4 More Principles Of Information Architecture

Last week I started a discussion of IA and offered 4 principles of information architecture based on the work of Dan Brown. This week I want to continue with the last 4 of the 8 principles Dan provided in his PDF.

Once again here are all 8 principles:

  1. The Principle of Objects
  2. The Principle of Choices
  3. The Principle of Disclosures
  4. The Principle of Exemplars
  5. The Principle of Front Doors
  6. The Principle of Multiple Classification
  7. The Principle of Focused Navigation
  8. The Principle of Growth

And also once again I’d encourage you to read Dan’s PDF, Eight Principles of Information Architecture. It’s a short easy read, filled with great information from someone who knows this subject more than I do and it provides more details about each of these 8 IA principles than I have here.

Let’s pick up where we left off last time with the the principle of front doors.

Front door

The Principle of Front Doors

By now we should all understand that your home page is not the only landing page on your site. People might enter your site on any page. In essence your site has many front doors and this principle says to assume at least half of the visitors to your site will enter somewhere other than the home page.

The principle of front doors leads to some practical advice, which is to treat every page of your site in part as a landing page. Every page of your site needs to answer the questions “where am I?” and “what can I do here?”

Whiles visitors landing on a specific page of your site may very well find all they needed on the page, the page itself should still be connected to other related pages and should point out what else can be found within the site.

This principles also suggests that we don’t need to display everything on the home page of a site. Your home page should also let people know where they are and what they can do on the site, but it doesn’t need to link to every piece of content you have.

Your home page should focus more on helping visitors understand what the site is about and point them to a few places they might be interested in.

Land classification map

The Principle of Multiple Classification

People refer to things in different ways. They describe them differently. They’ll search for things and browse for things in different ways. Consider that more than 50% of all search queries in a month are unique. One and only one person chose a specific phrase to search for something. We classify things in different ways and no one way of classification will be right for everyone.

Since no one classification system works for all, it makes sense to use more than one on your site and to present more than one way to find the same content.

I’ll use Dan’s example from the section on exemplars we saw last week as an example here. Forms and Policies are sections within the site and everything in parenthesis is an example of what might be found in the section.

  • Forms (W-4, equipment request, expense report)
  • Policies (vacation, work from home, parental leave)

Two people might be interested in filling out the company form for a vacation. One might begin by visiting the section on policies and looking for the vacation page, while another might start by visiting the forms section and searching for the vacation form. It makes sense to allow both of those people to find their way to your vacation form the way they want.

Using WordPress as another example we can categorize our posts as well as add tags to them. This classifies posts in multiple ways and offers additional options for people to browse the same content.

Another example you’ve likely seen over the last year or so is the idea of faceted navigation or filtered search, where you can select products in a certain price range or by a certain brand. These are basically different classification systems and offer more navigational options.

Of course more navigational options goes against the principle of choices. You have to watch the balance here and offer multiple ways to access the same content without offering too many ways or you may end up overwhelming and confusing your visitors instead of helping them.

Focus spelled out in Scrabble tiles

The Principle of Focused Navigation

This goes hand-in-hand with the principle of multiple classification. Sure you can classify a product by brand, price, and use, but you wouldn’t include all those types of options in one system of navigation.

You wouldn’t for example have links that say “ebook readers,” “Amazon,” “Sony,” “$150 and under,” all in the same menu. The first is a type of product, the next two are brands, and the last is price. Those belong in three different navigational system. The idea is not to mix apples and oranges in your navigation.

If one menu is offering choices about brands, all choices in that menu should be brand options.

Awhile back I talked about the principle of 5 hat racks, which suggests that information can only be organized in one of 5 ways.

  • Category
  • Time
  • Location
  • Alphabet
  • Continuum (Hierarchy)

I’ll leave you to read the 5 hat racks post for more details on each. The point here is that when classifying information it should probably fit into one of the above types of organization. Brand for example would fall under the category type. Price would fall under continuum.

Keep in mind that you still don’t want to mix two categories of organization. ebook readers and Amazon are both ways to categorize products, but they don’t belong in the same system of navigation because they deal with different ways of categorizing the same thing.

Dan also mentions how we often describe navigation by its location on the page. Left navigation, global navigation bar, right sidebar menu. This really isn’t how we should refer to navigational systems. Better to describe the navigational system using words that also correspond to the classification.

  • Topical navigation – such as your main categories
  • Signpost navigation- such as a series of breadcrumbs
  • Time-based navigation – such as a list of posts by date in an archive

As the principle states the main idea is to keep your navigational systems focused. You can use more than one system, but each should be focused on one way to navigate.

Digital art titled - Urban growth

The Principle of Growth

The idea behind this principle is to assume that the content you have on the site today is only a fraction of the content you’ll have tomorrow. Your site should grow and you want to organize your content in such a way that allows for that growth.

This idea is obvious, but it’s also hard to adhere to. Though we should have a strategic plan for content development, we really can’t anticipate exactly how a site will grow. We can’t always predict which section of a site will grow the most or what new content types and categories we’ll later add.

Because of this Dan offers no hard rules to follow, but does offer some thoughts. When you have a new piece of content to add you can

  • Add the same type of content to an existing category. A new article to that category of articles.
  • Add a different type of content to an existing category. Adding a video to a category previously housing only text articles.
  • Create a new category for the content.

Which you choose depends on how you focus your navigation. Ideally you’ll have more than one system of navigation to incorporate the new content and it might make the most sense to place that new content in one place or another.

If your navigational system is topic focused then you would want to set it up in a way that the top level is very broad to allow for the addition or new subtopics.

For example say you have a site that talks about sports among other things. Early on you only plan on having content about baseball and football. You could place each in the top level navigation, but that means if you later add basketball or hockey you have to also include them in that main navigation.

What happens when you also want to add soccer, golf, tennis, etc. You’ll quickly run out of room and it will be hard to add new sports. Better might be to use the more general “sports” as your main navigational option, which allows greater growth underneath.

It may not be easy, but try to anticipate how your site might grow in terms of its content. Try to organize your content in a way that it can accommodate the content you have now and the content you think you’ll have in the future.

At some point you may have no choice, but to reorganize everything from the ground up, but ideally you won’t be forced to because you’ve anticipated and planned for how your content will grow.

Additional Resources

Above is an hour+ long video of a classroom presentation on information architecture.

Below are some additional resources on information architecture. They didn’t find their way into this post as an in-content link, yet they’re worth reading nonetheless.

Chaotic stack of papers

Summary

Information architecture is the root of web design. Much of our work as web designers is about helping people find the content they want and directing them toward the content the site owner wants them to see. We add visual cues to make one piece of content stand out from others or develop layouts that emphasize the different content on the site.

Without content you can’t truly design a website since every decision you make should arise out of what content will exist on the site. In a sense we’re designing homes for content.

I’ve pointed you to Dan Browns article, Eight Principles of Information Architecture (PDF) a few times here and last week and again I’ll encourage you to give it a read. If all this and the last post does is get you to read it. I’ll consider both posts a success.

Whether you’ve consciously thought about it, you’ve probably used several if not all of these 8 principles in your own site designs. Keep them in mind when you start working on your next site. If you can get them as right as possible you’ll likely end up with a good design. If you get them all wrong it may not matter what else you do.

Over the next couple of weeks we’ll take a look at organizing content specifically for search engines. We’ll look at how search engine spiders find and index content and consider the idea of siloing or theming to help search spiders better understand your site and ideally improve how well your pages rank for their primary keywords.

Developing sites to be more usable generally makes them more search friendly as well. We’ll see if the common advice for search matches with the usability advice we’ve looked at so far.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

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