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Information architecture (IA)

16 March 2011 | admin | Theory

Information architecture (IA) – is a science studying information organization in order to facilitate people in fulfilling their information needs. Design of information architecture for a web site consists of content analyses and development of structure that will assist user in solving his information tasks (search for goods, search for an answer etc.).

Quality IA is a synonym to good usability, because well developed structure makes it easier to create navigation system and page layout. Without efficient IA, the power and capacity of usability will be wasted on maintaining foundations of each web page. We use the word “architecture” here for one very important reason: information architects create drafts, which form the basis for the whole web site.

Most web-professionals when designing a web site give much attention to what site does and how it looks like. Site content, its structure, navigation, menu items, names of elements are usually left on the sideline.

In this situation it’s all a matter of luck whether a user will get what he needs from the site. Sites with a poor designed structure can be misleading and prevent users from fulfilling their tasks. In order for users to find what they need on the site, site content should have logical structure, clear to everyone.

Creation of IA, that will really help users, is a real challenge. It’s quite difficult to organize information in the way that it’s clear to common people and not only to your boss or colleagues. Users are not interested in getting through the site structure just to fulfill their tasks. If they can solve their tasks without having to get through site structure, it means the designed IA is working. IA should be invisible to user, at the same time be logical and intuitive. This is why IA is so difficult to create and so easy to use. When designing IA one should consider different types of user behavior while searching for information. There are two basic types: search and browsing. Users, who prefer search, will be disappointed if they don’t find a search form on the site, and vice versa, users, who prefer browsing arranged information, will be frustrated if they don’t find a catalogue. That’s why IA should contain different ways of information organization for different types of user behavior. Information architects not only create hierarchic structure of the site, but also create navigation scheme, keeping in mind the following questions: which elements represent global navigation (menu items, which can be found on any site page), which elements will be local (menu, which is shown in site subsections) and which elements will be specified by page context (links, inside a particular page).

Taxonomies are used to create site structure and for navigation. Taxonomy is a classification system, where information is arranged in categories (each element can be a part of only one category). Only after information is arranged in taxonomies, architects start to design structure of the menu (global, local) and navigation.

Research of arranging information in categories gives an opportunity to think over the sense of information elements for the user. Slang and other specific terms are often confusing and misleading, they make the understanding more difficult and as a result complicate user’s choice. Such terms can be defined during IA elaboration and replaced with more definite and clear ones. Information architect can create a glossary of terms that will include basic notions, used on site. It will make information integral and coherent.

After defining taxonomies, structures, navigation and menu items names the architect can start to create prototypes (draft page layout) to illustrate how all this IA elements will look on the site. After IA and prototypes are ready, you can start to create the detailed graphic design. Now users will have no problems in finding necessary information.

The chance that users will find necessary information on sites, where IA was specially designed are much higher than on sites where IA was worked out unintentionally, by itself.

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