One of the most important things to consider when producing a site, a software, a widget or any other type of digital product is to understand what type of information users are looking for, and how all this information has to be organized. When people talk about “Information Architecture”? (IA) they refer to the categorization of information into a coherent structure, preferably one that the most people can understand quickly. Information architecture is defined by the Information Architecture Institute pdf file as:
- The structural design of shared information environments.
- The art and science of organizing and labeling web sites, intranets, online communities, and software so that its content will be easy to find, browse and explore.
An overview of what Information architecture means can be found on Wikipedia: Information Architecture. Also, Michael Cummings has published an article on the interaction-desing.org site, that gives a complete perspective of the origins and methods of Information Architecture http://www.interaction-design.org/encyclopedia/information_architecture.html
One of the best books about information architecture is Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville’s “Information Architecture for the World Wide Web”?. You can read it online (at least partially) on the Google books site: http://books.google.com/books?id=OM3DvakML-MC&lpg=PP1&dq=site%20map%20information%20architecture&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
The simplest way to ‘build’ a good information architecture system is by organizing all the things that we want to say in multiple groups, which are clearly distinguishable by the people who will use the service.
Just imagine we want to build an encyclopedia of animals, and we want to include: Cat, giraffe, lion, dog, elephant, cow, mouse, catfish, shark, dolphin, penguin, millipedes, butterfly, flamingo, duck.
Sorting all the information seems a very easy task at the beginning: let’s divide it by species, separating mammals, birds, fishes and insects. Or – we may want to classify by their typical ‘environment’: so – even if dolphin is a mammal – will be classified as ‘aquatic’. What happens to penguins in this case? Or we may decide to organize the content by geography. In this case, we need to specify the animals more in detail, as there are mice that live in certain regions of the world and not in other, and the same is true for all sorts of animals.
How to decide what is the best way to organise our future encyclopedia of animals, then? The short answer is “it depends”?: it depends from what is the goal of the encyclopedia, who is going to use it, how much information on each animal we want to include, and lots of other questions This is where Information Architecture – as a set of skills and competences – become important.
There are many different techniques to help create a good organization of the content you want to put on a site; you can find a good overview of these in the tutorials available at this page: http://www.webmonkey.com/2010/02/information_architecture_tutorial/
Tools of trade
Card Sorting: one of the techniques to solve the problem mentioned above (how to organise an encyclopedia of animals?) is called ‘Card Sorting’. This is the definition given by the Information Architecture Institute http://www.cmscalendar.com/ia-glossary.html?term=CardSort:
Card sorting is a low-technology solution to the problem of organizing categories as a first step toward an Information Architecture.
After developing a set of index cards labeled with some important type of content, or perhaps an important activity or function, the cards are brought to different groups of future users.
A team watches and takes notes as the users sort the cards into logical groupings. These become the candidate categories for the information design.
In an open card sort, the users create their own categories by grouping the cards into piles or arranging them in a hierarchy. In a closed card sort categories are predefined.
In our example, we may decide that the group of future users may be children in primary school (or the primary school teachers), and see how they would organise all these animals. Maybe they consider ‘size’ as an important element
A very useful resource for card sorting is this article on ‘Boxes and Arrows’ site: http://www.boxesandarrows.com/view/card_sorting_a_definitive_guide
If you want to see what a card sorting session looks like, here there is a slideshow of pictures on Flickr.
Site maps: site maps are documents used to display visually the organization of content for a website or application. Consider these as the way to show what the site will include, organized in hierarchical fashion: starting from the home page (or the first screen of the application), and progressing through the pages associated to the main categories of content (if available), and then to the more detailed items of content.