25 February 2007

Design essentials: Information Architecture

Just because you work in the design field doesn't mean you've had the benefit of formal training in Information Arechitecture. As elearning and visual designers, IA is a critical issue we deal with on every project, tied in with user-experience, HCI and usability. It's also true that despite the undeniable value of having a professional information architect on board (all the more so the larger and more complex a project), it's more likely, that, like many working at educational institutions or elearning organizations, you probably won't be lucky enough to have someone in your team dedicated specifically to IA. It may be more likely that it will fall in your hands at best, or at worst go entirely unattended to in any kind of conscious or systematic way.

So it remains one of those things that it's important to delve into and at least get a good sense of the key principles under your belt - as much as to do it well as to help educate others you work with. To that end, you might find this 3 minute introduction to IA at sitepoint just enough to get you moving.
Though accounts vary, the article describes Information Architecture as including:
  • Competitive analysis
  • Site Requirements
  • Site Goals with the help of all stakeholders
  • Personas
  • Wireframes and/or Use Cases for task flow
  • Navigation and Labeling
  • Prototype
  • Vocabulary (search and metadata)
The Web Services team at the University of Sydney provide a neat page of categorized resources on IA, from the IA Institute to overviews of common methodologies like card sorting and using personas. To quote their worthy metaphor,

"If information architecture is done badly or ignored completely, people will find it difficult to use your site. Just as buildings are not put together without some kind of blueprint, websites should not be built without thought being put into their structure, otherwise you’ll end up with the doors opening into mid-air and stairs going nowhere."

Also, their brief set of guidelines has elearning deisgners specifically in mind.
When you have the time to more thoroughly arm yourself for the job, take up a book on IA.
  • The bookshelf text: I would highly recommend what is both a thorough professional's handbook and an enjoyable read: the O'Reilly "Polar Bear Book" - Information Architecture for the World Wide Web by Moreville and rosenfeld. A new edition was just released in 2006 and it's excellent. It takes a sytematic approach to definitions, methodologies and even looks at how other professionals like graphic designers participate in Information Architecture.
  • The lunchtime read: For a light overview that dips into usability as well, The New riders Information Architecture - Blueprints for the Web by Christina Wodtke has been said to do the job.
No matter which way you decide to approach it, IA is an absolutely critical part of the design process, so go into it with best practices and principles as your foundation instead of letting it happen by accident. Now hop to it and go organize yourself silly.

FunStuff: Check out The Flickr photo pool "Everyday Information Architecture"

If you happen to be in Sydney, "IA-Peers" is a networking event organised each month in the area. "It's small and friendly and informal and focused on the web industry. We even occasionally talk about information architecture." For more info, contact the group's coordinator, Information Architect, Eric Shield
of Ironclad Networks.