Friday, July 13, 2012

Information Architecture for Websites

Without a clear understanding of how information architecture (IA) should be set up, we can end up creating web sites that are more confusing than they need to be or make web site content virtually inaccessible. Here are some popular IA design patterns, best practices, design techniques, and case examples.

Information Architecture Design Patterns

There are a number of different IA design patterns for effective organization of web site content. Understanding these IA models will help you pick the most appropriate starting point for a site’s information structure. Let us talk about five of the most common web site IA patterns.

Single Page

The first pattern is the single page model. Single page sites are best suited for projects that have a very narrow focus and a limited amount of information. These could be for a single product site, such as a website for an iPhone app, or a simple personal contact info site.

Flat Structure

This information structure puts all the pages on the same level. Every page is just as important as every other page. This is commonly seen on brochure style sites, where there are only a handful of pages. For larger sites with a lot more pages, the navigation flow and content findability gets unwieldy.

Index Page

A main page with subpages is probably the most commonly seen web site IA pattern. This consists of a main page (we know this more commonly as a "home page" or "front page"), which serves as a jump-off point for all the other pages. The sub-pages have equal importance within the hierarchy.

Strict Hierarchy Pattern

Some websites use a strict hierarchy of pages for their information design. On these sites, there will be an index page that links to sub-pages. Each sub-page (parent page) has its own subpages (child pages). In this pattern, child pages are only linked from its parent page.

Co-Existing Hierarchies Pattern

As an alternative to the strict hierarchy, there is also the option of co-existing hierarchies. There are still parent and child pages, but in this case, child pages may be accessible from multiple parent pages/higher-level pages. This works well if there’s a lot of overlapping information on your site.

Best Practices for Information Architecture Design

There are a number of things you need to remember when designing the information architecture of your site. Most importantly, you need to keep the user experience at the forefront when making choices about how best to present and organize the content on your site.

Don’t Design Based on Your Own Preferences

You are not your user. As a designer, you have to remember that site visitors won’t have the same preferences as you. Think about who a "site user" really is and what they would want from the site.

Research User Needs

Researching what your users need and want is one of the most important steps in creating an effective information architecture. There are a number of ways to research user needs. You could get feedback through interviews, surveys, user side testing, and other usability testing methods prior to the site launch to see if users are able to navigate your site efficiently.

Once you know what your users actually need, rather than just your perception of what they need, you will be able to tailor your information architecture to best meet those needs.

Have a Clear Purpose

Every site should have a clear purpose, whether that’s to sell a product, inform people about a subject, provide entertainment, etc. Without a clear purpose, it is virtually impossible to create any kind of effective IA.

The way the information on a site is organized should be directly correlated to what the site’s purpose is. On a site where the end goal is to get visitors to purchase something, the content should be set up in such a way that it funnels visitors toward that goal. On a site that is meant to inform, the IA should lead people through the content in a way that one page builds on the last one.

You may have sub-goals within a site, requiring you to have subsets of content with different goals. That is fine, as long as you understand how each piece of content fits in relation to the goals of a site.

Use Personas

Creating personas, a hypothetical narrative of your various web site users, is another great way to figure out how best to structure the site’s content.

In its very basic form, developing personas is simply figuring out the different types of visitors to your site and then creating "real" people that fit into each of those categories. Then throughout the design process, use the people you have profiled as your basis for designing and testing the site’s IA.

Keep Site Goals in Mind

It is important that you keep the site’s goals in mind while you’re structuring content. Pick the right IA pattern for those goals. Use goals to justify why the information structure should be the way you designed it.

Be Consistent

Consistency is central to exemplary information architectures. If eight of your nine informational pages are listed in a section, why wouldn’t you also include the ninth page there? Users expect consistency.

The same goes for how information is structured on each page. Pick a pattern and stick to it. If you deviate from that pattern, make sure you have a very good reason to do so; and make the deviation is consistent in similar cases. Inconsistencies have a tendency to confuse visitors.

Tomorrow, I am going to describe methods and techniques for information architecture design.

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