Information Architecture

The definition of Information Architecture (IA) is the blueprint and concept of how information in a web site is structured to present complex information in a simple way, so that the viewer understands and can navigate the site easily. It deals with relationships between every element of the web site and the relationship between that and the users experience.

As a checklist for our information architecture ( IA ) we will cover the following:

Objective and goals of the website
Who is the audience?
Site Structure
Navigation
Content and functionality
Wire frame
Documentation
Analytics

Objective and goals of the website

This is the foundation of your site. Why are you having a website? What are the long term and short term goals that fit in with your business goals?

You will need to speak to the important people within your organisation and to other steering groups before you can get this documented. It is however the most crucial stage to any website.

Documenting the agreed outcome of all the goals and discussions is the most important item you will have. No doubt, you will return to this document as a reminder to why you have designed and structured your web site in a particular way. It also acts as a restraint to others in your team that this is the agreed plan for action.

Who is the audience?

Research. Get your marketing department to find your prime audience or find out from marketing databases, census or forums. The Internet is a big place but little Billy aged 7 probably won’t be looking at corporate stocks and shares. If your selling 18-30 holidays then its obvious that you need to target an audience aged between 18 to 30 and you need to know what attracts them to your web site.

If your target audience are technical then this will affect the tone of voice you use in your content and the design you use for your site. A technical person doesn’t want to read the basics of a subject. They want to see in depth information at an advanced level. They will also want to get to the information quickly, so the structure needs to be easy to navigate and concise. You probably wouldn’t have lots of distracting pop-ups for example.

On the other hand, you could be aiming for the education market and your audience could well be little Billy aged 7 and your site will need to take on a fun design with pop-ups, videos, audios and have basic information. The tone of voice or language used should reflect this.

Site Structure

Site structure is the order and relationships of content and pages within your web site.

Categorise your content. Products, About us, Registration, Downloads etc. See how these connect together in an understandable way. If you don’t understand the relationships between your content, how will your users?

Example;
Category 1 = Home
Category 2 = Products
Category 3 = About Us

If you have a content for guitars put all the content to do with guitars into the products category. If it doesn’t belong in there then put it into the correct category. This will remove confusion for your customer navigating the site.

Order your content into sub-categories.

Example;

Category2 = Products
Category2.1 = Guitars

Category2.1.1 = Fender
Category2.1.2 = Stratocaster
Category2.1.3 = Ibanez

Category2.2 = Keyboards

Category2.2.1 = Yamaha
Category2.2.2 = Roland
Category2.2.3 = Novation

I’m a customer and I want to look at the Fender guitar range. I don’t want to look at any other guitar makes. This structure makes it easy for the customer to find the information effeciently. It also helps you edit the information easier and store your content in a logical structure.

Number your content in order of importance.

Example;
category = 2, sub-category=2, main content = 1, minor content=2, media content = 3 etc.

If you think of a news page, you put the headlines first. This is your main content (1). The story of a fluffy kitten being rescued from a tree is obviously minor news and therefore numbered minor content (2). This will become important later when you layout your pages in a wire frame but you should end up with a spreadsheet that reflects your site structure.

Category2 = Products

Category2.1 = Guitars

Category2.1.1 = Fender

Category2.1.1.1 = Product description – Main Content
Category2.1.1.2 = Product specification – Minor Content
Category2.1.1.3 = Product accessories – Minor Content
Category2.1.1.4 = Product Demo and Images – Media Content

Category2.1.2 = Stratocaster
Category2.1.3 = Ibanez

Category2.2 = Keyboards

Category2.2.1 = Yamaha
Category2.2.2 = Roland
Category2.2.3 = Novation

Use flow charts, spreadsheets to help you structure your site.

Example of a flow chart using lanes. Taken from a ship crew recruitment web site. (Click image to enlarge).

Example of swimming Lanes

Play around with the structure until you find what works. Remember you won’t please everyone but listen to your customers. If you start getting a majority of feedback telling you the layout is not working, review it before you loose your users.

Navigation

The navigation can be as shallow or deep as needed. A basic site may only have a single navigation whereas others may have sub-navigation with multiple levels. Think carefully about the navigation. It needs to be easy to use. So put you main areas including a home button in your main navigation. This will appear on all pages. This allows your user to get back to main areas quickly where ever they are on your site.

Sub-navigation should also be simple but may contain levels within a category. Make sure you don’t have more than three levels. If you do, take another look at how you have structured your site. Try and include further levels within the content of your pages.

The footer is the navigation at the base of your pages. This can duplicate the main navigation plus more links such as privacy policies, terms and conditions and site maps. You may just want to use it as advertising space. Take a look at what your competitors do, but it is good practise to include a footer on your web site.

A good guideline to navigation is the 5 to 7 rule. This basically means don’t have more than five items in your main navigation and no more than seven in your sub-navigation.

If your site is heavily content based then make it easy for your user and add a site search engine. These are always placed near the top right hand side.

Content and functionality

Content: Keep your content grammatically correct and spell checked. Get someone to read it to ensure it reads at the proposed level and with the correct tone of voice.

Use the correct font size for headers and paragraphs so it’s easy to read. Refer to the W3C guidelines.

Make sure you don’t waffle, make it concise and to the point and get any facts backed up. It’s a good idea if you are not used to writing to look at how others write. News articles are written in a particular way different to a fictional story. (Further reading: Oxford guide to plain English, Oxford Guide to effective writing and speaking).

Use videos, presentations, tables and images to break your content down into bite size chunks. As a user if you are presented with lots of text you’re less likely to read it but where text is broken with images it makes the topic easier to digest.

Functionality: Look at what functions you need. Video, audio playback, Search engines, Dynamic data. What is the importance of these, does any of this affect the user (refer to the disability act (DDA) and website accessibility), or physical network/browser restrictions.

Dynamic data refers to data that is delivered from a database or file on request of a query from the browser. For example, the user could put in a post code and press search. At this point the query is sent to the database and returns the full address to the browser. Obviously there are more applications to this simple example.

Wire frame

A wire frame is the template for your content. Using what you already know from the site structure and navigation you can create a wire frame which is a mock up of your browser window to layout the sections on each page.

Western people read top to bottom, left to right so your navigation should be the main focus of the page followed by your main content.

Example; (Click image to enlarge)

Example of a wireframe

Place your content numbers in the wire frame template and then add a legend to indicate what the content is.

You may feel that after you have done the wire frame that a more conceptual wire frame is required. This is usually done with a graphics program such as Adobe Photoshop.

There are a few people who don’t use wire frames. They see it as an extra milestone in the project but it is an important factor to the development of the site. It’s easier to change a wire frame than spend time re-coding your web site.

Documentation

Documentation provides a way of contextualising your web site. It’s always good practise to keep documentation to review your ideas, research and review the course of action you took at that point in time and strategically it will help towards interpreting your future enhancements and decisions when updating your web site.

What worked, what didn’t work and why. This is your historical view and should contain documents from initial request, scope, project time lines, market research, competitor analytics, site maps, wire frames, presentations, quotes, and invoices etc.

You may also want to keep these notes as a simple reminder of ‘where we were’ against ‘where we want to be heading’, as markets change and the direction of the company changes to meet market demands.

Also, technology changes. What wasn’t possible one year ago is now possible and that alone can change the web site dramatically. You should document these updates so when the next developer comes along they can easily see what has been done.

Backup all your files! It goes without saying that your code is the most important part of your site. It’s also true that you should keep a backup of your written documentation. Although not as critical as loosing your code if you loose this then all your research and strategic insights are lost.

Analytics

There are many software applications that are available for tracking your site usage. Webtrends and Google Analytics to name a few. The purpose of the analytics is to track how many users are hitting your site, how many are unique users, how many are returning users. How long does the user stay on your site. There are many variants of this and far too many for me to list here but what you want to achieve with your analytics is to see how successful your site is, where it succeeds, where it fails and how you can monetize your site to earn revenue.

This is an ongoing process and the analytics won’t solve problems for you. It will report on the findings which will in turn help you improve your site and your marketing decisions.

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