Information Architecture

December 28, 2011

architecture drawingWhen I took my first design course, the teacher assigned a project of choosing a designer and presenting a report on him/her. Appropriately, I got Richard Saul Wurman. If you don’t know who Wurman is you are missing a serious link in the creative process.

Who Wurman is and why we care

In 1976, Wurman coined the phrase Information Architecture to describe the way information is presented to people (are you still awake?). The better the architecture, the better people find, process, and understand the information. If you’ve been to a museum with a timeline you’ve seen a great example of Information Architecture. Wurman himself created beautiful information architecture, one of which can be found on a page at the University of Texas Graduate School of Design’s website: Wurman’s Rail Transportation.

Wurman gave the following ways of organizing information: By Location, By Alphabet, By Time, By Category, By Hierarchy. So how do you choose?

The primary choice of which way you organize something is made by deciding how you want it to be found. – Richard Wurman, Introduction to Information Architects.

Website awesomeness

Unfortunately, although this concept is indispensable when creating websites, it is all to often overlooked. We throw the pages into the default categories and move on. But isn’t the point of making a website to get someone to use it? And if people get frustrated just going to your website, why would they ever choose your product? If nothing else, think of the poor people who have to answer the phones to an irate person who hasn’t been able to find what they need on the website (not that I’ve EVER been one of those people).

Examples – the Good, the Bad

For example, let’s consider creating a beach website in southern california. When I want to go to the beach, I’d want to know which ones had fire pits, and of those, which was closest to me. I would create a website then, by organizing it geographically: a map of Southern California with the beach names listed. You would be able to sort by category – ie. Fire Pits, Bike Trails, etc. Organizing the information by how I would want it found.

Anthem Blue Cross, on the other hand, has the unique ability to frustrate me just by viewing the home page. In fact, even the color combination can raise my heart rate now. Let’s be honest, though, the only time you actually visit an insurance website is generally when you are having to deal with the insurance not doing something they should, which also might contribute to the general unhappiness of visiting the site. Add to that the puke green used, and if you weren’t feeling bad before, you are now. I appreciated the update they recently completed (about 6-9 months ago?) of the site after you log in. It was a big improvement. However, the home page just needs help.

When visiting the site, nothing is where it should be and the actual buttons aren’t obvious. Strike #1: if you create unusual navigation, you have to make it obvious; use size, colors, anything really to make it stand out. Sadly, their needs would fit perfectly in the standard large photo on top, three buttons below.

Then, you have multiple buttons to take you to the same thing (do I log in, or choose one of the three buttons below; do I shop for items, or click on the large buttons to the left). Strike #2: Hierarchy should be evident from the beginning; the more choices you provide to get to the same place, the more link anxiety is created in the user.

Once the user stops biting his nails and chooses a link, everything changes, including where all the links are. Strike #3: The website should have a united feel; using only colors to connect just doesn’t work. If the design for the home page doesn’t work for the other pages, you’d better have a really good reason. The desire to put a large picture of two happy people on the front page is…not a good reason.

The point

While I presented two radically different information architectures, regular websites need the same care when it comes to organization. Wurman gave the following tips:

I’d like to give just one additional tip:

Never underestimate the positive power of Information Architecture, or the destructive power of chaos on your website.

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