In my last post about information architecture, I mentioned that information architecture includes four components - organization systems, labeling systems, navigation systems, and searching systems and I described organization systems.
In this post, I am going to describe labeling systems.
Labeling is a form of representation. Labels represent a relationship between users and content. So, the goal of a label is to communicate information efficiently that is without taking too much of a web page space or of a user's time. Labels show the user your organization and navigation systems. Unprofessional labels of a web site can destroy a user's confidence in that organization.
There are two types of labels: textual and iconic labels.
Textual are the most common labels. Types of textual labels include: contextual links, headings, navigation system choices, and index terms.
Contextual links are the text withing the body of a document or chunk of information. They are usually used to create a connection between different pages of a site. These links rely on context. To ensure that contextual links labels are representational, ask yourself a question: "what kind of information will the user expect to be taken to?"
Labels as headings are used to establish a hierarchy within the text. The hierarchical relationships between headings are usually established visually through consistent use of numbering, font sizes, colors and styles, whitespace, and indentation or combination of these parts. It is a good idea to present these headings as a hierarchy. It is important to maintain consistency. Heading labels should be obvious and should convey the sequence. These labels need to tell the user where to start, where to go next, and what action will be involved in each step along the way.
Navigation system labels require more consistency that any other type of label. Users rely on a navigation system to be "rational" through consistent page location and look. So, these labels should be no different. Effectively designed labels are integral to building a sense of familiarity, so they should not change from page to page. Here are some examples of this type labels: Home, Search, Site Map, Contact Us, About Us, News and Events, Announcements. Do not use the same label for a different purpose.
Labels as index terms are often referred to as keywords, descriptive metadata, taxonomies, controlled vocabularies. These labels are used to describe any type of content: sites, pages, content components, etc. Index terms support precise searching. Index terms can also make browsing easier: the metadata from a collection of documents can serve as the source of browsable lists or menus. A very good example of these labels is an index of a site with links to each page.
These labels most often used as navigation system labels. They can sometimes serve as headings. The problem with iconic labels is that they present a much more limited language than text. That is why they used for navigation system or small organization system labels where the list of options is small. But they are still risky to use because a user can get confused.
General Guidelines For Creating Labels
Context, content, and users are three key principles that affect all aspects of information architecture including labels. Narrow the scope of your labels whenever possible. Use narrow business context. Keep labels simple and focused.
A good rule is to design labels that speak the same language as a site's users while reflecting its content. If there is a confusion over label, there should be an explanation. On the main page, labels should stand out to users. Labels should clearly represent the content.
Consistency is extremely important. Why? Because consistency means predictability and predictable systems are easier to use. Consistency is affected by few issues: style, presentation, syntax, granularity, comprehensiveness, audience.
Points to consider:
- Consider writing all your labels in a list to get the visual representation of them. You might sort this list alphabetically - this way you may see some duplicates. Then review the list for consistency of usage, punctuation, letter case, etc.
- Establish naming conventions.
- Consider using a controlled vocabulary to maintain consistent terms.
- Analyze your content and create categories.
- Do user-side testing and please do not underestimate it.
- Perform card sort exercises.
- Use search log for analysis.
- Anticipate the growth of the site and plan ahead so that labels you might add in the future don't disagree with the current labels.
- Decisions about which terms to include in a labeling system need to be made in the context of how broad and how large is your site.
- Labeling systems may need to be adjusted as necessary.
Have fun labeling!