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Information architecture

IA workshops – London and Oslo

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

I’m teaching two IA workshops in Europe in the next few weeks.

Both workshops cover much of the content in the book, and give you the chance to practice the skills, discuss issues and ask questions, instead of just reading about it.

I hope to see you there!

A practical guide to information architecture (my new book)

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

Book cover for A practical guide to information architecture
My new book: A practical guide to information architecture is out.

As the title suggests, this is a very practical book. It covers all sorts of IA issues you’ll come across in projects – including setting project goals, analysing content, planning for content, understanding people (user research), designing IA, designing navigation, usability testing and documenting your work. Plus it covers IA principles such as categories, classification, labelling and common IA patterns.

While mainly focused around examples of websites and intranets, it’s also relevant to application design (web and non-web) and other situations where you need to organise, group and label content.

Folks have asked me how it differs from other information architecture books (IA for the world wide web, Blueprints for the web). Personally I think it is more approachable than the first and more comprehensive than the second (I love both books and have recommended them for years, but that’s where I think mine sits in comparison).

It’s available in PDF and epub and you can pre-order a paperback.

Anyway, go check it out, and let me know what you think.

Stories and examples for my IA book

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

I’m working like mad through March to write a book on information architecture.

As I go, I find I need two things – stories to illustrate points I describe, and examples of sites that do particular things. This post will be a continually-updated one that lists what I’m interested in and what I have enough of.


I’m interested in stories – usually about a page (400-500 words) around the following ideas:

  • How skills in previous roles helped you when you started in IA. I’m looking for an example from people who previously did usability testing and business analysis (I have tech writer, graphic designer & developer all covered)
  • How setting clear project goals at the beginning of a project helped that project run smoothly, and how you used them the project
  • How not having clear project goals caused all sorts of project crap
  • Stories about how you brainstormed and selected content for a new site or redesign. Particularly any that used a quantitative approach to selection (e.g. a scoring system)
  • How you’ve worked with clients to get content from them
  • How you’ve communicated about content needs, what content you have, and gaps
  • How did you test a draft IA before you designed navigation and pages

All stories will be in your words (I may tweak slightly for length or clarity, but will show you) and I’ll include your name, role, website etc.


I’m interested in examples of the following sites or features. It would be fantastic if you’ve been involved in designing the one you give me – I may want to chat to you about them (I don’t want to say ‘this is a good example’ and later find out that it’s completely unusable for real users):

  • A real-estate website that uses an interesting filter or faceted browse
  • Great comparison interfaces, of any type
  • Tools other than Xenu Link Sleuth that can list out everything on your website
  • Link-rich home pages

Contact me

You can leave me a comment, tweet to me (@maadonna) or email me on

I’m writing an information architecture book!

Friday, December 18th, 2009

This week’s big news is that I’m writing a book on information architecture.

It will be a introductory-level book, mainly for people who have to create an information architecture but who don’t do it very often. It will be very practical and down to earth and written in a friendly way (if you know me, it will sound just like I’m talking to you, though without the swear words!). If you’ve taken one of my information architecture workshops, it will be the workshop expanded and updated.

It will be published via Mark Boulton’s company Five Simple Steps. I’m really excited about this – I think we are a great fit for each other.

More details to come of course, including release date (which we haven’t discussed yet, but I think we’re both hoping to get it done fairly quickly), table of contents and a book website.

Given I’ll be writing more, I’m likely to be blogging more – yay!

I’ll also be on the look-out for people who can review chapters or who I can talk to for some case-study material to provide real-world examples. Let me know if you’re interested in either of these.

Conference season

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

For me, the next few months are full of conferences and workshops. My calendar is so packed I don’t know where the work will fit. You can catch me at:

I hope I see you at one or more of these.

And remember, I can teach any of these workshops in-house to your team (see my list of IA, interaction design, usability & content workshops).

Yes, IA is rocket science

Wednesday, October 1st, 2008

I was in a meeting recently to talk through a new website project – discussing the stages of the project. I was suggesting my normal approach – understand the project goals, do some user research, analyse content, draft the IA etc etc.

As we were talking through the process, I noticed one of the senior managers was clearly unsettled. After we talked a bit about the early steps, he finally said “Why do we need to do this? Why can’t we just come up with the IA. After all, it’s not rocket science”.

He, as a senior manager, had a fairly good idea of  the domain. So he had a fairly clear idea of how it would best be represented on the website. His ideas weren’t bad at all, but I didn’t know if they were ‘right’. After a bit of discussion we agreed to make some quick changes based on his ideas, but reserved the right to change it when we had collected some information.

But it did make me think. Why do I think there is some complexity to creating a good IA for a website, when to others it appears simple? (I’ve noticed that people generally think their own field or expertise is complex, and assume that other fields are straightforward – I think that is just human.)

I don’t really think IA is as hard as rocket science. But I do think there are some hard parts:

  • We usually deal with messy problems
  • Our projects are all about language and concepts, which vary from person to person
  • A lot of what we do is pulling together different (often competing) inputs to try our best to create a balance
  • We have to work with opinionated people. And everyone has an opinion on how things should be grouped, labelled and what is most important!
  • There is no one right answer
  • Our individual experiences contribute to solutions – so the ‘answer’ depends on who creates it

But it is achievable. I think part of the trick to helping people understand that there is complexity is to better explain the pathway and rationale for decisions – show how inputs contributed to outputs, how we’ve balanced priorities. Not just show the end result…

Is the Australian IA community a clique?

Saturday, September 27th, 2008

I’ve just been away for a week at two of my favourite conferences - OzIA and Web Directions.But this post isn’t quite about that…

I read some of the feedback from OzIA on the weekend. And one comment stuck out and worried me a bit. The comment was along the lines that my talk seemed silly (which I can deal with) and cliquey (which worries me).

Now I know that a couple of times I mentioned folks in the audience by name. I know that I know a decent proportion of the crowd. And there definitely is a group of IA folks in both Canberra and Sydney who see each other regularly, hang out together, eat together and even do non-IA stuff together.

But it worries me that it may be seen as a clique. Something that has an in-crowd and an out-crowd. I worry that it might look like there is an in-crowd that doesn’t want to involve other people, because that’s just not the case.

Those of us who do hang out together do so partly because we have gotten involved in something. We’ve been to conferences together, attended IA meet-ups together and volunteered together. We’ve discussed the future of IA and what it all means over drinks. That crowd has built up over time and changes over time. There is no membership and no secret handshake. It is just a bunch of folks with a shared interest.

So, please. If it looks to you like there is an IA clique that you are not involved in, just get involved. Here’s how:

We aren’t an exclusive clique and we really do love getting to know other people who do IA.

Oz-IA: Student rates

Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

Just announced: Student rates for Oz-IA. Full conference rates are only $198 and workshop rate is $77. That’s fantastic pricing and a great incentive to help students attend!

Oz-IA: Get your proposal in

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008

Oz-IA, one of my favourite Australian conferences, has announced a call for proposals.

And they’ve made it super-easy – it is a call for expressions of interest, rather than full, detailed proposals. But the hitch is that they need to be in soon (25 July). So if you have an idea for a talk about IA, or of interest to IA folks, please submit. And if you would like me to look over your idea, let me know!!!!

How many items in a navigation bar

Tuesday, June 17th, 2008

Someone asked me recently how many items were ‘too many’ to have in a navigation bar on a website. Of course, there is no definitive answer to this (and please don’t ever believe it if someone tells you 7+/-2: the research behind that is completely irrelevant). I don’t think I’ve seen reliable research on this, and if I did I think I’d be suspicious of it anyway as the complexity of the issue isn’t about number, but about complexity of concept.

So I spent some time thinking about what the underlying principles would be if you had to think this through for a decision (I always like thinking from basic principles out, not just relying on simple answers).

One of the main principles is Hicks Law. This describes the time it takes for a reader to make a decision when provided with a number of choices. It basically says that the more choices, the more time (obviously) but it is a logarithmic relationship, not a linear one. So that’s one part of it.

Another important part is the concept of basic-level categories. There is a level of a hierarchical classification that is called ‘basic’ that is more cognitively real than other levels. People think at the basic level. A simple example is this: Mammal – dog – dalmatian. We usually think about ‘dogs’, not mammals or dalmatians.

In practice, I’ve seen people cope with long lists when:

  • the items are at the reader’s basic level
  • the content in the list feels like it belongs together
  • the sequence of items makes sense to the reader (this may mean they are clustered sensibly, or alphabetic for known-item tasks)
  • the concepts are known to the reader

The opposite to a long list of course is a shorter one. This will usually mean breaking down the long list hierarchically, or group some of the items together (e.g Products & Services). The challenge with this is doing it in a way that still makes sense to the reader – as the level of abstraction increases, it is harder for people to determine what might be in a more abstract category.

The other challenge is that, even if you do make a really good long list that is full of great terms and works well for readers, everyone else will challenge you because there is a perception that long lists are bad (even users will say ‘oh, that’s a long list’ before they jump in and use it really easily). If I were about to do implement a long list I’d set up a mini-usability test that compares a couple of options – long lists, grouped items, more hierarchy). I developed a quick usability testing method years ago that I still use that would be good for showing whether the list works or not.

What do you think? How do you figure out how long to make your navigation lists? And how do you convince other people that a long list is OK?

IA & collaborative design – workshop

Tuesday, May 6th, 2008

Yet another workshop announcement…

On 7&8 August, I will be teaching a 2-day master class on information architecture and collaborative design, run via Ark Group. The thing that is slightly different about this workshop compared to my IA workshop is that, duh, it includes a lot of collaborative design.

I’m adding more material on user research, design games, usability testing and designing in teams – I don’t usually get to teach these in a one-day workshop. And 2 days allows more hands-on, practical stuff than one, and that is always good.

So if you know someone who may be interested, and can get to Sydney, please pass on the details: Information architecture and collaborative design workshop.

New IA Summit speakers

Sunday, April 13th, 2008

I had an IA Summit epiphany today…

When I looked at the program this year, I was a bit disappointed that some of my favourite and noisiest IA folks weren’t speaking. It felt a bit odd to see a program with loads of names I didn’t know (back story – I’ve been on the organising committee and closely involved in the previous 4 summits). It didn’t bother me, and would never stop me from attending, but did feel a bit strange.

But then I was hanging out in the hallways in a break today and spotted lots of people with ‘speaker’ ribbons that I didn’t know. And I felt something I thought was interesting. I felt glad that there were loads of new-to-summit folks who had gotten their stuff through a tough review process; and glad that there was a venue for the same folks to communicate their ideas to peers.

It really felt quite strange, and reminded me of why summit is my favourite conference, by far, for the year.

Website user experience & CSS workshop

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008

I’m very excited to announce that I’m teaching a new workshop with Russ Weakley. It’s called “Website user experience & CSS workshop: Designing for usability, building for the future“. It will be run in Canberra, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, in late March and April.
I’m teaching the day on user experience, and Russ is teaching on CSS, which is lucky for you as I’m pretty good at ux and Russ is awesomely good at teaching CSS.

I’m really looking forward to it – I’ve wanted to go to one of Russ’ tutorials for a couple of years. And I love teaching user experience design for the web – I’ve spent a lot of time doing it, and a lot of time thinking about what I’ve learned and how to best share it.

I hope to see you, or your colleagues, there. Please pass details on to anyone you think may benefit.

Workshop description

A hands-on workshop with user experience expert, Donna Maurer, and CSS
expert, Russ Weakley.

Over two full days you will build detailed websites layouts from the ground up – starting with page layout, navigation and form design; and ending with clean markup and elegant styling using XHTML/CSS.

Day 1: Planning and designing the user experience – Donna Maurer

On day one you will plan and design a website – focusing on the user experience: designing the navigation, page layout and forms.

You will:

  • learn techniques to understand your users, and prepare user scenarios
  • understand your content with content analysis methods
  • create an effective and usable site structure (information architecture)
  • design a range of navigation methods
  • create page layouts for content, home, index and special pages
  • design simple forms

For each step, Donna will outline the fundamentals and show examples from small and large website projects. But most of the time will be hands-on -you work on your own project, ask questions and discuss with the group.

Day 2: Building beautiful sites using CSS – Russ Weakley

On day two you will build your website from the ground up – starting with structural markup, adding accessible markup and then styling your layout using CSS.

You will learn:

  • how to create well structured, accessible markup
  • the basics of CSS including rule sets, selectors, shorthand rules, inheritance and the cascade.
  • how to structure efficient CSS files
  • how to create a full CSS layout from a flat graphic mockup
  • how to deal with browser issues including specific browsers such as IE5,IE6 and IE7.
  • how to create a resolution dependent layout
  • how to create CSS for printing and hand held devices


Canberra – Monday 31 March and Tuesday 1 April

Melbourne – Thursday 3 April and Friday 4 April

Sydney – Monday 28 April and Tuesday 29 April

Brisbane – Thursday 1 May and Friday 2 May


More information and registration here:

Less than 24 hours – time to panic

Friday, November 23rd, 2007

[This post is part of the Evil Election Eve Blog Carnival]

It is less than 24 hours until Australia’s Federal Election. And I’m about to start panicking.

The same thing happens to me every time an election is called. I start with good intentions – this year I’m going to pay attention to the issues, figure out who really deserves to get my vote, learn how the voting system works and vote very deliberately.

But every time, as the time approaches, I get more and more overwhelmed. The media is saturated with crap that immediately makes me avoid it. Stuff ends up in my letter-box that is full of rhetoric and no substance. Advertising features people’s faces (which I have a chance of remembering), but I have to vote by name (which I have no chance of remembering). Pretty soon into a campaign I’m so over it that I block everything out.

Then there’s the overhead of trying to figure out the voting system. I’ve lived in NSW & ACT. State elections have a different system to the Federal Election. I’ve never gotten it straight and haven’t a clue how it works.

So I get to this point. It is 4.50pm, I have to leave the house in less than an hour to go to dinner, then vote early next morning. So I have less than an hour to figure out who I want to vote for and how to make my vote count. Oh, and I have to figure out where to vote, given I’m registered in NSW and live in ACT.

Given this marvelous thing called the internet, that should be OK. I’m sure someone sent me email this week about how to vote. I’m sure there is some good information out there.

But, really, I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to spend the mental effort of figuring out where to start, finding what I want, cross-checking it for bias, absorbing it, remembering for tomorrow morning.

So I’m going to do what I always do. Walk into the polling booth, looking like I know what I’m doing. Ignore all the people thrusting how-to-vote cards at me. Get inside, wish I had a how-to-vote card. Vote for the same party I always do.

Andy Clarke is an information architect

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

Who knew? I always thought Andy Clarke was a great visual designer and CSS dude. But what I didn’t know was that he’s a closet information architect.

I attended his workshop today at Web Directions. In this, and in his book (Transcending CSS), he spent a big chunk of time talking about meaning and structure – about identifying meaningful content chunks, using semantic naming for pieces of content and using microformats to make small pieces of content more usable.

I know this isn’t usually considered to be information architecture, but I personally think it is. What is more IA than analysing content, finding meaning and creating macro and micro-structures? That sounds like IA to me.

Andy talked about the idea that ‘designers’ should be involved in the development (or at least planning) of code structures. I think this is a perfect place for IA folks to also be involved (if they are involved in a project) – to best figure out how detailed content chunks can be used. But I don’t think this is only an IA role – it is important that everyone thinks at the broad level of communication design and the detailed level of communication execution.

And it was a fantastic workshop, wonderfully supported by The Jam & Paul Weller.