Project Management

10 questions about information architecture

Very few people understand exactly what information architects do and why we need them in Web design. CNET Builder.com answers your top 10 questions about IA and information architects: who they are, how they get there, what they do, and why in the Web world.

By Shel Kimen

Information architecture. IA. Industry buzzwords? Fancy degrees? Web firms can't hire information architects fast enough, but, while the field has been around and growing for years in software, engineering, and library science, very few people understand exactly what information architects do and why we need them in Web design. And we do need them.

With today's complex, superfly, dynamically driven database Web sites and networks, information architects have become critical to—if not the cornerstone of—most large Web design projects. Blending the technical and the visual with a keen sense for organizational structures and usability, IA is a multidimensional field that puts place in space. Knowing the demand, CNET Builder.com answers your top 10 questions about IA and information architects: who they are, how they get there, what they do, and why in the Web world.

1. What is information architecture?
At its most basic, information architecture is the construction of a structure or the organization of information. In a library, for example, information architecture is a combination of the catalog system and the physical design of the building that holds the books. On the Web, information architecture is a combination of organizing a site's content into categories and creating an interface to support those categories. It stems from traditional architecture, which is made up of architectural programming and architectural planning.

Traditional architectural programming
The traditional discipline of architecture, which is the design of buildings and physical space, involves problem-making and problem-solving. It requires a thoughtful analysis (programming) to manifest a thoughtful synthesis (design).

Architectural programming is an objective approach to understanding the nature of the task so that a specific problem can be identified as something for space planners and designers to solve. The programmer establishes goals, collects and analyzes facts, uncovers and tests concepts, determines needs, and states the problem. The programmer's responsibilities include: client interviews, research and understanding of emerging technologies, reviews of case studies, budget planning, scheduling long-term deadlines, anticipating the future, and formulating functional requirements. The research results in a program document that specifically outlines the limits of the project and any unique problems.

Traditional architectural planning
Between the analysis and synthesis stages exists what William Pena, author of Problem Seeking: An Architectural Programming Primer, calls the synthesis gap. In large projects, a space planner manages this gap by taking the program document and defining the space to be designed, aligning the rooms, and assigning priorities to the interior structural elements. The space planner works with both the programmer and the designer to develop a structure that accommodates the function as well as the form. (Although sometimes, depending on the firm, the space planner is also the programmer or designer.)

In Web design, a person who helps develop programs and also plans is an information architect. The information architect maps the entire structure of the site and organizes the positioning of pages within sections, developing a functional and intuitive plan to get the user from point A to point B on the path of least resistance.

2. How do information architects fit into a Web team?
Some Web design firms have highly compartmentalized departments that separate problem finders from problem planners and problem synthesizers, but flexibility is the key to success. Information architects should meet with clients to help define a project's scope, as well as plot the path to meet the objective and work with the designers and technologists to develop engaging and intuitive visual interfaces. It is important for them to be present during all three phases and to get a client's objectives firsthand. Poor secondhand interpretations can be a project's death. It isn't that managers are inept at translating clients desires, but architects have special architectural questions that a business manager or producer might not be able to intuit.

It's also important for information architects to work closely with visual designers, helping to maintain the balance between form and function. Design effects architecture as much as architecture effects design. Working in a vacuum of compartmentalized skills isn't good for anyone, and it's definitely not good for the end result. Information architects also bridge architecture with development and work with technologists, database engineers, and HTML coders.

Most of the larger Web firms, such as Organic, Razorfish, Studio Archetype, and Agency, have established IA departments operating under various names. Some firms base their definitions on software design, while others take a more traditional, physical structure architecture approach. It's impossible to say what works best, because it's relative to the overall environment and work process. In general, it's good to take elements of software design, library science, traditional architecture, and industrial design and sift through for the elements that most apply to Web design and its nuances.

3. What do architects create for clients?
If there were a template or system for what information architects need to prepare, no one would need them. While there are certain key deliverables that most projects require, the work is most often determined on a case-by-case basis dependent on scope and function. Presentation is as much about showing information as it is about showing information in a way that is understandable to each client's specific Web knowledge and thought process. Some people prefer paper, while others need to see things clicking and moving in order to make sense of it.

Some of the basic deliverables include:

Site Maps: Maps reflect navigation and main content buckets. They are usually constructed to look like flowcharts and show how users navigate from one section to another.

Content Maps: Detailed maps that show what exists on each page and how content on some pages interacts with content on other pages.

Page Schematics: Black and white line drawings or block diagrams to hand off to a visual designer. These may, or may not, reflect layout and are used mostly to inform the designer and the client exactly what information, links, content, promotional space, and navigation will be on every page of the site. Schematics also help illustrate priority.

Text-Based Outlines: Sometimes information architects want to show architecture as indented text outlines and lists.

Interactive, Semi-Functional Prototyping: In some cases, information architects are responsible for outlining or storyboarding functional prototypes, and in others they actually build prototypes with HTML, Flash, Director, or PowerPoint.

Anyone who has seen the effects of unplanned projects—Web or otherwise—knows why it is important to have a plan before starting to build. Some clients don't understand the expense—and professional information architects are expensive. Also, due to the complex nature of information architects' work—representing sites with thousands of pages on 11-by-17 pieces of paper and presentation boards, director prototypes, and HTML schematics, for example—clients are sometimes confused and unable to see the value. It's important for any company that builds information architecture into its structure to support that structure by educating clients on its value. It's the responsibility of everyone on the team to help the client understand why every member is there.

4. How do architects evaluate or design a site?
First, even before evaluating an existing site for architectural improvements, it's extremely important to find out who's using it, who's building it, and what its goals are. Maybe the hardest part of information architecture is to help identify a focus—a necessary component of intuitive form and function. But after focusing, evaluation is all about anticipated user paths, logical process flows, and determining how to balance efficiency with ease of use. Good, consistent information architecture will help users build relationships and trust with the technology and product. So, a good place to start is to look for the ways sites are, and are not, consistent.

When designing a new site, it's always best to start with all the pieces, though this is seldom the case. You'll probably be hard-pressed to find a client who didn't change their minds half a dozen times over three phases of project architecture. And architects can change their minds because it is often difficult to predict all the pieces beforehand. It is the responsibility of the design firm and architect to ask the right questions, and it's client's responsibility to understand what they are trying to build.

Architecture can and should be an extremely collaborative and iterative process, which evolves somewhat organically in as much structure that can be defined up-front as possible. Anything an IA can do to ask as many questions and get as many answers up-front will ultimately help the process. Architects also need to focus on who will be using the site, strategic and business goals, key usability principals, technical constraints, and future needs.

5. What kinds of IA problems are difficult to solve?
The latest Web site trends all point to scaleable, personalized, and customizable portals with dynamic content, which usually involves a mix of onsite content creation and third-party vendors. Integrating the complexity of these requirements into a single user-friendly interface is difficult at best.

  • Scaleable is a polite way to say no one knows exactly what content will be included, so the site needs to be flexible to expand to house unknown amounts and types of information.
  • Personalization requires an intelligent back-end to filter demographic information and track user preferences in order to provide content that is relevant to an individual user.
  • Customization, on the other hand, is what users do to set their own preferences for a site experience. Building interfaces that are modular enough for a user to customize is extremely difficult, and setting a structure so that a user can select what he or she wants is even more difficult.
  • Dynamic Content is another tricky one because it mandates that content will be produced on the fly, based on any number of parameters, including copy length. Since the proliferation of the portal, sites have begun to aggregate content (collect it from other sites), which presents further design and architecture issues: Whose server holds the content? Who is responsible for third-party design and interface? And how are the partner sites effected when third-party providers change their service offerings?

In addition to these difficulties, there are standard issues, such as understanding—and defining—the target audience, determining how much and what type of information should be on a page, knowing when it's important to lean more toward visual cues (MSNBC) or more toward text (Yahoo), and choosing a content-based or contextual navigation system.

6. What software do architects use and need?
Unfortunately, the perfect tool hasn't been invented yet. There seems to be an abundance of tools for software architecture that are suitable, but they aren't necessarily great for presentation. And there are a few Web-specific tools that don't come close to fully demonstrating the complexity of a dynamic, contextualized navigation system.

However, the word on the street is that Adobe has heard the information architects' cries and is working fast and furious to produce a tool that gives them the best of precision layout and quick drag and drop objects. Until then, other options include Dreamweaver, Photoshop, and Visio, but ultimately it depends on what type of document you are trying to make. A versatile suite of tools is the best way to go for now.

7. Are there evolving standards for IA?
Like any discipline, industry standards set the pace, for good or bad, for most mainstream development. Some of the more common standards for information architecture revolve around navigation, transaction processes, and link use.

Structural Navigation
Most Web surfers have experienced what designers call the inverse L, which is essentially a navigation system that runs top-level categories—or buckets—horizontally across the top of the screen with secondary and tertiary links listed down the left side. Another standard is a horizontal tabbed metaphor, which has two—sometimes three—layers of links that are stacked. Clicking one of the horizontal links reveals a second row of horizontal links that relate to the clicked item. While it's important to break from these standards, it's also important to note that this is what people have gotten used to, and deviations are sometimes extremely confusing—even if they offer better solutions.

Financial Transactions
Transactions that involve the exchange or transference of funds tend to involve at least three steps: submit, verify, and confirmation of order received. The middle step, verify, is usually a page that shows the user what s/he has just submitted. It is a good idea to not allow users to make changes on the verify page but to send them to an edit screen instead. After the edit screen, they will see a new verify screen. Allowing users to make changes on a verify screen increases the margin for error. Removing or mistyping even a single number in a financial transaction is easy to do and potentially disastrous.

Redundant Links
It has been proven that people like to click, and when users are confused, they start scanning pages for whatever clickable links they can find. This is why sites such as Amazon.com have so much redundancy. In some cases, there are as many as three different links on one page to a single book or article somewhere else on the site. Some of these links are graphic, some are text, some are mixed into content areas, and others are highlighted on the side. No matter how perfect a site architecture may seem, because we all interpret information in different ways, it is important to be as inclusive as possible and provide as many points of entry into content that will fit on a screen without cluttering it.

8. How does usability relate to IA?
Usability testing ranges from observing how users react to color palettes to timing how long it takes someone to find a log out button. Sometimes testing is one-on-one, with a moderator asking an individual tester to go through the process of using a Web site—asking questions along the way about what they like and don't like, what is easy and difficult, and how it could be improved. Other times it consists of 10 to 20 person focus groups that also work with a moderator to determine preferences of target audiences and look at big picture issues, such as color treatment and content needs.

Some firms employ entirely separate departments for usability, while others look to information architects for this skill. It's a logical connection because IAs are responsible for making it easy it to find information and create most products with a focus on user-centered design (thinking of the user first). But even if they aren't usability experts, IAs usually think about usability testing as they are planning the site structure. They keep notes about what might be confusing and design prototypes specifically for user testing in order to isolate issues in navigation, process, and understandability.

Basic Rules for Usability Test Scripts
While there are entire books on usability test script writing, the best rule is to keep it simple and straightforward. We try to keep questions as objective as possible. For example, instead of asking, "Was it easy to use this site?" we would ask, "How would you rate using this site?" with check boxes for Very Easy, Easy, Not Easy or Difficult, Difficult, and Very Difficult. Five is a good number for choices, leaving room for a neutral response. It's good to ask questions with one word answers as well as request that testers write out some comments in their own words, as they often suggest ideas and feelings that site creators and project managers never imagined related to their product. A good book to help understand usability testing is Handbook of Usability Testing by Jeffrey Rubin, and some good web sites include:

IBM Ease of Use Web site—User Centered Design
An outstanding look at the process and concept of user-centered design. While it won't go very deep, it will give a good overview of the process of design as it applies to human-web interaction.

Alert Box
Current Issues in Web Usability, a biweekly column by Dr. Jakob Nielsen, principal, Nielsen Norman Group, covers everything from bandwidth issues to micropayments.

9. How do I become an information architect?
The best way to find a job in information architecture is to look at the Web sites of companies that produce work you admire. If the company doesn't have an IA department, it may be developing one, so you could get in early if you contact them.

If the company already knows that information architects are important to the design process, chances are they are probably on the hunt for qualified people because there are more positions available than people applying. Most large Web design and software design companies hire architects, as do consulting firms, banks, insurance companies, and public relation agencies. Basically, anyone who runs a large Web site, designs large Web sites, or hires people to design large Web sites has the need for an information architect.

The Skills You Need
Attention to detail and a strong sense of organization are the most obvious skill requirements for a position in IA. It isn't so important how one organizes information so much as that the organization is consistent. Information architects require strong logic and analytic skills, as well as the ability to ask appropriate questions and communicate effectively to a broad range of people: designers, executives, artists, marketers, producers, and technical staff. Information architects also need to be able to conceptualize the abstract and manufacture the concrete to explain it.

The Schools
Carnegie Mellon University has some excellent programs: Communication Planning and Design (CPD) and Information Design (ID) offer master of design degrees, and there's also a master of arts degree with emphasis on writing. Both programs lead to information architecture depending on the way a student structures coursework.

Similarly, Rennessler Polytechnic Institute offers a master in communications, a master in interactive arts, and a graduate certificate in human computer interaction with emphases in writing, design, or technology. New York University offers an Interactive Telecommunications Program and has sent dozens of people into information and interface design careers in the last few years. The program has traditional information technology offerings (Introduction to Computational Media and Elements of Visual Language) as well as flexible build-your-own theoretical studies (New Media and Interpersonal Behavior and Information Contours).

That said, any school that offers strong computer science, design, and writing programs will be able to build a liberal arts program in information architecture. The University of California at Berkeley, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Illinois, and Stanford University are all great places to start.

If you want to read more about information architecture, you can try these books:

10. What is the future of IA in Web design?
In the immediate future, information architecture will have more room for creativity because more Web sites may stray from a standardized navigation system and a consistent toolbar on every page.

Looking further into the future and watching the portal trend, information architecture might not only be about architecting individual Web sites, it also will be about architecting massive networks, and even cities. In any case: think big. Information architecture is soon going to be about architecting customizable and personalized views of the entire Internet, along with entirely new business and social models to go with it.

The world will need a lot more information architects over the next few years.

Shel Kimen is an information designer for Razorfish, Inc., New York, a strategic digital communications company. She has been online for a very long time and holds a B.A. in human environment and design with emphasis on architectural theory and planning.

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