and improves usability.

Morville and Rosenfeld[1] define three considerations for website architecture: Context, Content, and Users.

  • Business Context – refers to the organization’s goals and objectives for the site. Business Context also covers funding, deadlines, politics, and project resources – human and technical.
  • Content -this is all the “stuff” that goes into a website. When evaluating potential content, consider what is current, appropriate, useful, and relevant. What formats are used? How much content is there? Who maintains it? Is any new content needed? Is metadata needed? (Metadata can be used for semantic – adding meaning and making content more findable, or for administrative reasons -permissions etc.)
  • Users – Who is the target audience? What are the goals, behaviors, demographics, and environments where they will use the site? What are the key user tasks the site needs to support; one-time quick use, or in-depth research?

These considerations all effect the structure of the site. A fourth, lesser consideration is the technology. What support is needed for operating systems or browsers? What are the available content management systems (CMS), libraries or plug-ins? What are the target connection speeds and devices? Also, when are updates for the technologies scheduled for release?

In some respects, websites can be thought of as content-delivery applications. The line between web application and website gets blurrier every day. The same research methods (on context, content, and users) are useful for both an application and a website. In traditional application development, application designers and systems analysts create workflows for performing specific functions. Similarly, website architects craft navigational paths for browsing. The benefit of good Information Architecture is that it organizes content in a way that makes sense to the user.

Website visitors bring pre-existing notions for look and function, based on other websites they have used. Diverging from “standards” can confuse users, limit the effectiveness of the site, and degrade the user experience. Ultimately, the users determine the site’s success as they interact with the functionality and content, so effective information architecture considers the user’s mental models in site design and layout. One way to do this is to use patterns similar to real-world processes. For example, users put items they wish to purchase into a virtual shopping cart and then proceed to “check out”, just as they would in a physical store. When business goals call for a radically different site, with an unfamiliar mental model, design and effectiveness must be proven and refined through in-depth user testing.

Browsing is the preferred way of presenting information to the user. Users navigate along pre-designed paths (hyperlinks, menus, breadcrumbs). Larger, more complex sites might need specialized “guides” – lists of links organized by audience or topic, or simple site maps. The key to effective browsing is to test and revise the design with actual users. Card sorting and other tools help the website architect create structure, labels, and categories that speak the users’ language and follow their mental models. The goal is to match the user’s expectations, and group the information in ways that make logical sense. Browsing tools can include hierarchies (tree structures), or polyhierarchies – where the same item can fall into more than one category and at different places within the hierarchy. Large e-commerce sites can use collaborative filtering (i.e. customers who bought this also liked…). Finally, it helps to have different levels of navigation for “global” (across the site), “mid-level”, and “local” options for finding related content at the same level in the hierarchy.

Unlike applications, websites also have search considerations. Public-facing websites are at the mercy of outside search engines, which may send users directly to a page deep within a site. It also can be difficult to control the results produced by internal site search engines, particularly since users typically write ineffective search queries. For internal search engines, managing the number and type of results is also challenging. In search, there’s always a tradeoff between precision (fewer, more focused results, with the chance of missing something) and Recall (with more results, and more comprehensive, but with extra stuff the user doesn’t want).

The goal of search is to encourage the user to go back to browsing, creating a better user experience. Especially when coming from an outside search engine, users will be “parachuting in” many levels deep and can easily be lost far down in the hierarchy. Effective navigation aids such as breadcrumbs and local navigation guides can support browsing after accessing a search result. In addition, Global navigation (main menus) should always be present.

Several techniques can improve Search. Type-ahead, where the Search “suggests” words or auto-completes entries, can help the user. Most internal search engines provide some way to use a thesaurus for synonyms and common search terms or phrases, correcting misspellings, using a controlled vocabulary (“notebook” when the user says “laptop”), and translating jargon or acronyms. Preferred results can be featured at the top of the search results list. For large sites, it helps to provide additional search options for limited-scope, local search (e.g., within only tech support). The search results page should be rich, not just a list of links. The best way to improve search is to regularly review the search logs to see the search terms that were used, then test them to ensure the results make sense from a user perspective and match the business context.

Finally, an effective Information Architecture will make it easy to maintain the website and its content. On a dynamic website, the content can change frequently. In order to avoid outdated content, there should be a way to easily remove results from search-engine indexing. Also, the business context for the website might change; different goals for the site, or new products and services to offer. With the change in business context, the business might also want to attract a different user community. By providing effective structure, it is easier to organize new content and keep a constant vigilance for maintaining the website.

In summary, Information Architecture is a holistic approach to structuring and organizing a website that is based on business context, content, and user needs. The goal is to build websites where people can effectively navigate and actually find what they need. Good Information Architecture helps a site continue to succeed long after the initial launch.

[1] Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, 3rd Ed., by Peter Morville & Louis Rosenfeld, ©2007 O’Reilly Media, page 25.