Designing Information Architectures

When looking at improving your website or portal, one of the most effective treatments is to review the information architecture, also commonly referred to as the IA. I find that many individuals within organizations tasked with managing it, often feel overwhelmed by the concept. In this article, I will give you some hints to get you started on the right foot and guide you in the right direction. 

The first step in this process is to understand your audience. What is the purpose of the site? Should the site communicate to internal persons such as employees and staff, or to external users, e.g. customers? This is a significant data point to understand prior to any IA endeavour. Once established, it will drive site activity, ensuring that users can find what they are looking for with ease. Over time, a well designed IA will promote usability and establish solid site metrics. One of the best ways to know your audience, and their usage requirements is to do the research first. The most popular method is surveys of external users, which can be supplemented with focus groups of employees to get more in-depth knowledge of their requirements. 

Once the research has been gathered and analyzed, you are ready to develop the IA. The exercise won't be as intimidating as you now know how your audience want to navigate the site. This knowledge will also help with site section names, establishing the appropriate labels for the top level navigation buckets. 

A simple tool to develop the IA buckets is the hierarchical organization chart manager in Microsoft Word. It is convenient because most of us already have the software installed and it provides a quick way to view and understand the navigation relationships. For those of you that want a more feature rich environment, I recommend Omnigraffle for Apple users and Microsoft Visio or Google Docs/Drawing Windows and Android.

When you have the IA ready, review it with your team. It sometimes help to put it away for a few days, hang it on the wall, study it, think about it. You will start seeing the data relationships in a whole new light, and perhaps make some changes with further tweaks and improvements. 

The next step with this process is to test your IA. This will ensure that any assumptions made during the research phase hold true and actually work within a real environment. That will be the article for my next post.