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!