At the heart of online design sits information architecture.
In fact, a large proportion of our function as online designers is devoted to supporting users when it comes to locating the content that they need, and driving them towards the content that website owners would like them to interact with.
As such, we incorporate visual markers to make sure that content is distinct against the rest, or to produce layers which demonstrate the diverse content on a website.
If you do not have quality content, it is impossible to design a good website, because all of the key choices should be related to the nature of the content planned for it.
The industry may have failed to establish a rigid model at this point, but there are a few important concepts which designers always return to – concepts which support their design choices, but do not prescribe an inflexible technique.
Plus, they also allow designers to focus on and streamline frameworks, by offering a steady and trustworthy perspective.
You may not know it, but you have likely already utilized some or all of these information architecture principles within your website designs, so do try to pay attention to them when you start a new project.
If you can learn to master them, you will always create great designs. If you fail to grasp them, it could mean that your designs do not translate as well as you would like them to.
The Principle of Objects
This principle is founded on the idea that content should be perceived as an organic entity, with its own personality, weaknesses, and strengths. For instance, there is a clear difference between a blog and an online picture – they are different types of content, and they both have different functions.
The blog needs a title, paragraph breaks, subtitles, and maybe even a quote. If the image is part of a gallery, it may need to additional images, captions, titles, and subtitles too.
It is common to assume that text heavy pages are all part of the same content group, but within this category there is diversity as well.
If the example of a culinary recipe is employed, it is clear to see that this textual product contains measurements, lists, culinary techniques, pictures, and more. It may be an example of a textual product, but it is not necessarily the same as a blog.
WordPress is extremely popular with web designers. If you are familiar with it, think about dissimilarities between a page and a post. In lots of ways, they look like the same thing. However, on closer inspection, it is clear to see that they contain different types of content.
It is a good idea to clearly outline all of the content types which will be used when designing a website. These virtual categories are bound to all have their own needs and structural requirements.
According to the principle of objects, each new task must be defined by the identification of every content category due to be featured – at high and low levels.
For instance, an online store may feature content which describes a diverse selection of product types (low level), whilst also containing content within each of these classifications which lists data relating to individual products (high level).
This kind of website may also feature an introduction to the business, an FAQ page, a customer service promise, and more.
Therefore, organizing all of these very specific content categories, and the defining their interactions, is the initial phase in constructing a strategy to provide data to users in the most efficient way possible.
The Principle of Choices
It is important to produce pages which are valuable and relevant to users, but it is similarly important to restrict the options they offer to a clearly defined objective.
According to web design expert Barry Schwartz, too many choices can make it near impossible for users to make a selection.
The more choices, the more mental work involved in processing them, and increased work can lead to increased stress. Whilst human beings tend to claim that they enjoy a diverse range of options, in reality, studies have suggested that too many choices cause anxiety.
It is the case that business intranets are goldmines for extensive logs of content. The only problem is that enterprises release guidelines, all pertaining to a specific subject matter (benefits, for example), but they almost never put in the journalistic work required to keep logs relevant and easy to use.
The detriment to users is clear – they have to invest more time in finding what they need. As such, many will simply not use the logs and never locate what they require, or they will utilize other resources like direct telephone contact, which negate the function of the web.
In regards to constructing information hierarchies, it is useful to space things out. For instance, logs should be smaller and options fewer, if only at the highest rungs of the system.
The Principle of Disclosure
The best strategy is to reveal only as much data is needed to make sure that users know what kind of content categories to expect.
The principle of progressive disclosure is a popular design model which links with the notion that human beings can only take in a predefined amount of data in any one instant, but that they are able to utilize that data to predict what information will come after. According to design executive Jill Butler, data offered to a user who does not plan or is not able to utilize is meaningless.
The key way in which progressive disclosure can impact web designs is that it forces designers to consider content in the form of layers. A website offers varying layers of similar content, spread across each of its different component parts.
To return to the recipe analogy, a culinary website cannot publish this content on every single page, because it would look absurd.
Therefore, what is does is use categories to group and organize the content. The categories page provides less data than the page containing the full recipe, but it is the right and relevant data.
If a user were to browse a collection of seasonal summer recipes, it would be valuable for them to be provided with images and relevant recipe names, so that they can make a personal decision as to whether to find out more.
Principle of Exemplars
The strategy of outlining content contained within a data category is a good way to help users get to grips with what a website offers.
For instance, on the Amazon website, if a user searches through the product categories, examples of products which are contained within those categories are displayed. This makes it much simpler to automatically highlight the right one, particularly for users who are unsure about category names.
This principle can be tricky to implement in some cases, and its value is reliant on content type. However, it can still be very useful, and it is worth incorporating into a website design, as it potentially offers a significant increase in user happiness.
The Principle of Front Doors
At this point, web designers should be aware of the fact that a home page is not the only landing page. In fact, users can access a website via almost any page. In simple terms, this is like a building with lots and lots of open doors. The general rule of thumb is to presume that around 50% of all users will enter via a door which is not the home page.
The concept of front doors links to some useful advice, which states that every website page must be perceived as a potentially open door. As such, every page needs to solve two key issues – what is this website, and what will it allow me to achieve?
In some cases, users will arrive via a page, and it will provide them with all of the information that they need. However, each page still has to link to a number of other relevant pages, and it must outline what other information can be located across the website.
Plus, the front door model implies that the home page does not have to contain a vast wealth of data. Whilst your home page does have to inform users of the function of your website, and what it will allow them to achieve, it does not have to be connected to every content category featured.
In fact, a home page should be devoted to supporting users when it comes to grasping the purpose of the website, and to merely suggesting a number of other pages which might prove useful to them.
Principle of Multiple Classification
The principle of multiple classification refers to the fact that different visitors will need different approaches to navigating a website. In other, different users prefer different ways of browsing data.
For instance, some tend to move directly towards search tools, whilst others prefer to navigate information more fluidly.
A good example is an online store which sells fashion items. You could have one user who wishes to search through all of the handbags on the website, and you could have another who is trying to navigate through just the smaller garment sizes, or the items which are priced the lowest.
The ability to offer website visitors varying choices inevitably leads to greater customer satisfaction.
The Principle of Focused Navigation
This principle pertains to a simple rule – do not mix categories within a navigation framework.
It is common for designers to employ terminology such as ‘international navigation,’ ‘left rail,’ or ‘right menu tab,’ in order to describe resources which allow users to navigate content whilst its location is displayed on the page.
The construction of navigation resources equates to the implementation of an approach to locating content within a website. The approach can involve various different navigation tools, or features which allow users to utilize content in a range of ways. For a content driven platform, the following navigation tools could be employed:
- Subject Searching – the key navigation area, which is made up of the primary subjects
- Timely Searching – a basic tool offering connections to valuable subtopics
- Indicator Searching – a tool featured on interior pages, which shows how content is organized
- Promotional Searching – a basic tool which offers direct links to available services
Principle of Growth
For most websites, content is an organic and inconstant entity. The complexity or amount of content featured on a website this year is unlikely to stay the same next year.
This means that it is important to manage your content in a flexible manner. The search tools and overarching data framework that you implement should be inherently scalable, so that it can grow to assimilate large amounts of new content with little effort.
You need to take the time to think about the type of content which could feasibly incorporated in future years, and this needs to relate to completely new content categories, as well as expansions of the ones already featured on the website.
It is a good idea to consider how this new content will link with existing content, the ways in which they could complement one another, and the manner whereby they could be assimilated easily with no need for a site overhaul.
The IA principles outlined are essential when it comes to constructing successful data hierarchies.
Whilst some will undoubtedly be more useful than others, for specific tasks, the ability to think about and evaluate every one of them is something which will lead to more streamlined data approaches. As all designers should know, an improved data hierarchy is a good way to up user satisfaction.
The design of a relatively small platform should be simple. It is a good idea to position content at the higher levels, and connect up the pages with a basic navigation resource.
However, a website with more than 8-10 pages is bound to be restricted by such a narrow framework. It will not be possible to form comprehensive connections, and data will have to be categorized inefficiently.
There is no single correct approach to the management of content, which can mean that data frameworks are sometimes tricky.
A lot of websites systematically re-position content to coincide with website overhauls, in order to minimize disruption. This is important, because it shows that all businesses, even the larger ones, meet unexpected challenges, and have to expand to meet them.
However, if you consider the principles outlined in this guide, the chances are that you will end up putting a lot less effort into content management. Plus, your users will benefit from a much more streamlined understanding of what your website provides, and what valuable content it contains.
- ^ UX Booth (www.uxbooth.com)
- ^ information architecture (www.usability.gov)
- ^ Image source (dribbble.com)
- ^ Image source (dribbble.com)
- ^ Eight Principles of Information Architecture (www.slideshare.net)
- ^ Daniel Brown (www.slideshare.net)
- ^ The more you know about information architecture (www.uxbooth.com)
- ^ what is information architecture (www.designyourway.net)
- ^ DesignYourWay (www.designyourway.net)