Core Concepts of Information Architecture

6 months 2 weeks ago

Information Architecture, according to Wikipedia, is “the art and science of organizing and labelling websites … to support usability.“ According to the same source, User Experience is “the way a person feels about using a product, system or service.” Information Architects work to create usable content structures out of complex sets of information. They do this using plenty of user-cantered design methods: usability tests, persona research and creation, and user flow diagrams Information architecture focuses on the organization of data—that is, how data is structured from a user’s perspective, as opposed to the system, or technical, perspective. At the level of an entire Web site, or application, information architecture determines what data is on each page and how pages relate to each other. For example, defining a site map is an IA activity. At the level of an individual page layout, information architecture ensures that data is logically grouped and interrelated. Let’s explain some basic concepts of information architecture.

Information

We use the term information to distinguish information architecture from data and knowledge management. With information systems, there’s often no single “right” answer to a given question. We’re concerned with information of all shapes and sizes: web sites, documents, software applications, images, and more. We’re also concerned with metadata: terms used to describe and represent content objects such as documents, people, processes, and organizations.

Structuring, organizing, and labeling

It’s what information architects do best. Structuring involves determining the appropriate levels for the information “atoms” in your site, and deciding how to relate them to one another. Organizing involves grouping those components into meaningful and distinctive categories. Labeling means figuring out what to call those categories and the series of navigation links that lead to them.

Managing and Findability

Findability is a critical success factor for overall usability in user experience. If end user can’t find easily what he is searching through some combination of browsing, and asking then the site fails. If you have user-centered design but not easy process of searching then it is not good enough. You site information architecture must balance the needs of users along with achieving its business goals. It could only achieved by using efficient content management and clear policies and procedures.

Art and science

Usability engineering gives us better understanding for analyzing users’ needs and information – seeking behaviors in accurate scientific way. We subsequently make improvements to our web sites. But this practice of information architecture will never be reduced to numbers; there’s too much doubts involved and it is also very complex. Information architects must rely on experience, knowing the insight of business, and creativity. For this we must willing to take risk and trust on our experience and business knowledge. This is the “art” of information architecture. Let’s discuss some of other closely related disciplines to information architecture.

Graphic design

Graphic designing is an art and skill of using images, symbols or even words used for the communication and achieve certain objectives. Graphic designers use various graphic elements including lines, colors, types, textures, shapes and images and different tools for expression of concepts and ideas in their visual communication. Basic graphic designs include corporate logo, identities to the layout of individual pages, designing brand, design guidelines. There are many graphic designers who are dealing with information architecture as part of their work.

Interaction design

Interaction design is a process in which designers focus on creating engaging web interfaces with the behavior of tasks and processes that users encounter in software and information systems at the interface level. For better user experience and successful interactive we should have good technology and communication principle.

Usability engineering

Usability engineering is a process of applying various scientific methods in user research, testing, and analysis with all aspects of the user experience, inclusive of information architecture and graphic design.

Experience design

Experience design is a group of information architecture, usability engineering, graphic design, and interaction design. There are few “experience designers,” as there aren’t many people with skills in all these areas.

Software development

Information architects rely on software developer who makes these possible brining ideas into reality. Developers help Information architects to understand what is and what isn’t possible. A good collaboration between information architect and software developers is essential.

Content management

Content management and Information architecture are similar kind of work. Information architect draws a “snapshot” of an information system, while CM describes a temporal view by showing how information should flow into, around, and out of that same system over time.

Why Information Architecture Matters

Designing and spending time to create information architect gives you better ROI.

Costs and Value propositions:

The cost of finding information

If people are spending extra five minutes to find answers on your website daily then this poor information architecture will increase your customer frustration.

The cost of not finding information

If people are not finding their require information then your organization is missing a bunch of information which are important in decisions. How many customers do you lose because they do not have the ability to search their desired product on your website?

The value of education

What is the value of educating your customers about new products and services related to the ones they’re actively seeking on your web site?

The cost of construction

What does it cost to design and build a web site when you know your website doesn’t support findability and does not scale? How much does it cost to redo everything once again?

The cost of maintenance

Similarly, what does it cost to ensure that your site has latest designs and updated changes over time? Do you have trained people who will maintain the website?

The cost of training

If your organization has internal information systems then how much your organization could save by having easy to use information system with less complication? What does it cost to train employees to use system?

The value of brand

It is not important for your customer that how beautiful your web site is, if customers can’t find it with other brands. Your brand loses value in their eyes. What does it cost and how much you spend for branding? Information architecture lives beneath the surface. They may recognize the need for proper labels in a navigation bar, but have no clued how a controlled vocabulary could improve the search experience which is part of user experience. For the users, this invisibility is ok and we don’t want to force users to see our hard work; we want them to complete their tasks and find information without making it more complex by overwhelming explanations and designs. But invisibility is a major problem when it comes to justifying our existence to colleagues and making the case for investments to decision makers. We must constantly work to help people see the complexity of the challenges we face and the long-term value of our solutions. We must find ways to help people to understand their user needs and behaviour. Figure.  Information architecture concepts We must be prepared to identify and define the component systems that support our sites. We must assure our clients and colleagues that an effective searching experience requires not just a good technology or beautify design, but a carefully integrated system of interdependent parts. Figure. Information architecture systems Finally, we must be ready to produce our deliverables. We must learn to design our ideas of information structure in clear and convincing ways. We must help people to find and see which is not visible to them. Figure. Information architecture deliverables Information architecture understands how to create your message for your audience. This requires some sense of what and how your clients, managers and colleagues want to hear it.

Tools of the Trade

Many of the traditional tools or information architecture are analog, despite the digital nature of IA.

Whiteboards are very commonly used during the initial planning stages of IA. They make it easy to visualize content, easy to quickly record ideas, and easy to make connections. They’re also great for working with a team, as everyone can (ideally) see what you’re recording. Card sorting is another very common tool. Card sorting is a fairly simple technique for gathering ideas from potential users (or from those on your team). Different topics that will exist on your site are put on index or similar cards, and participants organize them into categories based on what they think makes sense. It’s a great way to find out how users think content should be organized, particularly on more complex sites. Other analog tools include simple graph paper for sketching out wireframes, site maps, flow charts, and the like.

Digital Tools

While analog tools are commonly used, there are also a number of digital tools that IAs can use. These digital tools are growing in popularity as more and more teams are distributed and working remotely. It’s much easier to share and collaborate on a virtual whiteboard when you have users spanning four time zones than it is to share a real-world one. Below are a few tools to get you started. Whiteboard apps can be great for collaborative brainstorming with a distributed team, or even with your client. The best ones offer the same kind of functionality as a real-world whiteboard, but with easy digital sharing.

  • Awwapp is a touch-friendly whiteboard that can be used from a tablet, smartphone, or computer. You can draw sketches, collaborate, and share your completed whiteboard. It’s compatible with all modern browsers without needing to install anything.
  • Twiddla is an online whiteboard meeting tool that lets you collaboratively browse websites together in real-time. It comes with a 30-day free trial.
  • Scribblar.com offers real-time collaboration as well as live audio and text chat. It also allows for document upload, which can be a great help if your team wants to share things during a planning session without having to leave the app.

Mindmapping tools are like a step up from a whiteboard, and provide more structure to your notes. They can also be a great way to organize your thoughts and to start categorizing information. While mind maps can be done with pen and paper (or colored markers and paper), digital tools make them easier to edit and share.

  • Coggle is a free online mind-mapping tool that makes it easy to create color-coded mindmaps and share them with colleagues. Use it for taking notes, brainstorming, and more.
  • XMind 6 is a downloadable mindmapping software for Mac, Windows, and Linux. There are free and premium versions, all of which allow you to create a variety of diagrams, offer tools for relationships, boundaries, summaries, labels, and more, offer the ability to save to Evernote, and share on the Web.
  • Bubbl.us offers easy online mind mapping that’s intuitive to use. There’s a free basic plan, as well as a paid plan (including a team plan), as well as a 30-day free trial.

Wireframing tools are a key tool in the information architect’s toolbox. They’re often handed off to others in the project team, so creating them in a way that make them easy for others to understand is crucial. While paper wireframes can be a good staring point, digital versions can be a better solution for sharing with others.

  • Justinmind Prototyper is a free downloadable wireframe tool that lets you create clickable wireframes for mobile apps. It’s a great solution for more complex IA projects where interactivity at the wireframe level makes things easier to understand.
  • MockFlow offers free and premium plans for super easy wireframing. It works online or off, gives you interactive clickable sitemaps, and offers HTML download to make it easier to share your wireframes without special software.
  • Mockingbird is an online wireframe and mockup creator that lets you create, link, preview, and share mockups. It includes a number of tools that let you forget about the visual design (grids and smart text sizing to start) and focus purely on the structure of your wireframes.

Conclusion

Information architecture is a vital part of creating a good user experience. Well-organized, well-structured content makes your site easier to use and more useful to your visitors.

Shahid Hussain

Shahid Hussain is a frontend developer and UX Consultant living and working in Sweden. Shahid is specializes in JavaScript development and developed anything from WordPress websites to complex e-commerce JavaScript applications. Shahid can also sketch, from websites to apps and icons, even print material. He works on content-centric, and mobile products, as well as cross-portal user experiences. Photography, music and travelling can trigger his attention.