Information Archtecture: more than just label making

It kind of feels like information architecture is a grandiose title to make sure that the position gets the respect it deserves.  Basically, the IA organizes the information on a website.  It seems pretty basic when you think of a simple site that has main page, a contact us and a directions page.  Yet, it is difficult to think of a page these days that is that simple.  It is also difficult to remember a time when anything was as simple as it first seemed. 

First the basics

An information architect must first understand the focus of the site.  Who uses the site?  Who is building the site?  What is the site goal?  She must build a structure to organize the information to support this focus.   This makes sense.  Don’t create a site that is supposed to sell products and then make the user click 5 times to find a product to buy.  But beyond trying not to make bad design decisions, make good ones. 

Scope of information

The amount of content that is on an average site these days is impressive.  How does one take the amount of information that more than fills the pages of a set of encyclopedias and put in a web friendly format?   Well, there is a lot of organizing, grouping, and shopping down to the most essential components.  It has to be in short short short with good headings and broken into small digestible navigable chunks that pull you from one chunk to the next.  Needless to say, it is a little more involved than stating a phone number and e-mail address under the Contact Us menu item.  The site map provides a visual hierarchy that allows the AI to visualize how the information is laid out. 

But here is what fascinates me…..

Organizing is not just a practice of grouping and labeling and putting things away.  Done well, it involves an understanding of human behavior.  It involves understanding our tendencies when we are navigating a site and using this to the website’s advantage.  It is an assortment of things such as knowing:

  • Web readers are always on the lookout for a click!  So, redundant links to the website’s more important sections may help direct flow.
  • Users are more likely to scan text than read it.  So, content must be arranged with the most important information at the top and stuff into headlines.
  • Familiar navigation keeps users from scanning, giving up and moving to the next site.

I always hear references to the many studies devoted to our behavior on websites.  There a so many things that I would like to know….that I suspect are just the tools of the trade for the Info Architect.

  • How likely are we to accept a call to action versus just being given the opportunity to act?  For instance, ending a blog with “So, what are your thoughts on the subject?” rather than just having a comments area available.
  • What do the studies of eye tracking reveal about our tendencies and attention spans?  Do those studies break those tendencies down into age groups, sex, education levels, income levels, spending tendencies? 
  • How many seconds you have to get someone’s attention before they navigate away?
  • How likely is someone to listen to audio?  Or watch a video?
  • What portion of the screen that the person will look to first?
  • How much text are they are willing to read (either in headings or in actual content)?

As our own behaviors with our use of the internet and how we access it (mobile devices, anyone?) evolve, so will the way we organize and display it.  As it stands, information architecture seems like a field that will continue to be even more relevant and more complex in the years to come.

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