What is Information Architecture?
The term “Information Architecture” was coined by Richard Saul Wurman, architect, graphic designer and founder of TED. His definition is as follows:
“The study of organizing information with the objective of allowing users to find their own navigation path to knowledge and the understanding of information.”
Richard Saul Wurman
Focusing on the world of the web, we could say that Information Architecture includes:
- The design of the structure of information in systems in which that information has to be shared.
- The creation of different systems to organize, label, navigate and search for information within websites and intranets.
- The set of techniques that help to use and locate information within a system, resulting in a product and/or an experience.
- • The bringing of design techniques and architecture closer to the world of digital information.
However, demarcating Information Architecture’s sphere is difficult. There are disciplines like graphic design, interaction design, experience design, application development and usability which share space with IA, but they are NOT strictly IA.
Drawing an analogy, we could say that creating a website is like creating a building.
Interaction designers define what it is that can be done in the building and how it will be done. For example, open the door, call the elevator, get off the elevator, enter a meeting room—end of the “navigation” experience.
- Usability engineers study how users do these tasks. When new users enter the building, they can’t find the elevator, since it’s behind the stairs and there is no sign for it.
- The graphic designer will define the building’s shape, the color of the doors, etc.
- The software developer will be the architect of the building itself and will determine the materials and the construction technique.
- The information architect will define what the different ways will be for users to find what they want (a floor, an office, a meeting room). They will label each floor, office, meeting room, etc. to help users know where they are. They will determine the order of the elements that can be found in each area; for example, saucepans will be found in the area intended for the kitchen, and not in the area for working with computers.
The importance of IA is found in the values brought to a project and in the reduction of costs. For example:
- What will happen to the valuation of my brand if I manage to make it so my users can find what they’re looking for on my website? What will happen if I don’t?
- How much is it costing me when my users cannot find what they’re looking for?
Who is the information architect and what does the information architect do?
Currently, there isn’t any official certification system to work as an information architect. Therefore, the backgrounds of the people who practice this discipline are very diverse, but they are related to website development, library and information science, design, journalism, etc. Most have been self-taught through reading and professional experience.
From an academic standpoint, this discipline is being taken into account more by some educational institutions (list of IA programs).
Among an information architect’s tasks is that of unifying the different criteria within a company or organization “adding together the business model + the organizational culture + users + usage scenarios” in order to obtain the content universes and their functionalities. Then, the information architect can proceed to define the navigation and the organization system, in order to be able to draw up “the design of how the information is presented, so it will be more easily understood“”—that is, generating a wireframe, the design abstraction and the ordering of the content, without any kind of reference to the website’s final design.
Why should a company invest time and money in its information architecture??
If we think about everything written above, we could make a brief list of the main reasons why a company should invest in Information Architecture:
- It reduces search times, and increases the effectiveness of the user’s tasks.
- It increases customer satisfaction.
- It increases the credibility of products and brand.
- All of the above would be reflected in the company’s economic performance, and therefore.
- It improves competitiveness.
In order to discuss the influence Information Architecture has on users, we have to talk about User-Centered Design (UCD). IA does not influence users. It’s the users who define and modify the way information is shown and classified. They are the ones who will use our search and navigation systems. Instead of simply thinking of an application and later testing it out with users, we have to start thinking about the people who are going to use these applications from the beginning. Hence, observing users and studying what they do is one of the main tasks of UCD and of IA. Such study allows us to consider strategies with which to guide our users to carry out certain tasks that are of interest to us.
Following UCD methodology, what are the phases/stages of developing a website?
This is always the start of any project. In the planning phase, the website’s objectives must be clarified, as well as its needs, its requirements and its potential audience’s objectives.
The data obtained in the planning stage will be a basis for the initial definition of the design.
2.1 User Modeling:
This is about creating classes or profiles of users, based on some common characteristics. In this way, the designer can keep the group of people he or she is designing for in mind.
2.2 Conceptual Design:
In this phase, we define the outline of the website’s structure, operation and navigation, focusing specifically on the information architecture and not on the sites visual aspect.
In Content structuring, we determine the granularity of the information elements contained in the pages, the existing relation between the website’s various pages or the network topology.
During this phase, we can highlight User-Centered Design’s card sorting technique. With this technique, we hand out a series of cards to some users, which are labeled with our site’s different categories or sections, so that the users can put them in order. That way, we can adjust our structure to our users’ mental structure.
2.3 Visual Design and Defining the Style:
We specify in this phase the visual aspect of our website and the behavior of the interaction elements, in addition to defining how the multimedia elements will be presented. In order to not lose the user’s perspective, we should bear in mind the user’s behavior during the visual sweep of the page, the elements’ positions in the interface, avoid information overload with good organization, etc.
2.4 Content Design:
Writing on the web should be different from traditional writing. The medium compels us to be accurate, concise, creative and succinct when writing. We must also adopt our wording to needs of the users.
We must create prototypes with models of the website’s interface. These can be made with a paper and pencil or with software (Visio, Axure, Omnigraffle, etc.). This method does not cost much in terms of money nor in terms of effort when it comes to measuring a website’s usability, because one can consider different prototypes, study them from a usability point of view, and later make a decision, without having to put in a great deal of effort in terms of development.
This is the most important stage in the User-Centered Design process. To carry this evaluation out, there are different techniques for different representations of the site, for paper prototypes, for software prototypes, for the website that is already up.
4.1 Inspection Method: Heuristic Evaluation:
These are conducted by usability experts. The purpose is to identify design mistakes and problems.
4.2 User Test Method:
This is a test with users, where we detect what problems are found when interacting with our system, so we can subsequently solve them.
5 Implementation and Launch:
In this phase, we develop the website itself, keeping in mind—from the client side and the server side—the best techniques that ensure our website’s quality. Throughout the entire implementation process, we must continue to check the website’s quality.
6 Maintenance and Follow Up:
Websites are elements that undergo changes and continual updating. Therefore, we will have to be prepared for redesigns and improvements. These changes may be motivated by improvements or problems detected.
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