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Monday, April 15, 2002
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Making sites user-friendly

On the Web, information architecture is a combination of organising 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, says Suneet Kheterpal

Anyone who has seen the effects of unplanned projects, be it in the field of software design, engineering, architecture or Web, knows why it is important to have a plan before starting to implement.

Consider Chandigarh. Chandigarh is a well-planned city. Le Corbusier shaped it in such a manner that despite so many decades, students from the world over still conduct their projects and case studies on this efficiently planned city. The City Beautiful, is divided into blocks of sectors. Each sector is almost similar to the other in terms of number of houses, shopping area, medical and schooling facilities. Each sector has further divisions (A, B, C and D). These divisions divide a sector into four parts. Each division has almost the same number of houses in it, as in any other division of any other sector. Even though there is a unique feature for all sectors yet their basic mapping remains the same. Knowing one sector thoroughly helps you imagine what the rest of them would be like.

This is an ideal case of effective navigation. The placing of facilities (objects) intuitively in each sector (layout), so that the commuter (visitor) can interpret in which division of the sector a particular house number would be.

Such an efficient navigation system is important when it comes to navigating the Web. While making the site more aesthetically appealing, the Web designers many-a-times forget about intuitive navigation, which is an integral part of a Website.

 

Intuitive navigation is important for the customers to surf through the Website, without needing any audio or textual aids to guide them through the site. Intuitive navigation is required so that the visitors to the site donít have a frustrating experience with the navigation scheme. Remember, competitive sites are just a click away!

The bottom line to understand here is that the navigation should be such that the visitor always knows where he is exactly and how to get back to the page from where he arrived.

While the Web designer would lend his expertise on the issues relating to aesthetics and colour-combinations, the information architect would ensure that the site is tailor-made for its target audience, with a navigation system that ensures its visitors a fulfilling experience.

Information architecture (IA) has been around and growing for years with wide ranging applications. Yet very few persons understand exactly what information architecture is and why do we need such architects in the field of Web design.

According to Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville from Argus Associates: "Information architecture involves the design of organisation, labelling, navigation, and searching systems to help people find and manage information more successfully."

Ant-trails, breadcrumb trails, site maps, textual outlines, prototypes, sound like a mixture of jargon on forests, buildings and written documents? It actually is. Information architecture incorporates all these. Though the phrase information architecture came into limelight only a decade ago yet with proliferation of the Web and software engineering-related activities, it was coined way back in 1976 by Richard Saul Wurman, the renowned author of "information anxiety."

At the very basic level, information architecture is the construction of an organised structure with intelligently layered blocks of information. On the Web, information architecture is a combination of organising a siteís 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.

Information architecture for the Web is about applying the principles of architecture and library science to Website design. Most of the Websites are in the public domain where both, casual and serious visitors come. The information architect maps the entire structure of the site and organises 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 thus ensuring that the site is comfortable and inviting for persons to visit, browse, access the required information and perhaps even return to someday

Information architecture is thus, the science of figuring out what you want your site to do and then constructing a blueprint before you dive in and put the thing together. It is the process of organising, labelling, designing navigation and searching systems that helps people find and manage information more successfully.

With todayís complex, database-driven Websites, information architects have become critical to most large Web design projects. Blending the technical and the visual with a keen sense for organisational structures and usability, information architecture is a multi-dimensional field. There are certain key deliverables that most projects require from an information architect, some of the basic deliverables include:

  • Site maps: Maps reflect the site navigation. They are usually made to look like flowcharts or like the table of contents (as in print medium) and show how users navigate from one section to another.

  • Interactive, semi-functional prototyping: Sometimes, information architects are responsible for outlining/building functional prototypes, and/or by using HTML, Flash, Director, or PowerPoint.

  • 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: How the information would be laid on the Web page - indented text outlines and lists.

While designing and planning any Website, Information architects (IAs) need to focus on who will be using the site (target audience), strategic and business goals (reasons for the site), determining how much and what type of information should be on a page, key usability principles, technical constraints, and future needs (growth and evolution of business as well as the site). Future needs incorporate the scope for Websiteís scalability, personalisation, customisation and dynamic delivery of the content. 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 affected when third-party providers change their service offerings?

Some Web design firms have highly compartmentalised departments that separate problem finders from problem planners and problem synthesisers. But flexibility is the key to success. Working in a vacuum of compartmentalised skills isnít good for anyone, and itís definitely not good for the end result.

Information architects should meet with clients to help define a projectís 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 clientís objectives firsthand. Poor second hand interpretations can be a projectís death. It isnít that managers are inept at translating clientsí desires but architects have special architectural questions that a business manager or producer might not be able to intuit.

Itís 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. Information architects also bridge architecture with development and work with technologists, database engineers, and HTML coders.

In order to understand how information architects and usability engineers are related, we need to understand what is usability. According to ISO 9241-11:"(Usability refers to) the extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of user."

Information architects can understand and seamlessly incorporate usability; in fact, knowledge on information architecture is a must for efficient and effective Usability testing. Usability testing ranges from observing how users traverse through the site (depends upon how the information has been organised on the site), their reaction to the colour palettes to timing how long it takes someone to find a log out button.
Some firms employ entirely separate departments for usability, while others look to information architects for this skill. Itís a logical connection because IAs are responsible for making it easy it to find information and create most products with a focus on user-centred design. But even if they arenít 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.

Since the work involves imparting user-friendly information to the visitor of the Website, the information architect should have strong analytical, written and verbal communication skills, experience with user-centred design methods, and knowledge of trends in access to digital information and emerging metadata standards. Experience with an integrated library system and bibliographic utility using the Internet is beneficial. Degree or experience in user interface design, usability, instructional design, industrial design, cognitive psychology, information design, social psychology, linguistics, library science, ethnography, technical communication, professional writing or any related field is a pre-requisite.

Good information architecture makes a website easy to use and leaves the visitors to the Website happy, creating an opportunity for future revisits.

Some facts...

  • Even when reading a "full" article, users only read about 75 per cent of the text.

  • Users found the information they were looking for only 42 per cent of the time.

  • Research conducted by Forrester shows that 51 per cent of all sites are not organised according to simple, easy to understand concepts and 90 per cent are not organised correctly.

  • When users try to do something on the Web for the first time, they typically fail.

  • That a 46 per cent success rate is not at all uncommon might provide some cold comfort. In fact, most websites score less than 50 per cent.

  • Given this, the average Internet userís experience is one of failure.
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