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Information Architecture for the Small Site - part 1
Pile up the content

 8:39 am on Apr 7, 2004 (gmt 0)

I promised a few people at PubCon in Orlando that I would begin a series of threads about the basics of Information Architecture (IA). I'm not going to go crazy here, but I hope to cover a few basic ideas that can help anyone with even a smallish site.

Information Architecture is definitely related to navigation, but it is not equivalent to navigation. IA is a very young discipline that draws on Library Science and even Architecture itself, for some of its methods and vocabulary.

When the first companies began creating their web presence in the mid 90's, there was one very common flaw. They organized their online information according to their own internal org chart.

That's very handy for the departments within the company -- for instance, there's no confusion about who "owns" what content. But it proved quite baffling to the average user who only wanted to accomplish certain tasks, not learn the way the company was set up!

That's one guiding principle of IA -- it's the organization of information according to the USERS' purposes. So a company might organize their INTRAnet according to the org chart, but definitely not their public website.

In marketing, we often talk about pointing out benefits over features. Our prospect is always focused in what a product or service means to them.

We should follow a parallel principle in IA. The questions a visitor asks are "What can this website do for me?" and "What can I accomplish here?" -- not usually "What is your company all about?"

So as the final result of your IA work, you want to communicate what kinds of things the user can do. Secondarily, you also want it to be a perfect no-brainer to discover WHERE in the site that can be done.

Users will poke around a bit looking for the right spot if they know for a fact that they can do a particular task on this site. But you will lose them very fast if they can't even tell if their purpose is possible here.

The first step I take when organizing a new site is what I think of as "piling up content". Unless this website is a re-vision of an exisitng site, then it's usually not realistic to collect only written documents and already prepared applications.

But it is essential to create a master list that contains a very detailed and granular accounting for what your user will see on the website at launch. Even if you have a big pile of content ready to go, you still need to expand that list to what types of things will be added in the foreseeable future.

For all but the smallest projects, I use a physical stack of index cards to create this content pile. One card, one item. Ideally, each card represents a single page in the end product of a site, although some articles or function will naturally require a set of pages.

First I create a table (in Word or Excel) using a master list wiht one item for each index card, or "content bit" -- and several extra columns following it. This is for record keeping, not the sort itself.

Now comes the first card sort. Take the index cards and see how you think a user would group them, like with like. Don't just make this a purely academic exercise - make it a game of role playing.

Draw up a short sketch of a particular visitor who falls within the site's target demographic. Make him or her real -- a name, age, job, hobbies, etc. Then try to get into their head before you do your first sort.

Usually there are many ways to sort your content bits. As a simple example, suppose your site is about "balls, bags and boxes" and you have a choice of red, blue, green for each, and also "luxury" and "every day" versions. Of course this is simplsitic, but you can immediately see three differnt ways of stacking up the index cards.

In the real world you will often notice all kinds of ambivalence between your bits of content, and all kinds of frustrating overlap. When you've completed one sort, give each pile a number and enter that number in your table next to the title of the card.

Then look for another way to sort the cards -- drawing up a different user sketch and getting into that person's head.

When you offer too many apprently equal choices to a user, they often make no choice at all. For this reason, aim for card sorts that generate no more than seven piles. Five is the ideal, and in my experience using five main divisions also creates the stickiest website.

So definitely make seven your limit, and try to create some five pile sorts.

Why seven? Over many, many years phsychological tests show that seven is the "break" spot for memory. People can easily and accurately repeat lists of words or numbers when there are seven or fewer. The minute you hit eight, the error rate spikes. The human mind tends towqard groups of seven -- don't know why exactly, but it's definitely true.

In very rare cases, seven doesn't seem to work. Then I look for the smallest piles and ask myself if these content types are really equivalent to the other piles -- do they all exist on the same level of importance?

Usually you can find a group that is easily broken off in a kind of auxilliary category - something that will not generate a main menu item but instead can be in a kind of supportive area. It might be certan specialized tasks, or rarely requested but essential support -- all kinds of things are possible. But don't go for any more than seven main categories.

If you've got a collaborator or two, ask them to do a sort for you. You'd be amazed how differently two people will sort out the same information. So do several sorts, using several people when possible. Record each set of results in your table, each one in a new column.

When you've recorded several ways of organizing the content in your Word or Excel table, then you can easily sort and resort the table to group your content according to each approach you created.

Part Two: LABELS FOR THE PILES [webmasterworld.com]

[edited by: tedster at 10:07 pm (utc) on April 23, 2004]



 2:27 am on Apr 14, 2004 (gmt 0)

they should know though where they are and what else they can find on the site.

Y'know, the SINGLE MOST USEFUL LINK ON ANY PAGE ANYWHERE is "site map".... assuming of course that said "site map" has a concrete structure which grounds the user in a solid way....


 2:51 am on Apr 14, 2004 (gmt 0)

I agree about the value of a "site map" link -- but I don't think it ever belongs on the main menu.


 3:00 am on Apr 14, 2004 (gmt 0)

Oh - no I didn't mean that I thought it ought to be on the "main menu" whatever/wherever that might appear. Just that it's the FIRST THING I look for when accessing a new site no matter what that site might reference. So when the "site map" link is in tiny print at the very very bottom of the "home page" UNDERNEATH the "fine print" as it were, UNDERNEATH the copyright info etc., I get REALLY REALLY PISSED OFF because it's totally stupid to put it there - um. <rant off.... *sigh*>

[Probably needless to say, I spend a great deal of time online, and ditto a large amount of money.... I live in an area where "shopping" is sort of problematic (as in, the nearest REAL "shopping" is a 340 mile round trip minimum....) so I have some seriously rigid feelings about this sort of thing....]

Purple Martin

 4:57 am on Apr 14, 2004 (gmt 0)


I once heard someone say that they monitored their site map hits to see how effective their main navigation was. If the site map got hardly any hits, they were happy that the main navigation worked as intended. Of course there will always be a small number of users who's preferred method of navigation is the site map, but it might be a good rule of thumb to adjust your main navigation until your site map hits are at a minimum (without making the site map link difficult to find).


 12:34 pm on Apr 14, 2004 (gmt 0)

Wow, this made me go back and think about stuff that I learned ages ago in a totally different field of marketing. And it made sense, even in a pre-internet world.

The rule of 7 was something I had beaten into my head when I first started at the TelCo 15 years ago, and I can't believe I've since gone on to ignore it in sites I've designed. I'm in the middle of rebuilding a site, and after I read that, I went and looked at my current design, the design I'm moving towards, and thought "Ok, this this and this change now, what does that do?"

And in about 5 minutes, I realized I could make the whole site simpler to navigate by reducing the mamin menu choices.

My two bits on the "Home" link:

It depends on the site and your objective. For many sites, especially pure sales sites, it really isn't all that key. So long as you can find your way from product to product, who cares about the "Home" link? All that page is going to tell you is what the company is/does and how the site helps to feed that purpose. If you're looking at product already, chances are you've already figured that out, just keep hand-holding the surfer from one product to the next or directly to the checkout.

Content sites are something else entirely. Especially if it's a regularly updated content site, like a newspaper, news feed, or other such. That front page is where all the latest info on the site should be listed, which is exactly what the return visitor is after. They don't want to re-read the same article for the 50th time. They want to find out what the latest articles are, and that should all be listed on the "Home" page, so there should be a natural, highly obvious link to the "Home" from anywhere else in the site, because you never know how the surfer got there (through Google, someone posted a link in a BBS to a specific article, etc etc...)

Just my ttwo bits and a wooden nickle.

stevenb 1959

 2:36 pm on Apr 14, 2004 (gmt 0)

people come into a webpage from different aspects of the web, links, search engines, etc, on the page they enter at they need viable options to consider or they determine very fast it isnot what they want and they click the back button, so you must be able to present the basics of you business plan on every entry page.


 8:43 pm on Apr 18, 2004 (gmt 0)

Interesting topic. I've already begun to simplify the main menu on one of my site after reading the first posts.

I've also done the impossible sin. I've removed the home link from the top of the site - as a news site, it is a major thing for me.

Fortunately I've left the bottom link and will introduce a link within the logo shortly.

Thanks for the tips Ted.

stevenb 1959

 12:40 am on Apr 19, 2004 (gmt 0)

If you have a link that has anchor text that says "home" then you better have the word "home" in the page title and meta tag title and meta description of the page it links to, as these are what the search engines utilize to verify an anchor text link from one page to the next. Then you must consider whether the word "home" is what you want your entry page to be known for. That is my analysis.


 12:49 am on Apr 19, 2004 (gmt 0)

If you have a link that has anchor text that says "home" then you better have the word "home" in the page title and meta tag title and meta description of the page it links to, as these are what the search engines utilize to verify an anchor text link from one page to the next. Then you must consider whether the word "home" is what you want your entry page to be known for. That is my analysis.

ONLY if your ONLY point is where you "rank" in search engines. The REST of us worry more about whether people can get back to the "least common denominator" easily. THAT'S the really important thing to consider!

Believe me, those who care about the whole search engine silliness really aren't as overwhelmingly a percentage as posts herein MIGHT indicate....

stevenb 1959

 1:12 am on Apr 19, 2004 (gmt 0)

That is a very excellent point and I just realized from the description of this forum thread that my opinion isnot appropriate to what is being discussed in this thread and I am sorry.


 2:12 am on Apr 19, 2004 (gmt 0)

[quote]That is a very excellent point and I just realized from the description of this forum thread that my opinion isnot appropriate to what is being discussed in this thread and I am sorry.[/quot]

Ouch. I'M sorry. Your point is entirely valid as it relates to search engines etc. I'm a tad bit iffy about that whole thing, shouldn't have bit quite so fast.... ANY opinion is valid based on it's point of reference....

peter andreas

 11:55 am on Apr 19, 2004 (gmt 0)

A great post, Iv'e printed it out.

One thing does linking From the Home page have a beneficial effect on feeding PR to the other pages below it?

We have many many menu buttons all from our home page and every page with a link back to the home page to feed back PR. Our home page is in efect a site map partly to help with se indexing.

How does the rule of 7 effect these issues?


 12:05 pm on Apr 19, 2004 (gmt 0)

The rule of 7 applies to the MAIN menu choices. There are lots of other links possible on a page and around the site. That's where the creativity comes in -- giving users access and flowing PR around without overwhelming the visual appearance of a page with too many equal looking choices.

And yes, links flow PR to the page linked to.

Continued in Part Two - Labels [webmasterworld.com]

This 43 message thread spans 2 pages: < < 43 ( 1 [2]
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