This blog looks at how to direct and control your web application, be it a website or Intranet. What is often forgotten is that information architecture is fundamental to what a web application is and does: it defines its scope. A good information architecture meets both business and user objectives by means of a user experience strategy.
Previously, I gave a general introduction to information architecture and I referred to a supermarket website and how you might group things together and label them in a way that users understand. This is generally a good idea, as long as it’s aligned with business objectives: we have to be realistic here. Sometimes it’s for the public’s own good because, as i guessed in my last blog, some people (65% according to this BBC article – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-23367268) will just think of meat as meat, cooked or uncooked, and be happy to put them together in a bag and probably on a user-defined supermarket shelf – something of a hygiene factor! And, as I also said previously, customers (especially parents) would be unlikely to group sweets next to the checkout in a physical supermarket architecture!
So, what is all this about? Governance. Like it or not, things need a bit of control but where that control comes from and how it is managed is the subtle part. It’s an issue both for websites and intranets. Websites are at risk of being driven by the whims of the Sales & Marketing seniors or, even worse, by the whims of an agency they hire. Engaging users in card sorting exercises helps to design a structure that makes sense. Similarly you can validate a site structure – or changes/additions to that structure – with a tree test. Tree tests are great because it allows the users to truly test the fundamental information structure without being cluttered by the design or layout of your actual site. This all seems tremendously democratic. What about those 65% who get things wrong? Well, the reality is that sometimes the users do get it wrong so in reality you shouldn’t be too literal about all parts of user research such as card sorting and like it or not some stakeholder (steak-holder?) or other will want to find some way of putting certain things in users faces – in a language they may wish to choose. A compromise is made but objectives for both parties are met as far as possible.
When it comes to intranets then having a good information architecture in place is critical as it provides a validated reason for the structure of the site. In governance terms it also provides you with good reason not to change it willy-nilly. One of the greatest problems is that everyone wants a piece of it – “oh could you just add a tab for my product/team on the home page” or whatever. Sites that give in to those kind of requests become a mess and then become another project, until it becomes a mess again. In other words, information architecture governance helps you manage change control to ensure that you don’t lose and confuse your users by constantly shifting things around and letting the structure go at the seams. No one will thank you for letting it go, except the people you bring in to sort it out.
So in summary, a good user experience strategy means good information architecture which in turn means good governance. In reality, this is the happy compromise between the objectives of the business (that wishes to sell or say things) and those of the users (who wish to find things as easily as possible). It is critical in not only getting a website or intranet right – but in keeping it right through the process of change control.