Why’s Information Architecture So Important?
Information architecture (also known as IA) is the foundation for great Web design. It is the blueprint of the site upon which all other aspects are built – form, function, metaphor, navigation and interface, interaction, and visual design. Initiating the IA process is the first thing you should do when designing a site. This series of articles describes specific methods and processes for developing a site’s information architecture.
Clients sometimes view the development of an IA to be impractical, both in terms of the time it takes and the skill needed to do it effectively. But this mentality is slowly changing. A good IA is incredibly effective, and knowing the basics of the IA process can save both time and money in the long run. Also, you don’t need to be an expert to use it to your advantage.
This series will demonstrate how easy and powerful the IA process can be. We’ll present two ends of the design continuum, which can be thought of as either the difference between developing a small and a large site or the difference between having little time and having lots of time to design a site.
Each article presents a portion of a design document. Upon completing this series, you will have the template for a complete IA design document; the record of the decisions made in designing the site. It serves as a road map for the site’s construction. Additions and revisions are made easier by the presence of this document. Oh, yeah – and clients and management love this stuff.
Also, just about everyone these days is a proponent of ease-of-use. Well, ease-of-use starts here. It’s practically guaranteed if you have a solid information architecture at the outset.
Define the Site’s Goals
The first step in the IA process is to define the site’s goals. It sounds obvious, but think of how many horrible sites are out there. Do you think the people who created them really thought about their goals? Maybe members of the marketing department went nuts and built a site without asking anybody how to do it. They just had to have a site because everyone else has one. Or maybe the site was designed by committee. If you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve, why bother building a site?
You want everyone in the company – or at least the most important people – to be involved. But you don’t want everyone making decisions about what should be on the site. In other words, you want everyone to agree on the contents and purpose of the site that you are going to build.
Defining the site’s goals solves all of these problems. It establishes a clear, well-documented idea of what you are about to do, and it ensures that everyone is participating. Group consensus can make or break the project.
To get the ball rolling, you need to do two things. First, determine who will be involved in defining the goals. Depending on the basic nature of the site, it’s not hard to figure out who the key players are:the people who have to buy in to your ideas. You have to make them feel like they are contributing to the project. Listen to what they say. It’s your job to make sure they are communicating with one another and that no single person controls the process (more on how to deal with that type of person later).
You also need to determine whether you have time to do a formal definition of the goals or whether an informal definition will suffice. A formal definition involves calling meetings with the key players. You have to prepare an agenda and questions. It is fairly time-intensive and much more demanding of your project-management skills. An informal definition involves walking around with a notepad and talking to people one-on-one. You write down their thoughts and ideas, ask for their opinions, and come back to them when you need their approval. The scale of the project and the time that you have are the major factors in deciding whether to use a formal or informal process.
After determining who will be involved in designing the site, you need to come up with a list of questions. These questions help you determine the site’s mission and purpose by involving everyone in the creative process.
The basic set of questions should include:
What is the mission or purpose of the organization?
This is the most important question you face. Reading the client’s mission statement and business plan will give you a good idea. Get your hands on as much of the client’s literature as you can – you might find some valuable ideas that aren’t explicitly mentioned in the mission statement or business plan. It is also important to note that the client’s mission may change as he or she goes online.
What are the short- and long-term goals of the site?
Every person you talk to will have a different idea about the goals of the site. Many people might not be thinking in the long term; they may have an immediate need to get the site up and running. Looking toward the future will save you a lot of headaches in the long run, because you will be able to accommodate growth and change more effectively.
Who are the intended audiences?
Most clients do not even think about their audiences, which is perhaps the number-one mistake made in designing sites. This question often serves as an early wake-up call to your clients.
Why will people come to your site?
Are you selling a product? Do you have a unique service? Why will people come to the site the very first time? Will they come back? If the client already has a site, try finding answers to this question there.
Try to think of any other questions that will reveal the true purpose of the site. If other people have ideas for questions, consider including those, too.
After compiling the list of questions, ask them of everyone, including yourself. Be sure to write down everything that everyone says, no matter how trivial or mundane. You will refine the responses in the next step.
Filter the Answers
At this point, you have either created a nice-looking set of questions and passed them out in a big meeting or spent some time walking around with a clipboard talking to people one-on-one. Either way, you should have a bunch of answers to your questions. Now you need to generate order from this chaos and filter the responses. You need to turn the answers into goals and figure out which goals are the most important.
First, separate the answers about your intended audiences and save them for later. Rephrase the rest of the questions as goals. Put those into a list. If you have a long list, group the goals into categories.
Take this list back to everyone and have them rank each goal’s importance. If your goals are grouped by categories, have people rank the importance of each category separately. If they have any suggestions for the names of the categories, write those down as well.
Now comes the hard part. After collecting everyone’s rankings, you need to distill them into a master list. Give more weight to the opinions of important people within the company, but use your judgment:Sometimes the Web-savvy mailroom clerk has far better opinions about the Internet than an out-of-touch CEO.
You now have a clear set of goals. Your site has a purpose! But wait. You still need to have the goals approved before proceeding. Run the list by a few people just to make sure they’re OK with it. Call a meeting if you must. Do whatever you need to do, but make sure the client agrees and signs off on the goals for the site.
Design Document – Site Goals
Once you have agreement from everyone involved, document the goals of the site and publish them where everyone in both your client’s organization and your own can see them. If you have time, summarize the list and write a few paragraphs about the goals. A simple summary will do.
The list of goals is the basis for your design document, which we mentioned at the outset. After you have published the goals, use them to create the first chapter, called Goals, of your design document.
Example: 1 Goals
You have just completed the first lesson:Defining the Site’s Goals. You are ready to move on to tomorrow’s lesson.