One the main challenges for consumers today is information overload. Not only too much information, but also the integrity of available information and multiple avenues for accessing information.
Information has shown a tendency to dematerialize, e.g., music libraries have gone from physical vinyl albums, 8-tracks, cassettes and CDs to digital streaming services; books have evolved from physical, printed artifacts to digital libraries. Digital collections of media and information aren't contained in one physical form that can only be arranged in a single system be it alphabetical by artist or author, alphabetically within genres, etc. Digital media allows users to approach information from multiple angles, which is beneficial in that not everyone's search for information starts from the same place nor will be carried out in the same manner. For example, once upon a time, potential customers used to read a printed brochure to learn about a carpet-cleaning service. Now they can approach the information in a myriad of different ways: they can see info on carpet cleaners using company websites, Google search results, Siri or Alexa searches, or through a service aggregator like Yelp or Angie’s List.
Information is more abundant than ever before, and we need to set it up so users approaching our repositories of info with different problems in mind and from differing starting points can connect their problems with solutions.
Information Architecture, or IA, is focused on making information findable and understandable. Designers approach problems from the perspective that products and services are perceived by users as places made of information, and just like a physical building — be it an airport or a train station — these places are ecosystems can be designed for maximum effectiveness. Design facilitates life. It is no coincidence that the University of Minnesota’s design programs operate as parts of the Department of Human Ecology. An ecosystem is a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment (and now digital environments).
In a word, Information Architecture is about way-finding. Information Architecture facilitates a user's orientation. IA exists on more than just the level of abstraction. There are multiple levels for helping define IA for any project. Our model for practicing effective information architecture design considers three things: users, context and content. This particular mix of variables changes not just from one information environment to another, but also for a single information environment over time.
It is helpful to use this concept of an “information ecology,” which is composed of users, content and context to address the complex dependencies that exist in these information environments. The following Venn diagram consisting of three circles illustrates the interdependent nature of users, content and context within an information ecology.
It is important to understand the business goals behind each project and the resources available for design and implementation. Always keep in mind the nature and volume of content that exists today and how that might evolve. It is also imperative to learn about the needs and information-seeking behaviors of the primary audiences.
“Good information architecture design is informed by all three areas, and all three are moving targets.”
Sometimes it helps to visual information architecture when it comes to understanding it. Let’s look at two approaches, top-down IA and bottom-up IA.
Top-Down Information Architecture
Top-down IA uses categories to group pages and applications throughout the site. Additionally, a systematic set of labels is designed and used to represent the site’s content. In order to facilitate movement throughout the site, strategic navigation and a search systems are tailored to the predetermined goals and implemented. Word (labels, sections, nav, etc.) choices, images, graphics, layout, grids, placement, and other IA components are created and arranged in methods that best anticipate users’s major needs. For example, research finds that most users shopping for tires begin their investigation with “which…”, as in “which tires work on my make and model of vehicle?” Site designers work hard with research to determine the most common questions, and have designed the site to meet those needs. This is top-down information architecture. Examples of top-down questions:
Where am I?
I know what I’m looking for; where is the search?
What are my options for getting around this site?
Why this company/organization?
What can I get here?
How do I engage with them via various other digital channels?
How can I talk to a person?
What’s their mailing address/phone/email?
How can I access my account?
In top-down information architecture, the environment’s designers posit a structure that aims to answer users’ questions such as these. The form that the environment takes — its content, page layout, etc. — is designed and produced to support this structure that has been centrally defined “from above.” Over time, as information environments have become more dynamic and search engines have become more powerful and widespread, a different modality — bottom-up information architecture — has gained prominence.
Bottom-Up Information Architecture
Bottom-up IA is more easily understood using an example. Imagine a website that includes recipe cards. The application of the site may involve some simple navigational elements, but not a whole lot. The recipe itself is where the architecture is most visible through the use of design. There is a familiar structure to most recipe cards: a title at the top followed by a list of ingredients and then prep instructions and serving information. There are many design tools and tactics, and this one in particular is called “chunking.”
The recipe’s native chunking could also support searching or browsing. One scenario could enable users to search on the “title” chunks known in order to find the topic title they seek, e.g., “lasagna.” Chunks aren’t only offset for distinction, they are also sequenced in a logical manner; i.e., titles don’t come after ingredients or prep instructions before ingredients. The definition and sequential placement of chunks helps users recognize they are looking at a recipe before they even read it. Once content is recognized, users have a better idea what the content is about and how to use it, move around it, and go somewhere else.
By looking closely, it is possible to see information architecture even when it’s embedded in the core of the content. And by supporting searching and browsing, the structure inherent in content enables the answers to users’ questions to “rise” to the surface. Content structure, sequencing, and tagging help users answer questions like:
Where am I?
Where can I go from here?”
Instead of being dictated “from above,” bottom-up information architecture is suggested by and inherent in the system’s content. It’s important because users are increasingly likely to bypass your system’s top-down information architecture. Websites aren’t like printed novels where most users start with the cover, turn to the table of contents, and follow a one-after-another path of breadcrumbs. Users can follow any link from any source and immediately be transported into the middle of a website. Don’t expect that they experienced the content on the homepage before arriving at the services page; they may have arrived from Yelp or a search result, an ad or a link on a social media post. You need to see your content as a site-wide whole as well as how each segment stands on its own. When people arrive from any direction, deep within a site, they’ll want to jump to other relevant content on the site without learning how to use its top-down structure.