Information Architecture for Children, Supermarket Shoppers (and Beginners)


I recently tried to explain information architecture (IA) to my 13-year old daughter.  We’re trying to get our house extended just now so we bore the kids a lot with talk about architecture – so I thought I’d bore my daughter some more.  I’m not sure how well I explained it but I think she got it.  I explained that IA is about organising information in the best way, mainly so people can find things – like on websites.  I then talked about a specific example, a supermarket website.  I said that when you go to a supermarket website you want to find things easily – by looking in the right categories or searching.  To design this right, you could ask customers to group various items like tinned tuna, bananas, apples, cooked chicken, raw chicken, etc and ask them to label them.  You can be pretty sure that bananas and apples would be grouped together in Fruit or Fruit & Vegetables but some people might put all meat together and others would separate cooked meat – for hygiene.  In user experience terms, this activity is called a card sort as this is traditionally done by writing items on cards and getting people to sort them into groups and then provide names for those groups.  There are plenty of online tools to do this now.  This gets the site designed in the minds of the user.  It’s not perfect but it helps you structure information in the most optimal way.  I think that’s about as far as I got before we entered Waitrose to get some food.   We didn’t think on it any further.  Waitrose is a nice customer experience and we’d been shopping there for 10 years (and, however good their website is, I’d sooner pick my own fruit and veg thanks!)

What’s interesting about this example is that with shops you have a hybrid real-information architecture as shops have to decide how to group products in their stores and how to label them.  What’s also interesting is that this physical layout has been dictated to users (ok, shoppers) but they’re so used to it that if you asked them to come up with the categories that they’ve got used to over the years then they would probably replicate their local supermarket (though I don’t think parents would opt to split the sweets and confectionery area and put some of it by the checkouts.)  Does it matter who’s idea it was in the first place?  Absolutely not.  What’s easiest for people is what counts and what’s easiest is what’s familiar.  Convention rules again.  What’s nice about information architecture is that because it isn’t physical then things can be described in more than one way – so salami might sit in the Delicatessen category and raw chicken thighs in Uncooked Meat but both could also be tagged as Meat.

The web already has quite a standardised information architecture that has established over time. You know this because when you go to a website you’ll almost be guaranteed to find About Us or the increasingly fashionable Who We Are.  If you’re looking for directions or a phone number then you’ll go to Contact Us or similar.  There’s little point changing these conventions unless you have a very good reason – some companies don’t make Contact Us very obvious as perhaps they don’t want to meet the cost of being contacted!  IA is also relevant at the page level by having key information displayed in priority or relevant places (top and left), having clear information hierarchy (eg text size and image placement to draw the eye): conventions we know from centuries of publishing.

So, information architecture is critical for websites to be successful: it’s a lot more than just visual and functional design.  IA is also important for information systems and business applications although its use is more mature on the web because companies have to compete.  There’s rarely any competition inside an organisation so only the largest or highly information-based organisations have really grasped IA in a big way.  This is of course rapidly changing as people’s awareness of standards is changing: users won’t stand for a poor user experience any more.  It also becomes more important in an era of record-keeping and compliance.

Net time we’ll get into more detail about how information architecture works, how it should link to business objectives and how it can be used for information governance and settling arguments!

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User Experience as Body Language


When designing technological interactions, more often than not, we are designing virtual social interactions.  And social interactions are about communication.  And a key aspect of communication is body language but let’s call it non-verbal communication (nvc) as it’s a bit more inclusive of things like tone.  And communication is conducted by individuals guided by conventions.  And I know you’re not supposed to start sentences with ‘and’ but who cares because it’s a grammatical convention that doesn’t really matter any more and certainly not in such an informal context as blogging.

I’ve previously stated that User Experience Design addresses the ‘how’ as well as the ‘what’ when it comes to system requirements which traditionally focus mainly on what – ie the data, content and functionality in principle.  (UX of course takes this further with information architecture, content strategy, and so on).  If we liken the ‘what’ part to verbal communication then the ‘how’ part is equivalent to nvc, the positioning, the gestures, the tone, even the clothing.  How many systems and websites do we come across that can meet our needs but it’s like dancing with someone who has two left feet or dealing with someone who is socially awkward – like the boys in IT.  I’ve worked a long time in IT which allows me to make mean cracks like that…

Problems in system design arise for two main reasons. Firstly, it’s not a real interaction and most people are not used to modelling virtual interactions in technology to produce something that makes sense. The other, on the web anyway, is the desire for organisations to stand out and be different – and breaking conventions as a consequence.  I once worked on a project with a design agency who had designed a site for another organisation with the navigation on the right.  Interesting, I thought, for right-handers you don’t have to work across yourself.  But that’s nonsense, we mostly read left to right.  And everyone else does it on the left.  It wouldn’t work.  We’re not looking for logical here, we’re looking for understanding.  It’s the same when you see a site or web application with the logo on the right hand side, the search at the bottom, the content not grouped appropriately, the clumsiness of redoing or undoing something, etc.  As usability legend Steve Krug says, conventions are your friends.

The point of the nvc analogy is to always remember how something is conveyed.  Is it clumsy?  Is it awkward?  Can they understand it?  Do people get it?  Should we try it out?  All the usual questions you might ask about, say, a presentation, a best man’s speech, an email, or whatever.  Or is it the abominable ‘training issue’ which you can’t afford online – so dump it in Help/Frequently Unhelpful Questions.  It’s best to try to think of systems as modelling human interactions and to know when it’s time to stop reinventing the wheel.