Information architecture and user experience

Our information architecture services

Information architecture? User experience? User-centred design?

I'm going to start on this page with a little orientation. I think that user experience is one of those terms that has become hijacked by consultancies and web agencies and applied - sometimes misleadingly - to a very wide range of disciplines. I know "user experience" specialists who, five years ago, would have called themselves data modellers, taxonomists, interface designers, usability gurus and graphic designers. On this page I'm going to try to position these disciplines in the landscape, and along the way show where the information architecture that we do here at Tellura fits into that landscape.

This page is also about why you should care about information architecture, and the information architecture services that we can provide. The way is hard, the path rocky, acronyms and awkward terms abound, so grab a stimulant, settle back and enjoy the ride!

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What are information architecture, user experience and similar things?

You could always use the definition in this lovely internet stop-motion animation ("A dinosaur family explains information architecture"). But from my reading, the term information architecture is often used interchangeably and incorrectly with the term user experience. For me, user experience is an umbrella term spanning a wide range of disciplines. Some of those properly fall into the realm of information architecture - I suppose we would say that, since those are the things that we do here! This diagram illustrates the spectrum of those things that people call user experience, and those things that I call information architecture. You'll notice, by the way, that the term user experience doesn't appear in the diagram. I don't believe it's a helpful term, because it is used to describe almost all of the disciplines in this diagram: considering the breadth of these topics, a single term doesn't do them justice. So I don't talk about user experience. Information architecture, however, has more clearly definable borders - though as you can see, those borders are still a little porous.

Information architecture, taxonomies and similar terms placed in context

Data architecture

At one end of the spectrum lies the ivory towers of database modelling and data architecture. These hallowed halls house the designers of the deep internals of information management - the designers of the underlying data structures behind information systems. Their work will encompass data modelling, master data management and similar highly geeky disciplines. I wouldn't describe this as information architecture.

Domain modelling

Domain modelling is a new-ish area, and frankly more of a philosophy and approach than a discipline in itself, but that is changing fast. The approach is about understanding the flows of information within an organisation and the development of a common vocabulary for describing the components of an organisation's information needs. A domain modeller works between the organisation's stakeholders and the developers in order to develop a clear model of the information flow, and from this model comes a design for the new system. It is a complex approach but very compelling as a way of simplifying the process for accurately designing information structures. For me, domain modelling straddles the rather indistrinct borders between database modelling and information architecture, but is gradually becoming the province of the information architect.

Navigation structure design

We are now squarely in IA territory. Navigation design is crucial in ensuring that content in a large information system is able to surface effectively. Many information systems, particularly large websites, suffer from the problem of findability. You know there is useful content in there somewhere, but it just doesn't seem to be possible to find it. Navigation design is all about understanding the size and scope of the content objects in the system and working out how to effectively deliver that content in a predictable and usable fashion. This is not just a visual design issue; it also requires analysis and understanding of

  • Audience information-seeking behaviour
  • Scope of the content
  • Quantity of the content

From the analysis comes usually a combination of models - it's rare for a system to rely on just one navigation metaphor. The navigation designer also has to consider that many people nowadays arrive at a web page without actually using the navigation to get there - Google will often deliver the user deep within the site (this is called deep-linking). The navigation design, and use of things such as breadcrumbs, need to provide the visual cues that will orientate the user in the site.

However, it's not a good idea to have too many routes to content - simplest is best. Effective navigation often comes down to making good use of 2-3 complementary navigation mechanisms (for example, a primary navigation combined with faceted filters and some featured content).

We have done a considerable amount of work in the design of effective navigation models for large information systems. We are familiar with models such as primary, secondary and utility menus, faceted search filter systems, drop-down panels, hierarchical drop-down menus, fat footers, Miller columns, featured content navigation, mountain guide navigation, berry-picking navigation and many others.

Taxonomy design

Taxonomy design is a highly specialised area for the information architect, and I'm not going to go into a lot of detail about it here. It is worth saying a little about why vocabularies and metadata are important though. In a nutshell, it's because search engines are inadequate as information discovery tools. That may sound strange, given how useful and successful the Googles and Bings of this world have been, but it's true nonetheless. Think about how often you have done a search for a word, only to get millions of results. True, with sophisticated search engines you will probably find what you are looking for on the first couple of pages, but it will be mixed in with a whole lot of other stuff.

The problem with search engines is that they don't understand what you want, only what you type. When you search for a word, Google will look through its indexes to find every occurrence of that word in every document where it appears. It will use a whole variety of clever algorithms behind the scenes to determine which documents are probably the ones you want, but at the end of the day it is still simply looking for the word you wrote down. So what's wrong with that? Well, Google didn't know what that word meant. So if your word has more than one meaning, Google won't know which meaning was in your mind when you wrote it down, so it doesn't know what results to give you. Take the word seal for example. In ordinary life the word has several meanings:

  • It's an engaging aquatic mammal
  • It's an interface between two objects that prevents leakage
  • It's an impression made on a piece of wax to indicate signature
  • It's a soul singer
  • It's a member of an elite US special operations unit
  • [etc.]

In the educational organisation where I was working a couple of years ago, though, the term had a specific meaning: it is an acronym for Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning. When educational professionals used a search engine for this term, therefore, they would have to wade through a whole lot of irrelevant applications of the word before finding one that was useful.

What if it didn't have to be like that? What if when you search for a term, you can also add a wrapper around the word that says "Oh, and by the way, when I say SEAL I mean Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning and not any other meaning of the word"? Well, then you could be sure that the search service would bring back only useful results - at least, it would have no excuse not to!

This is where taxonomies and controlled vocabularies and metadata come in. You create collections of related terms, possibly arranged in hierarchies (that's a taxonomy), and then tag the content in your information system with those terms. In other words, you use a set of controlled language topics to define what your content is about, within the well-defined parameters of the vocabulary you are using.

We have considerable experience in creating information taxonomies, controlled metadata vocabularies, and have also created an innovative system for the free creation, management and storage of controlled vocabularies: The Open Vocabularies Service.

Information representation, information shape, content packaging and content micro-structure

This part of information architecture is often overlooked, but it is another very important aspect to delivering effective information services. Pouring content out of a CMS and onto a page is not the end of the matter. How you choose to represent information has a profound effect on how well the user is able to absorb it. Think about the information shape on the page. If you have a news story, for example, placing the different components of that story - the headline, the date, the byline, related stories - into a well-defined structure helps the user to orientate herself on the page and get to the relevant information more reliably.

A deeper consideration is how you choose to store and re-assemble the component parts of information. For most websites this is not a crucial issue, but for big, content-rich sites it is important. Rather than storing an entire article as a single content object, it may be more efficient to store smaller fragments of information as individual content objects and then assemble them as required on demand. This is a micro-structural view of content packaging. There is a macro-structural  view too. Suppose you wanted to package up collections of content that have added value by being shown on the page together. It is useful to have larger content packages within which to surface such content. Think of the metaphor of a library. You might have articles that are collected together into an issue of a journal, and then all of the issues are bound in an annual volume, which sits with the volumes for other years on a shelf, in a section on Organic Chemistry, and so on.

We have worked on major information portals where we have developed innovative models for content packaging and delivery. Contact us for more information on this.

Interaction design

We're approaching the outer ends of information architecture now. In many software development environments interaction design lies somewhere between a design for usability and a design for attractiveness - between form and function if you like. For the web, though, there are clear IA components to interaction design. The web has always suffered from a problem of development of proper mental models. Part of the problem is that it is just so easy to depart from any kind of consistency. Think about how many different ways there are to invoke a page change in a website:

  • Click an underlined piece of text
  • Click an image
  • Click a button on a form
  • Click an image on a form (that is, an image button)
  • Click a pop-up button on a list
  • Click the back or forward button on the browser toolbar
  • Hit a shortcut key on the keyboard
  • Move the scroll ball on the mouse (as in Google Maps)

With so many ways to invoke a change, and tools readily available for modifying the appearance of these, small wonder that there are many opportunities for confusion in the mind of the user.

The interaction designer has the aim of designing harmony into the system. It doesn't matter too much if the actual metaphors in use on the site are different from other sites (though ideally a similar approach makes everyone's life easier) as long as there is consistency within the domain of the website.

The overlaps between the interaction designer and the usability specialist are, obviously, huge.

Usability

Usability is a huge discipline, and one in which we have worked for nearly twenty years: before the web, in fact. The web introduced a whole series of usability challenges for designers, and these have increased over the years as the web itself has developed. Every new technology delivered through the web has come along with usability components: just think of things like JavaScript-driven interaction, use of video and sound, resizeable text fields, use of typefaces, light-boxes and many others.

The job of the usability specialist is to bring to the design a clear understanding of issues such as

  • Mental model - what is the user's idea of what the site is for as she comes to the first page?
  • Implicit versus explicit knowledge - what are you expecting the user to already know when arriving?
  • Consistency of design - a clickable thing should always look like a clickable thing.
  • Consistency of language - the voice should be the same throughout the site. If you use language like "You need to click here" in some places, avoid using "I need to know more" in other places.

User behaviour analysis and testing

User testing is the odd one out in this list of disciplines, as it is useful across all of them. I've placed it over near usability in this diagram simply because the skillsets are often found in the same people. Throughout the process of design of a website the ideas, models, prototypes and the developing product need to be tested. The user testing specialist uses an toolchest full of tools for testing out how well these ideas make it into the real world of the user.

At the beginning of a new website design user analysis involves developing an understanding of the likely profile of audience that will use the site. You may develop personas, user stories, user journeys and storyboards - these can all be effective ways to get a picture of how the site should come together.

The navigation designer will also use input from users, for example by the use of card-sorting exercises. A group of representative users will take a set of index cards (in an open card sort these are blank, and in a closed card sort they have pre-written concepts that may or may not be relevant to the new site). Then the group is invited to sort the cards into relevant groups and hierarchies. Properly done, this can give really useful information to the navigation designer.

We have years of experience in conducting both open and closed card sort exercises, and in the transfer of the knowledge thus gained into the navigation structures for new websites.

User testing often involves the practical process of observing user behaviour - at its simplest, you get a group of people in a room to try out some information-seeking tasks. You observe and take notes. You may also interview the user and simply ask him what he thought of the task. This is not a very objective approach and doesn't often give useful results in our experience.

A more quantitative approach is to observe the users in a more objective fashion, using a tool like Morae or Silverback. This will create a video of the user during their progress through the site, enabling the user tester to see where on the site the user is having difficulties. Online tools like Clicktale can also give excellent quantitative data on both individuals and groups of users.

Graphic design

Graphic design is probably the easiest discipline to define here: it's all about the image. A good graphic designer will come up with a compelling visual model for delivering the site. Such designs can be concepts at one extreme, with little or no consideration for the practicalities of delivering the image through the medium of a website, through to considered web page prototypes at the other. To be fair, most graphic designers for the web nowadays have a keen appreciation of the limitations of web pages for delivery of a vision, and so tend to work at the latter end of the spectrum more than the former. Most information architects would not consider graphic design to be an IA discipline.

It hurts to admit it, but we are not graphic designers. Full of admiration for the skills that such folk bring to websites, we have to acknowledge that we don't have those skills.

Some of our recent information architecture work

Follow the links below for papers that we've written and clients that we've worked with recently.

Case studies and papers