Previously, I described information architecture design patterns for web sites and best practices for this design. Today, I am going to describe methods and techniques for information architecture design.
There are a few different approaches commonly used for information architecture design.
Card sorting is a low cost, simple way to figure out how best to group and organize your content based on user input. Card sorting works by writing each content set or page on an index card, and then letting users sort them into groups based on how they think the content should be categorized.
There are several types of card sorting methodologies. The basic method starts out with cards in random order and users sort them in the way they think they should be grouped. In reverse card sorting, the cards are pre-sorted into groups, and users are then given the task of rearranging them as they see fit. Open card sorting lets users name the groups they’ve created for the cards, while closed card sorting will have group names in which the participant places the cards into.
Various methods can be used to analyze the data. The purpose of the analysis is to extract patterns from the population of test subjects, so that a common set of categories and relationships emerges. This common set is then incorporated into the design of the site, either for navigation or for other purposes.
There are a number of tools available to perform card sorting activities with survey participants via the internet. The perceived advantage of remote card sorting is that it allows a larger group of participants to be reached at a lower cost. The software can also assist in the process of analyzing card sort results. The advantages of a remote card sort must be traded off against the lack of personal interaction between card sort participants and the card sort administrator, which may produce valuable insights.
Wireframes and Prototypes
Basic wireframes can do a lot more than just give an outline of the design layout of a site. It also informs us how content will be arranged, at least on a basic level. Putting content into wireframes and prototypes gives us a good sense of how the content is arranged in relation to other content and how well our information architecture achieves our goals.
When you are wireframing, and especially when you are prototyping, you should be working with content that at least resembles what the final content of the site will be.
Site Maps and Outlines
Site maps are quick and easy ways to visually denote how different pages and content relate to one another. It is an imperative step that "mocks up" how content will be arranged.
These content outlines show how all the pages on your site are grouped, what order they appear in, and the relationships between parent and child pages. This is often a simple document to prepare, and may be created after a round or two of card sorting.
For existing sites or content that must be placed in a web site, a content inventory is usually the prelude to this phase.
Information Architecture Design Styles
There are two basic styles of information architecture: top-down and bottom-up. The thing that many designers must realize is that it is useful to look at a site from both angles to devise the most effective IA. Rather than just looking at your projects from a top-down or bottom-up approach, look at it from both ends to see if there are any gaps in how things are organized.
Top-down architecture starts with a broad overview and understanding of the website’s strategy and goals, and creates a basic structure first. From there, content relationships are refined as the site architecture grows deeper, but it is all viewed from the overall high-level purpose of the site.
The bottom-up architecture model looks at the detailed relationships between content first. With this kind of architecture, you might start out with user personas and how those users will be going through the site. From there, you figure out how to tie it all together, rather than looking at how it all relates first.
Different websites require different types of information architecture. What works best will vary based on things like how often content is updated, how much content there is, and how visitors use the site.