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I’m Not an Information Architect, but I Play One at Work

I work with a group of extremely talented people, each of whom specializes in a specific area – design, front-end programming, and web application development. I, on the other hand, possess a little bit of knowledge about a wide variety of the disciplines required to build great websites. My background is in Communication Studies – interpersonal and organizational. So, I’ve gleaned much of what I know about this industry from working with and observing brilliant, specialized people since 1999.

While I’m often amazed (even envious) at the skill required to specialize in design or programming, I feel fortunate to have a big picture understanding required to oversee web development projects – a skill uniquely suited to an information architect (IA). If you look up the job duties of an IA, you’ll find hundreds of different answers.

They’re not exactly developers, designers or project managers, but they need to know a little bit of everything. I like to define an IA’s role as someone who works hard to make sure your website visitors don’t have to. In other words, it’s the IA’s job to organize, label and relate information on a website so it makes sense to its audiences.1

Not everybody has the luxury of including an IA on a web development team. Small businesses are often tasked with a redesign or a fresh build using just one or two people. If this is you, here are a few tips from the IA discipline that will surely result in a better website.

Know Your Audience

When my team starts a new web project, one of the first questions we ask a client is, “Who is your target audience(s)?” We’re looking for details such as sex, demographics, age, and technical savvy. Even better, if you have statistics about your current website that reveal how these people are using it now, we can get a clear understanding of how your audiences search for your products or services. With this kind of detail, we can determine how we might better organize your pages and relate information so that these people engage with your website longer and hopefully become new or repeat customers.

Categorize Your Content

I strive for simplicity when it comes to website navigation; a notion particularly important in a responsive framework. So, with audience information in hand, I will work with a client to determine which content is primary, secondary or tertiary.

Primary content would be considered “crucial” – content that is applicable to all of your target audiences. For example, we worked on a manufacturing website that has two distinct sides to its business – Electron Beam and Total Integration. It was determined that every visitor to this website was most likely looking for information about one or the other. So, these categories are prominent on the homepage and placed first in the order of the primary navigation.

Secondary or “optional” content would be applicable to a portion of your target audience. So, in reference to the example above, sections of the website like news or upcoming events are placed further down in the navigation hierarchy because they aren’t necessarily of interest to all of their key audiences. Everything else would be tertiary and possibly “irrelevant” content.2

If you find that you have pages on your website that visitors ignore, why include them at all? “Furthermore, streamlining navigation by eliminating unnecessary or underperforming pages may decrease load time while improving the quality of your brand’s online presence.”3

No Mystery Meat Navigation

If you’ve been working in the web development industry for a while, you’re probably familiar with Web Pages That Suck. (If not, browse the website when you have some time to kill.) The term “mystery meat navigation” was coined in the late 1990s by the author and designer of Web Pages That Suck, Vincent Flanders. It means that it’s not immediately clear what you’ll find in a section of the website until you click on it. If you guess wrong…annoyed.

Think of “Live | Laugh | Love” as a primary navigation for a professional membership organization. Which section should have the calendar of events? “Live” because events will impact your professional life? Or would it be “Laugh” because you get to see colleagues and friends at the events? Don’t make people think! If an events calendar is an important element of your website, give it prominence and call it what it is.

Information Architecture is a discipline that I have vastly oversimplified here. In fact, according to some, IA and navigation are completely different. IA forms the backbone of a website but is never seen by the front-end user. Navigation is the result of an IA’s work – “…a collection of user interface components.”4  But, like every other role in a small business, there’s overlap, and our business is no different.

1. Information Architecture Basics 

2. Efficiently Simplifying Navigation, Part 1: Information Architecture

3. 24 Things to Consider When Designing and Developing a Website

4. The Difference Between Information Architecture (IA) and Navigation