Why Information Architecture is Important
Creating an information architecture will serve to organize the vast amounts of information that will accumulate on your site as your business grows. With lots of content types, data, multimedia, and articles, it becomes increasingly important to manage information for site administrators, writers, employees, and users. There are a number of questions that are important in determining the optimal information architecture for your site, including:
- What top-level pages should users be directed towards?
- Should users have access to facilitated search, or will that lead to confusion?
- Are the top-level pages so broad that they need secondary, child/subcategory pages?
What You Need to Know
In order to plan a corporate website that houses the optimal combination of content and substance to achieve your company goals, it may be necessary to group your information architecture into four categories:
- Schemes – The principles with which you structure and categorize your information (ie. lists of posts, tables, image galleries, product groupings, etc)
- Navigation – The flow that users will use to browse and consume your information.
- Labeling – How you group content (ie. tags, hashtags, gallery names, series titles, related content, etc)
- Search – The system that users, writers, editors, and employees use to look for information.
How Users Look for Information
These 4 core pieces of information architecture create a system of information that relates to the way users will consume your information. You should shape and plan these core pieces of IA with regard to the contextual and content objectives of your users.
For example, if a real estate business has goals that prioritize lead generation of high-end, luxury clientele, their system of information might support top-level navigation centered around target local counties. For subcategories, zip code links within those local counties would lead to pages that held posts, and galleries of groups of nice houses. Global search might let users find particular counties with many high-end communities, or page search might allow users to search by zip code.
Ideally, each page will contain a structure and navigation that allows the user to go one vertical level deeper in specificity, until the only direction the user can travel in is up a level or horizontally, to related levels. Then, for added usability it is common practice to make available both a search feature, and an index/sitemap. These two features should help cover users who come to the site with different levels of knowledge and context.
Navigation and Meta Data
Different data types usually come with accompanying pieces of their own information, called meta data. Meta data typically describes what the data is, the size of the data, and any other specific information about it. For instance, the meta data attached to a photo might include an image category, a size category (megabytes), another size category (dimension), an image type category (portrait/landscape), and perhaps a label. This extra information might make it easier for your content to be grouped for the sake of site organization and usability.
Meta data is often grouped into 1 of 3 categories: crucial, optional, and irrelevant. The job then, is determining what the user needs to see on the their end, as opposed to what should remain visible only to administrators.
Crucial Meta Data: Data that is essential for users to understand the context of the content is sometimes called crucial meta data. To determine which meta data is crucial, pick the top-level category that best describes the content. For instance, when dealing with a computer website that had categories of “computer type”, “occasion”, “memory”, “company”, and “speed”, you might determine that “computer type” is crucial. Usually, consumers decide between computer types of PC and Mac before moving on to other deciding factors such as available memory, laptop/desktop, or other decision data.
Notice how, if the site were called WizardsofMac, “computer type” would not classify as crucial data, because none of the data would even include PCs.
There are plenty of situations that call for multiple crucial categories, particularly when users use different criteria to make decisions. With many e-commerce sites, different meta data has similar importance, varying in line with user preference. A travel and accommodation site for example, might consider crucial the categories of “mode of transportation”, “departure”, “arrival”, “occasion”, and “number of stops”.
In order to observe how information architecture works in the real world, let’s take a look at 2 sites and see how they have organized their IA to optimize their intent.
FoodGawker is a food-based site that aims to give a visual feast for your eyes. The business seems focused on lead generation, based on a model of a thin layer of content aggregation that directs users to the post detail, or to the original site where the recipe was found. The intent is for users to get new ideas from quickly browsing visually appealing dishes.
The top-level navigation categories separate content by popularity/relevance, time periods, and even have search as a priority category. While a bit unusual, site designers have emphasized search as one of the main navigation vehicles, in part due to the broad nature of the site. Unlike a more focused site, the designers recognize that you may be coming to their site for any number of reasons, making it difficult to direct you along any guided pathway.
If a user clicks on a post detail page in lieu of going directly to the original source, they are taken to this page:
In terms of crucial meta data categories, FoodGawker displays relevant categories, tags, and a text snippet description of the platter. Their CMS pulls in related recipes, based solely on similar categories and tags.
Epicurious As its name implies, Epicurious is not just for food-lovers, but those searching for food with a curiosity for extensive detail about learning the specifics of food presentation, multi-course meals, wine-pairing, and the entire cooking experience.
Their top-level menu focuses on recipes/menus, in-depth articles, and community. Right away, we see the intent of the site is to build a community focused on learning from and interacting with other “Epicurians”. Their subcategories center around popular recipes, time of the recipes, and other categories they deem important, such as healthy recipes, and cocktail recipes. They use an all-encompassing subcategory they call Collections, which is another easy way for unguided users to browse the site. In the header of their site they also have a search bar to accommodate guided users.
As far as their information architecture and how it relates to their system of information, their CMS is arranged so that article text is accompanied by pictures, alongside a special menu data type.
This custom menu data type allows the user to see all of the main courses that make up an entire meal. Each course link can be clicked to display a detail page that includes the exact recipe of that particular course. In this way, the site designers have separated the entire meal commentary from the detailed recipe; an aspect which they deem to be in line with the goal of separating their in-depth food and learning community from other foodie websites.
It may help to summarize some of the main concepts that we have covered in this chapter. We began by introducing what IA is and how important it is in planning out the purpose and scheme of your website. Keeping the user in mind, a well-thought-out IA involves communication between different company staff, and the design/development team.
We then moved on to cover the 4 most common areas of IA: schemes, navigation, labeling, and search. This dealt with how the user will most likely use the site, as well as presenting the most relevant information to them, so that your company is prepared to service their needs and provide solutions.
We ended the chapter with examples of sites in the same industry who had very disparate architectures as a result of their different goals. Hopefully the contrasting styles will give you an idea of some of the various ways corporate website design tasks can be accomplished, as well as point out some strengths and weaknesses.