There are two main approaches to defining an information architecture. They are:
Top-down information architecture
This involves developing a broad understanding of the business strategies and user needs, before defining the high level structure of site, and finally the detailed relationships between content.
Bottom-up information architecture
This involves understanding the detailed relationships between content, creating walkthroughs (or storyboards) to show how the system could support specific user requirements and then considering the higher level structure that will be required to support these requirements.
Both of these techniques are important in a project. A project that ignores top-down approach may result in well-organised, findable content that does not meet the needs of users or the business. A project that ignores bottom-up approach may result in a site that allows people to find information but does not allow them the opportunity to explore related content. Take a structured approach to creating an effective information architecture.
The following steps define a process for creating an effective information architecture:
- Understand the business/contextual requirements and the proposed content for the system. Read all existing documentation, interview stakeholders and conduct a content inventory.
- Conduct cards sorting exercises with a number of representative users.
- Evaluate the output of the card sorting exercises. Look for trends in grouping and labeling.
- Develop a draft information architecture (i.e. information groupings and hierarchy).
- Evaluate the draft information architecture using the card-based classification evaluation technique.
- Don’t expect to get the information architecture right first time. Capturing the right terminology and hierarchy may take several iterations.
- Document the information architecture in a site map. This is not the final site map, the site map will only be finalized after page layouts have been defined.
- Define a number of common user tasks, such as finding out about how to request holiday leave. On paper sketch page layouts to define how the user will step through the site. This technique is known as storyboarding.
- Walk other members of the project team through the storyboards and leave them in shared workspaces for comments.
- If possible within the constraints of the project, it is good to conduct task-based usability tests on paper prototypes as it provides valuable feedback without going to the expense of creating higher quality designs. Create detailed page layouts to support key user tasks. Page layouts should be annotated with guidance for visual designers and developers.
Developing an information architecture in this way enables you to design and build a system confident that it will be successful. It simply isn’t good enough for organisations to build functionality or write content, put it on their computer systems and expect people to be able to find it.
Developing an effective information architecture is an essential step in the development of all computer systems. Effective information architectures enable people to quickly, easily and intuitively find content. This avoids frustration and increases the chance that the user will return to the system the next time they require similar information.
Remember: people can only appreciate what they can actually find.