"Dr Digital, what's this Information Architecture I'm hearing about? And do I need it to keep my house in order?"
In this guest Dr Digital post, IPG member Dan Barker gives independent publishers an introduction to IA: Information Architecture.
Do you remember the heyday of the old Foyle's on Charing Cross Road? For those who don't (and are those of us who do in danger of showing our age?)—it was a bookshop like no other in the land, ruled in eclectic style by Christina Foyle, who among many other quirks determined that buying a book could not be handled by just one member of staff but had to be split into a three-queue system between assistant and tellers. How quaint (possibly).
That was if you could find the book you wanted in the first place. Browsing could be maddening, since titles were shelved according to publisher—and sad to relate, most readers don't think of publishers when they’re looking for books. The result was puzzled and often fruitless browsing as poor Joe and Josie Public attempted to work out the system. User-friendly it was not.
OK, that was a bookshop. So?
What has this got to do with Information Architecture (IA)? And, in fact, what is IA? To answer the second question first, it is about two things relating to the presentation of content: how you organise your stuff into various 'buckets' in ways that make sense to people; and how you label those 'buckets' in ways that are meaningful to your users. It is what gives shape to the things you present.
I work with IA in the context of websites, but it is relevant in the 'real' world too. So the answer to the first question is that the old-style Foyle's was a classic example of bad IA. The way stuff was grouped by publisher didn't make sense to the people who had to find it, and so it failed. It hindered discovery rather than helped it.
Real versus virtual
The bookshop paradigm is useful when we think about content websites. Websites usually offer two ways to find stuff—browse and search—and they have parallels in bookshops. Browsing is the equivalent of looking at the store guide, finding the floor you need and then looking at the signs and shelf labels to guide you to what you want. Searching is the equivalent of going to an information desk and asking for what you need. IA is mainly concerned with browsing—setting out the signposts and keeping like with like—but it can also help with filters in searching.
Navigation, navigation, navigation
You’ve probably already heard terms like 'primary navigation' and 'secondary navigation' in the context of websites. With IA, as well as thinking about buckets and labels, we’re also thinking about how important each bucket-and-label combination is, and where to show it. Is it part of the main thing your site is about? In that case it belongs in primary navigation. Or is it important, but not at the core of your being? If so, its place is in secondary navigation. These decisions can have a significant impact on your site’s ease of use, and on how effectively users can find your stuff.
Empathy and objectivity
Those might be two surprising words to see in the context of electronic publishing, but for successful IA they are essential. It's all about trying not to think like you, but putting yourself in a user's shoes. What is important to them? And what do they call things? Remember the Foyle's example, where books were organised according to publisher? This might make sense to booksellers, and publishers may love the idea, but for the buying public it is insane. It forces people to try to understand something you care about but means nothing to them. And it doesn’t work.
I want an information architecture! How do I get one?
Good question. You can do your thinking in the abstract, try to be disciplined about thinking like your users, and design your IA in that way. Better, though, is to involve real live people who aren’t you and who are reasonably representative of your user base. In the same way that real people put in front of a website you’ve sweated blood to design and develop do things you had never thought of, bringing users into an IA process always reveals just how different perspectives can be. And, of course, those of us who have barked our shins on this process several times in the past are happy to help.
Dan Barker has more than 15 years’ experience of online publishing and now runs the dancan consultancy, helping publishers make the most of new digital opportunities. His clients have included several IPG members. Visit his website for more information.