Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web

I’ve always disliked the “Dummies” books—you know, the ones with the bright yellow covers. Information-architecture-book

Despite the potential for funny titles (“Cooking for Dummies”), I’ve always found them to be vaguely insulting. When it comes to the burgeoning field of Information Architecture, however, a book for beginners (not always dummies) would be welcome. And now it’s here.

Christina Wodtke is an experienced information architect who also happens to possess a unique flair for putting things simply. Her writing is remarkably jargon-free, even conspiratorial, as she walks the beginner through the process of building the scaffolding around a Web site.

She begins with a bang by deflating the so-called gurus of usability. While recognizing how central issues of usability must be, she distinguishes between gurus who lay down rigid rules and teachers who provide useful and flexible tools. In fact, if I were asked to provide a three-word summary instead of a thousand-word review, I’d write “Tools, Not Rules.”

She takes on widely-held pieces of wisdom such as “Users don’t read” and “Users don’t scroll” and restores them to their place as guidelines instead of inflexible commandments. Wodtke believes that instead of simplifying the process of Web design, the gurus have only made it blander with their pronouncements. There really aren’t any shortcuts to a well-designed and usable Web site, but the work isn’t that difficult if you have a plan.

Wodtke provides, in the place of rules, a set of general guidelines that don’t shackle the designer’s creativity. They are flexible enough to be considered without being simple good/bad judgments.

  1. Design for Wayfinding
  2. Set Expectations and Provide Feedback
  3. Ergonomic Design
  4. Be Consistent and Consider Standards
  5. Provide Error Support—Prevent, Protect, and Inform
  6. Rely on Recognition Rather Than on Recall
  7. Provide for People of Varying Skill Levels
  8. Provide Meaningful and Contextual Help and Documentation

As useful as these guidelines are, Wodtke irreverently ends the chapter with the advice, “Beware of easy-to-get, easy-to-remember answers.”

The next major section of the book deals with user-centered design. Wodtke advises that before you open up Illustrator or Photoshop or Dreamweaver, you take into consideration who you’re designing the site for, and that you talk to some of them. She provides useful information regarding how to choose users for this task, how to interview them, how to design and then test a prototype site, and how to incorporate user feedback into the redesigned prototype.

Once you have a working prototype, Wodtke suggests you take a look at the site’s content and set about organizing it. Since most users come to a Web site to find something or to do something, they must be able to find the data they’ve come to interact with quickly and without unnecessary work. Wodtke divides up the user’s experience into three questions:

  1. Am I in the right place?
  2. Do they have what I’m looking for?
  3. Do they have anything better?

At each stage of this process, the site’s organization should reassure the user and keep them clicking.

Wodtke introduces the concept of metadata (“information about information”) in Chapter 6, “A Bricklayer’s View of Information Architecture.” By recording all the descriptive terms and organizational categories for an item (the metadata), it helps ensure that each particular item can be found, no matter how the user decides to search. The three major types of metadata are Descriptive, Intrinsic, and Administrative.

Descriptive metadata concerns the nature of the thing described. What is it? What does it look/feel/smell like? What categories could it fit into?

Intrinsic metadata deals with the thing’s composition. Is it a document? An image? What size is it?

Administrative metadata addresses questions surrounding how the thing is to be handled. Does this need to be archived? Who’s the editor/author/photographer?

The most important type for most Web designers is Descriptive, since that is how humans remember and search for information. HTML places descriptive metadata in the <META> tag, using the Keyword attribute.

Having your content all broken down into descriptive metadata won’t help unless you know exactly how and what your user will be looking for. The next major section of the book discusses the use of personas, made-up user profiles that are useful as a target audience when designing the site. Personas were a concept borrowed from an old market research technique. If the research showed that the audience was 68% female, and 52% between the ages of 25 and 35, the marketers would develop a user persona who was a 27-year old woman, and design their marketing campaign for that imaginary person.

Designing for a person, not for an undefined group, is a useful process, no matter that the person is not an actual user. By focusing as narrowly as possible, it forces the design to meet the particular limitations and preferences of that user—not exclusively, of course, but by imagining a single person instead of a huge audience, designers can put themselves in the user’s position.

Wodtke moves on to discuss the specifics of designing the site’s interface, using the following five guidelines:

  1. Simplicity and Elegance
  2. Proximity and Relevance
  3. Focus and Feedback
  4. A Hierarchy of Importance, A Hierarchy of Task
  5. The Right Tool for the Right Job

Each guideline is accompanied by real-world examples, and several different options are explored, including several schemes for navigation (tabbed, left navbar, page-turning, breadcrumbs).

Finally, in Chapter 9, Wodtke teaches what her title hints at: blueprinting. Despite the temptation to pick up pencil and paper (or software) right away, she insists that only after thinking about metadata, the audience, and the interface choices can designers sit down to draw. Here she provides extremely practical information about different types of diagrams, storyboards, wireframes, and site maps to plan the site architecture.

Information Architecture: Blueprints For The Web is a well-written, thorough, and, most of all, fun-to-read primer on the field for the novice. It is not an exhaustive reference (see Rosenfeld and Morville’s Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, Second Edition, reviewed for this column in August 2002), but it is a non-intimidating introduction to a field that has become an integral part of effective Web design.

Near the end of the book, Wodtke outlines a real-world project of hers, the redesign of the site you are now reading. After reading her book, I am confident that we couldn’t be in better hands.

Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web
Christina Wodtke
New Riders, 2002, 348pp.