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How I draft an information architecture

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

When I teach information architecture, the most common questions aren’t about the principles, but about the process. Just how do you decide on a particular method, how do you choose categories, how do you know what you’ve come up with is right.

As a teacher I’ve spent much time thinking about this, reflecting on my own process and how it actually works for me. And I’ve figured out the answer.

When I teach I tell people this answer. Most are surprised, but there are always a couple of people in the room who nod to themselves and look comforted.

Would you like to know the answer?

Here it is.

Wait for the surprise.

Just make it up.

Yep. As some high profile product says, just do it.

This is surprisingly easy, but there is a dependency. You need information. You need to understand what you are trying to achieve, what users of the service need and know, and you need to know the content well. If you don’t have these things, it will be hard. But if you do have them, pulling them together into a first draft is surprisingly easy.

When you have made something up – and I don’t care whether you do it on a whiteboard, in a spreadsheet or in your head – then start thinking about whether it will work for the users, and whether it will work for the content. Revise and play with your idea until these things start to fall together.

At some point you’ll start to feel good about your made up draft IA. In your head it will look like it will work for the users and the content will fit in. You can see how it will help the organisation achieve its goals. (If you can’t get to this point, it’s likely you are missing some kind of information. You’ll need to do something to fix that, or it will never work).

For me, there’s a funny feeling at this point – it feels simple and clear and makes me wonder why it took me so long to figure out.  That’s when I stop fiddling and start talking to people about it. And I’m yet to be be majorly wrong, so there must be something in it.

Today’s example

So I was doing this today for a client (I won’t say who, not that it’s sensitive – I just haven’t mentioned this to them). I took photos as I played with the new IA & thought you might be interested.

The background is that this is a fairly straightforward redesign of some government content. I know what the team want out of it, have done some basic user research, cleaned up the content and decided what to keep and create. It will be for a simple hierarchical site, so the IA in this case is a set of categories/subcategories to be used in navigation.

I don’t always do it like this, but today I jotted the main content chunks onto sticky notes. Apart from being physical, this helps me get away from the way content is organised now:

Then I jotted things we learned from user research onto a different colour note:

Then I shuffled them around into groups of things that go well together:

I played with these for a little while and moved a couple of things between piles, but it wasn’t hard. It fell together easily. All the user needs are catered and all the content fits in. There are some spots where we need some extra content, and there is no content that someone doesn’t need. I could come up with sensible titles for all the groups.

My followup step from this was to create a quick spreadsheet with the categories, subcategories and main content pages that came out of this shuffle; and also add a couple of special navigation items that will pull together some things across the piles (like forms and publications, which are scattered across the piles according to their topic, but will need separate entry points for some user tasks).

Next steps

Tomorrow I’m going to run through this with the client team. I’m not drawing it up into a sitemap now. I’m going to talk them through it as I draw it on a whiteboard. This lets me describe each section and the rationale behind it, without them being distracted by something I have already written down. I’ve done this before and it is a great trick for communicating the draft IA – it lets me present it as a story, and triggers sensible questions.

Then, of course, there is lots more to do. I’ll be using an existing navigation approach, so don’t need to design navigation. But I need to design all of the index pages – these will introduce each topic and provide deeper links plus cross links.

And we need to revise all the content. As this happens, the IA will change, but if I’ve done my job well it won’t change dramatically.

What, no card sort

OMG, I just wrote a book on card sorting, and didn’t run a card sort. Why not?

Well, I did other forms of user research which gave me a fairly good idea of the main issues and needs for users. Most users only ever need one or two content pieces, so there was little point getting them to do a card sort on things they don’t care about. And I didn’t feel like I had big gaps in my knowledge that would mean a card sort would help. So I didn’t.

We’ll do usability testing on this as well, probably before content rewriting and after.

Categories & the real world

Thursday, March 26th, 2009

One of the main challenges with creating any categorisation system is to make sure it collects what you need and matches up to the real world.

Here’s a list of single-select items I just came across on an otherwise-decent survey for a hotel where I recently stayed:

  • Household with children no longer home
  • Couple, no children
  • Household, with children
  • Single, no children

Firstly, I wonder how it is useful to them to know about my family situation. But secondly, where do I fit? Right now I’m single, with a child who lives with me half time. That so doesn’t fit into any of those categories…

Heuristics chocolates

Monday, November 27th, 2006


Originally uploaded by maadmob.

From OZCHI 2006 – heuristics chocolates.

Typekey anyone?

Monday, January 24th, 2005

I’m still being seriously swamped by spam and am thinking about how to manage it better. One option is to only accept comments from people with a Typekey token. I’m hesitant to do it as it puts the burden onto commenters rather than me, but right now I’m not even posting as I’m spending too much time deleting spam.

So I was wondering – if you are a regular reader, how would this affect you? Let me know:

  • Do you already have a typekey account?
  • Would you register with Typekey (it would allow you to comment on any blog that is using this method)
  • Would you just not bother commenting?
  • Would you stop reading all together?


Search B&A

Thursday, March 4th, 2004

Yippee – Boxes and Arrows has added a search box!!! Now it’s truly fabulous.

The missing page paradigm

Thursday, March 4th, 2004

More than anyone else (even the unnamed one that some of you know about), Mark Hurst consistently makes my blood boil. In his latest, he states a basic page paradigm as:

“On any given Web page, users will either…

  • click something that appears to take them closer to the fulfillment of their goal
  • or click the Back button on their Web browser”

I think that there is a big action missing. Here’s how it goes:

  • notice something else on the page that is interesting and click it

Now I know that I’m not the only one who does this – I have seen a lot of people do it. Of course, I don’t see it in a usability test or contextual enquiry, because when I’m there people are following my ‘instructions’ and ignoring their natural tendency to distraction (but even in a usability test they may say ‘that’s interesting, I’ll come back to it later’). I see it when hanging around with people in front of computers.

In reality, this is a big deal, both in the sense of persuasive marketing and increasing knowledge. I have deliberately designed information systems so they include the information that people know that they will need (the user’s goal) right next to the information that someone else wants them to know. In Mark’s world, people would never click the latter link. In my world, I have seen it happen – people see the additional information and learn that there is something else that they should know about, or something else that they might like to buy.

This is one of the big challenges of information architecture – not to just group information, but to understand how to identify the information that people don’t know that they want and get them to it.

I also share Peter’s concerns, so didn’t repeat them here…

Listening labs

Friday, October 10th, 2003

This article by Mark Hurst is interesting – Four words to improve user research

He suggest a slightly different approach to user research – in a usability test, don’t plan scenarios. Sounds good…

What’s wrong about this is that this is not user research – you don’t conduct user research in a lab – you conduct it in context. This is evaluation. Don’t mix them up – they are entirely different things.

(I would have put this on his site, but no comments there…)

Research approved

Thursday, October 2nd, 2003

I’m currently studying a Masters degree in Internet Communication – almost finished my second of three years. It’s a bit of a strange course and next year involves two subjects that I’m really not interested in, so instead I asked if I can do a research project.

How cool – I can, and the head of school thought my topic would be good. So next year, I’m going to be spending lots of time trawling through user-centred design, human factors, cognitive psych and LIS literature (only the first of which is *my* field) looking for techniques & theories that we may use to better arrange large, heterogeneous information spaces so they are more usable. If you’ve been reading for a while, you’ll know that this is something I’ve been musing on recently.

Yay! I’ll let you know how it goes (slowly, I imagine)

You know you’re a usability gal when…

Friday, September 26th, 2003

…you go shopping for a briefcase and stand in the shop running through scenarios on each bag…

or does everyone do this?

(and the one I bought is gorgeous, usable, useful and hideously expensive)

Another good article from Mike

Friday, January 31st, 2003

Another good article from Mike Kuniavsky (Adaptive Path) about interviewing:

Face to Face With Your Users: Running a Nondirected Interview

These are the types of interviews I use most often – I have a few broad questions that I plan, and otherwise let the interview take its course. Usually I sit at a person’s computer with them and get them to show me examples, and point to things as we talk. This is much more useful than trying to conceptualise or just describe what happens.