Information Architecture: What Does It Mean to You?

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Information architecture is a field of web design that has been getting a lot of attention recently. And with good reason: it is key to making money on the Web. Nobody seems to really know what it is, but I say it’s creating blue prints for web sites. Doesn’t this happen automatically? No, it doesn’t, and this is the main reason why sites fail on customers.

IA is a web design discipline that plans for easy-to-use web sites and software applications, as opposed to just letting graphic designers and technologists do their own thing and hoping the two will mesh in a way that makes sense to the end user. Originally conceived by librarians as an outgrowth of information science, it also sometimes encompasses data and hardware configuration.

What it means to you is this: imagine a site is built. Is it well received? Does it function as intended? If yes, then it has good IA. A completed project will be used by a client. What is the client’s perception of it? Probably not as parts of graphic design or technology, but their process of interacting with the structure, logic, and organization of the site. Which sites do you hate most? Probably those that are difficult to use because of the way they are organized. This would be bad IA.

The discipline is emerging and there is no consensus on methodology. The most common IA project involves the following:

Meet with client to determine their web philosophy

Devise personae based on market segments to determine who will be using the site

Work out use cases, or sequences of tasks in priority importance

Design navigation and link structure

Design page layout

Design functional specs

Create design specs

The most common deliverables are the following:

Wire frames, which are bare-bones diagrams of what the presentation will look like

Flow charts, which determine the sequence, logic, and condition of process flows

Site maps, which look somewhat like organizational charts, and show a hierarchy of page linkages and the relationship between types of content. this can be used to create a good navigation system.

Advanced topics include the following:

Information Design

Interaction Design

Strategic Planning

Usability (Research & Testing)

Behavioral Research

UX Management

Search Optimization

Business Design

Semantic Web

An emerging trend is away from a specific methodology (of which there are many) and toward a focus on strategy. This means that an IA would potentially be involved more in product positioning, organizational dynamics, and client contact roles. This new role can be useful if it moves more of the IA’s work off the cutting room floor and into the final project.

The most important factor is often overlooked, and this is what I call the blind spot. There are always factors invisible to the project team that are key components to the success of the project; they reveal themselves when the rubber hits the road during the execution of the project. Often these are planning, stakeholder, or customer knowledge issues. Look out for these, or they’ll bite you in the ass.

Scott Rummler is an information architect and artist. He is founder of universalpowerauthority.com.

Information Architecture: What Does It Mean to You?
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