What is information architecture?

Information architecture sounds verbose, but the concept is simple: structure drives understanding.

The design of a book is different to the design of a newspaper page: you’ve got volumes, sections, and chapters that arrange the content in a meaningful sequence. I’ve written large and complex websites spanning thousands of pages, and each one started with an IA diagram rather than a contents list.

Why? Because the web is a living thing. And living things need a framework to grow in. A solid information architecture lets your site breathe, with functions and objects defined-once/used-many and content divided into meaningful areas.

I do it in three stages: organising principles, navigation design, and content strategy.

Organising principles

Of greatest import is your project’s basic metaphor: how is information organised? By item type (shoes, bags, jackets and trousers?) By collective concept (daywear, casualwear, eveningwear?) Or audience (children, teens, kidults?)

How you gather individual pages together matters a lot to readers (and search engines) but not all readers are the same. There are ways to work out what works: I can help.

The scheme you choose carries through into the parts of each page not visible to humans: the metadata. From short page summaries (metadescriptions) to the words people use to reach each page (deep-linking keywords), metadata is what makes your creation make sense to machines. That’s why everything starts with organising principles.

Navigation design

Navigation is more than the bar of links at the head of your home page (the primary nav. Hint: if it looks like your org chart, it’s wrong.) Or the list down the side (the secondary nav, prime positioning for timelined content like Tweets or a newsfeed.) And a lot more than the big block of keywords many sites put at the bottom (the tertiary nav, also known as “Trying to Interest Google”.)

Why? Because users are goal-driven. They come to your site on a mission. So putting the right signposts in place is as much part of information architecture as initial planning … and it needs to happen on a per-section, even per-page basis; the links within your content are as big a deal for pulling readers to and through content as primary nav.

Navigation isn’t a one-off act, but a series of actions by the reader to achieve his goal. That’s why I focus on navigation design.

Content strategy

Nobody reads information linearly these days. Pages and content sections grow or die as business strategy and reader preferences develop; your information architecture must answer the customer journey. My approach is called interaction modelling – mapping all your customer journeys as a set of transactions where value is exchanged, then working out what content and prompts are needed at each step.

Prime takeout: the customer journey happens from your customer’s perspective, not your own. Processes you put vast resources into may be just a hygiene factor to customers; order fulfillment and returns policy may be less vital than a Talk Live! when she’s feeling blue.

Content strategy is how you turn content into a narrative that fulfills each customer journey. I can help.

To apply some information architecture to your web strategy, contact me.

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