Information Architecture: Unveiling Structure & Relationships

Information Architecture is the underlying structure and organization of content pages, particularly on a website, that demonstrates relationships of one element to another. One of the tools for developing the information architecture for a website is called a site map. The site map shows the backbone of a website, detailing each piece of content you wish to share with your users, and connecting those pieces in a clear and organized way. The site map illustrates not just the overall purpose of the site, but also the way that different elements relate to one another to deliver the entirety of the content. It portrays the pages of a site, but not the functionality.

There are several steps one can take to develop a site map for a website, whether it’s a new site or one that is being redesigned.

First, engage in a bit of research, to understand the purpose of your site and the intended audience.
Learning a bit about the people your site is intended for will help you understand what information is needed and how those people will try to find that information. It’s important that you understand the background knowledge that people will arrive with, as well as the common language and lingo they may employ. It’s also essential to understand the overall purpose of the site – what is it trying to convey and what it is it trying to do. Taking time upfront to answer these questions will ensure you are looking through the proper lens as you develop out the information architecture.

Next, take an inventory or audit of your existing content, as well as any new content which needs to be added.
If you are redesigning an existing site, you should first go through and make a list of all of the content on the site. Try to determine the relevance and usefulness of each piece of content – assess whether some content may not be necessary within the site, and whether any new content needs to be added. Organize the content into categories to make it clear how the pieces fit together. You may even begin to establish some priorities – what do people need to see first, versus what content could be a few clicks away, intended for a specific segment of your audience.

Finally, develop the hierarchy and navigation by mapping out the content into a clear and concise site map. Be sure to capture all of the pieces of content in your site map, and illustrate the connections between those pieces of content. Use indicators, such as color and line weight, to show the hierarchy, varying importance, and different types of content that are included. If you are redesigning an old site, it may be useful to first create a site map of the current site, and then develop a site map with the proposed changes to the site. Find creative ways to illustrate the changes to your stakeholders. You may include labels or notes to help bring attention to certain areas within your site map.

Information Architect Dan Brown has developed a set of Eight Principles of Information Architecture to help guide designers in the development of solid organizational structures. Dan encourages the designer to focus on structure, research how people will interact with the site, and understand the range of content involved.

The Eight Principles of Information Architecture

  1. Principle of Objects
    Remember that content is alive, and that each piece of content has its own lifecycle, behaviors and attributes. Web content is an object, with a consistent and recognizable structure.
  2. Principle of Choices
    Provide your users with meaningful choices. Too many choices can be overwhelming, but too few choices may not give your users all of the options they are looking for within your site. At the top level, make a shorter list of choices, and the provide more choices as the user gets deeper into the site.
  3. Principle of Disclosure
    Don’t overwhelm your users by giving them all of the information at once. Rather provide just enough information to entice them to dig deeper, slowly revealing the full nature of your content. Think about the content in terms of layers, what do we need to show up front, and what can we wait to reveal later?
  4. Principles of Exemplars
    Content often falls into larger categories. In order to help your users understand those categories, you can show an example of something that falls within that category. Make it a good example, so they want to learn more about the content in that category.
  5. Principle of Front Doors
    In the vast and tangled web, users may arrive at your site in a variety of ways, and land first on a variety of pages depending on their entry point. Remember to always set the context for your user so they know where they are, and also to always provide a way back to the very beginning (or homepage) of the site.
  6. Principle of Multiple Classification
    People are different, and they will often come to your site with different goals and objectives. Provide multiple ways to explore the information, based on their own needs and interests. Be sure to use categories and labels that will resonate with different factions of your audience.
  7. Principle of Focused Navigation
    Brown states that “designing navigation means establishing a strategy for finding content on a website.” Navigation is the essential element which can either enhance or detract from the user experience. Make sure your navigation is focused not on its location, but on the content it contains.
  8. Principle of Growth
    The site you design today will not be the site of tomorrow – anticipate growth in your content by building out a site structure that is scalable and open to content being added over time.

In his book, Communicating Design, Dan Brown offers helpful advice for developing the site map, which he defines as “a visual representation of the relationships between different pages on a website. Also known as a structural model, taxonomy, hierarchy, navigation model, or site structure.”

The site map should demonstrate the overall underlying structure of a site, how each piece of content fits together, and the hierarchy of information. Site maps are used as a planning tool, which convey all of this information to the stakeholders of the site. At their most basic, a site map will contain simply boxes and lines. The boxes each indicate a piece of content, while the lines denote the connections and relationships between those elements of content. However often you will want to convey more than this basic information through your site map. You can elaborate on the pages of content by adding in color, shading, size, or line weight. You can include thumbnails of the pages in the site, rather than just boxes with labels. You can also indicate categories of content by clustering or grouping some of the boxes, for example to illustrate different parts of the navigational structure. When employing these visual design strategies to communicate a deeper level of information, it’s essential to include a legend describing what each visual element means within the context of the site. You may also choose to add annotations or short notes to further elaborate on portions of the site map.

Site maps are an essential tool for communicating the information architecture of a website. Developing a comprehensive site map is a great way to get organized when planning the design or redesign of a site, and can help illustrate key areas or problems within a site. Therefore site maps are an essential tool for the information architect and UX designer.

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