If you want to know when new articles go
subscribe to the WebWord.com
Architecture for the Rest of Us
Article by John
The purpose of this article is
to explain information architecture in a very simple and clear manner. If
you have been confused about information architecture and what it is all
about, this is exactly the article you should read. An analogy is used to
get at the core concepts and several useful examples are provided.
Lost in the Woods
Pretend that you a lost in the
woods. If you wanted to get back home, what would you do? Would you follow
the sun? Would you look for landmarks? Would you retrace your steps out of
the woods? These are very serious questions for mountaineers. When you are
lost, and you want to make it back home, you need the right mix of skills
and luck to make it.
If you want to survive your
trip out of the woods, there are three abilities that you will need: ability
to orient, ability to navigate, and ability to find the route. What are
these abilities exactly?
Orientation is the
science of determining your exact position on the planet. This is how you
find your position on the globe using tools such as a map and compass. Your
orientation is where you are.
Navigation is the
science of determining the location of your objective and keeping yourself
aimed at it. It is understanding where you start and where you end.
Navigation is how you figure out how to start in the woods (i.e., starting
point) but more importantly, how you make it back home (i.e., ending point).
Routefinding is the art
of finding the best path given your skills and equipment. Brainpower is
important too. Good judgment and experience take time and energy, but that
is really the only way to get good at routefinding. A good instinct for the
right path often helps.
In short, to get out of the
woods and back home, you need to know where you are, you need to know where
you are going, and you need to have an idea about how to actually make the
trip. Stated another way: (1) Where are you? (2) Where are you going? (3)
How are you going to get there?
Got it? Now let's explore how
these concepts work on the web...
From a design perspective, orientation
is about helping people know exactly where they are. It is about giving
them both clues and blatant information about their position on the web and
on your web site.
How is orientation achieved?
Here are some examples:
(Is this the right web site?)
- URLs (Is
this the right page?)
(Where is this page in relation to other pages?)
- Page Footers
(Who published this? When was it published?)
These things should not
surprise you. However, you can do some very basic usability testing by
asking people the questions in parentheses. As you get answers, you will
realize what page elements are missing. You will start to understand what
information people need to get oriented on your web site.
Example 1 - This logo clearly indicates where you are.
Example 2 - This URL is not too long and it includes some hints.
Example 3 - These breadcrumbs tell you the path to the page.
Example 4 - This footer is big and spread out, but it provides a lot of
Navigation is about helping
people figure out where they want to go. Like orientation, you are
trying to provide people with the right information at the right time so
that they can move away from the page they are on to the page they want to
How is navigation achieved?
Here are some examples:
- Back / Forward Buttons
(Where was I? I need to get back to where I was!)
(Where was I? How did I get here?)
- Search Engines
(How do I get where I need to go?)
- Top of Page
(Where did I start? Take me back to where I was!)
- Visited Pages
(Where was I?)
These are obvious things, yet
many sites do not include these basic navigational tools. Of course, they
are not always appropriate or necessary. However, they are not used enough
and they are not used properly.
Example 1 - This continue tells you where you are going next.
Example 2 - Search WebWord. Potential problem: What does
Example 3 - What products did I look at? What categories? What searches?
A web site designer concerned
with routefinding is trying to help people get from point A to point B.
The idea is to help people see a clear path to their goal, and then help
them get there as easily and quickly as possible. This is harder than it
How can you help people with
their routefinding? Here are some examples:
- Effective Header Links
(Is this the right section to start in? Is this a list of ads or
- Effective Contextual
Links (Will this take me where I need to go?)
- Search Engine Results
(Will this get me to the page I want?)
- Recommended Pages
(What other pages are like this one? I need some suggestions!)
- Most Popular Pages
(Where are other people going? Maybe I should go there too!)
- Email This Page
(What can I do next?)
Routefinding is very personal.
We have seen a wide variety of web browsing and shopping behaviors. While
there do seem to be some clusters, people are people. They do what they
want, when they want, how they want. Your objective is to provide tools and
links that will help them get to where they want to go. If they are oriented
and they understand the navigation, then you need to spend time on
routefinding, which is tricky business.
Example 1 - This header tells you that the material below it is not an
Example 2 - This embedded link is pretty good. The context explains the
Example 3 - Amazon does a great job recommending other similar products.
Example 4 - At the end of WebWord articles and interviews, you can find
a lot of goodies.
You need to orient people, then
give them effective navigation, and then help them do their routefinding.
There is a lot of overlap between these concepts, but if you break your
information architecture efforts up this way, life will be more simple. Good
Architecture Revealed! (WebWord interview with Louis Rosenfeld)
Intersection of Information Architecture and Usability (WebWord
interview with Alison J. Head)
Face of Information Architecture (WebWord interview with
Information Architecture for the World Wide Web
(A book by Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville)
Navigation: Designing the User Experience (A book by Jennifer
(A collaborative discussion space for the topic of information
Hack (Christina Wodtke's weblog.)
(News for information architects.)
Please send them to me: firstname.lastname@example.org
I want to know what you think about this article.