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.
Continue Reading “Information Archetecture Tutorial – Lesson 1″ »
Define the User Experience
After figuring out why a site should be built, the second most important aspect of designing information architecture is determining who the audience is. This is an invaluable step that many people fail to grasp. Many sites do not even take into consideration who will be using them. How can you design a site if you don’t know who’s going to be seeing it?
Some people think an audience is defined by the technology it uses to access the site. This, too, is missing the point. That a user visiting the site uses a 28.8 modem is only a small part of the audience definition. A true audience definition consists of who the users are and their goals and objectives. Scenarios, or stories, are useful in visualizing the audience.
Oftentimes, a single department or group in a company takes the lead in putting together a Web site. The result is usually a site focused on that group’s needs, which ignores the needs of everyone else. For a long time, MIS departments were responsible for putting together their corporate sites. These sites were utilitarian, and neglected important departments, like marketing. It is your job to prevent this from happening on your site.
Defining beforehand the user experience you seek establishes a clear, well-documented definition of your audience, and it helps in understanding how users will react to the site.
To get started on this stage of the IA process, just as with defining the goals, you need to figure out who will be involved and how much time you will have. Generally, the same people will be involved. However, you probably will change how you weigh each person’s opinion. For example, the marketing department should have a good idea of who your audience is. If that is the case, you’ll want to listen to them more than to others.
Defining the audience takes less time than defining the goals, because you have already established how you will be working with people – whether formally or informally – and you are more familiar with asking them questions and getting responses.
Continue Reading “Information Architecture Tutorial – Lesson 2″ »
Now that you know what your site is going to be about and who it is for, you are ready to pinpoint what it will contain. Everyone around you is starting to get ideas, and some of them may even have a mental image of what the site should look like. You need to harness this creative energy and channel it into a productive process. You already have an agreement on the goals and audience, and you will be using the process that everyone is familiar with by now.
The point of this part of the information-architecture process is to gather the pieces for creating the structure and organization of the site. You will need to answer two questions:What pieces of content does the site need? What sorts of functionality will be required? Think of it this way:If you want to build a spaceship out of Legos, you need to pick out all of the pieces you will be using. These pieces represent the content. If you want your Legos to do things, you need to choose which motors and processors you need (yes, Legos are computerized in this exercise). These pieces represent the functionality.
In order to harness all the ideas about how the site will work, create a list of the content and functional requirements. Then reach a consensus on how this content will be grouped and labeled. A side effect of this process is to create a content list or inventory, which is the basis for the site structure.
Continue Reading “Information Architecture Tutorial – Lesson 3″ »
If you’ve followed the first three lessons, by now you have a good handle on your site’s goals, who the audience will be, and what kinds of content and functionality you’ll need. It is now time to define the site’s structure, which is the foundation on which you build everything else.
Think of the site structure as a skeleton that holds the body together. Without it, your site will be a jumbled up, confusing mess – kind of like an amoeba. Do you want an unorganized, hard-to-use, crappy site? No! You want an evolved, highly structured, and easy-to-use site that can walk upright on its own two legs.
After creating a good site structure, everything else will fall into place. It can’t help but do so! A well-designed structure makes it easy to define a navigation system, and the two together make designing page layouts and templates a snap. This is the last step before you can actually get into building things.
Continue Reading “Information Architecture Tutorial – Lesson 4″ »
By now you know a number of things about your site:why you are building it, who the audience is, what will be on the site (i.e., the content), and how the whole thing is structured. You are now ready to work on the visual design, which is often the most satisfying aspect of site design.
One of its main purposes is to provide users with a sense of place. They need to know where they are on the site, where they have been, and how to get to where they want to be. A good site structure combined with an effective visual design enables users to construct a mental map of the site.
The goal of this lesson is to take the site’s structure and map it onto the visual design. A number of tools are useful in creating the design. The first step is to make layout grids that define the structure and organization of the site as it will show up on the page level. Then design sketches will establish a general look and feel. Layout grids and design sketches together lead to page mock-ups, which in turn lead to the construction of Web-based prototypes.
At this point, you’ll need the help of graphic designers, art directors, and creative directors, as well as your production crew.
Continue Reading “Information Architecture Tutorial – Lesson 5″ »