4 Principles of Information Architecture

The way you organize content on your site does a number of things. It gives immediate clues to what your site is about, it helps people find the information they’re looking for, and it anticipates how people want to interact with that information. It can even help people process your information deeper and better.

Index cards on bulletin board

Beyond usability, information architecture has implications for search engines. Just as your content organization tells people what your site is about, it tells search engines what your site is about. It gives them clues as to what keyword themes the site is relevant for.

Information architecture sits at the foundation of successful web design. Every design decision comes out of that architecture.

Over the next few weeks I want to look at information architecture and how we can best organize our content so it’s more usable for visitors and so it helps instead of hinders your seo. I’ll also share my own process for determining what content to include on a site and how I go about organizing it.

8 Principles of Information Architecture

A few weeks ago I came across Eight Principles of Information Architecture (PDF) by Dan Brown in which he naturally enough shares 8 principles he follows when deciding how the content on a site should be organized. Those principles are:

  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

We’ll look at the first 4 of these principles today and continue with the last 4 next week. I recommend reading Dan’s PDF for more details about all of these principles. It’s only a few pages long and it’s packed with a lot of information.

Two objects showing depth of field

The Principle of Objects

The idea behind this principle is to treat content as a living, breathing thing with a lifecycle, behaviors, and attributes. For example an article and an image gallery are two different types of content. Each has its own needs and wants to be treated differently. Each has its own internal structure.

An article has a title and paragraphs and headings and maybe a blockquote or two. An image gallery has images and captions and perhaps a title and headings as well.

You might consider all pages that are mostly text as the same content type, but even here there’s plenty of variation. Dan uses the example of a recipe as a content type, which has ingredients, quantities, a process for cooking, an image of the dish being prepared, nutritional value, etc. Still mainly text, but very different from an article.

Many of you probably use WordPress. Consider the difference between a page and a post. In many respects they appear to be the same, but when you look further each is its own distinct type of content. Posts typically include comments where pages don’t. Posts are ordered based on time, where pages tend to be timeless.

When you’re organizing the content of a site identify all the different content types that will be included. These digital objects will inevitably be treated differently as they have different needs and a different structure.

Real options

The Principle of Choices

I’ve talked in the past, most recently when discussing how to minimize errors on your site, about the paradox of the number of options available and the ease of making a decision. The more choices, the more difficult it is to decide. Each extra option means more cognitive effort is required to choose any one option.

This principles says to keep choices to a minimum, particularly at the top level of the hierarchy. Better to go a little deeper or at least offer more options within deeper sections of your architecture than to place all your content at the top level. We’ll revisit this idea when we talk about seo and content structure.

A shorter list of navigational links will get used more than a longer list of navigational links. Wherever possible keep the choices users have to make as few as possible.

Layers of paper

The Principle of Disclosures

Progressive disclosure tells us to prevent information overload by only presenting as much information as necessary to complete the given task. We can then present additional information in layers that can be displayed on request.

This principle follows from the previous principle of choices. People can only process so much information at any one time. Instead of trying to present everything to them at once, we want to limit what they see to what they absolutely need. Everything beyond that is just noise and we want to emphasize the signal.

Again the idea is to present information in layers. Add the necessary information in the default layer shown and provide additional information on request.

In his 2006 Alertbox article on progressive disclosure, Jacob Neilsen recommends that you

  1. Initially, show users only a few of the most important options.
  2. Offer a larger set of specialized options upon request. Disclose these secondary features only if a user asks for them, meaning that most users can proceed with their tasks without worrying about this added complexity.

Dan sticks with the recipe content type as an example.

A cooking site can’t display a recipe in its entirety on every page of the site; that would be ridiculous. Instead, categories of recipes should show much less information about the recipe, but the right information. If I’m looking at a list of seasonal springtime dishes, just showing me the cuisine of each dish won’t give me much useful information. Instead, other pieces of information – a list of recipe names, a picture of the dish and maybe a couple of the key ingredients – help me learn just enough about the recipe to decide if I want to click further ahead.

The key to the above is to show less information, but the right information. Show only what’s necessary or appropriate and present options for getting more information. Think layers of information instead of trying to present everything at once.

Square Concrete Spiral

The Principle of Exemplars

This one was new to me. The idea is to describe the contents of a category by showing examples of that content. It’s so obvious in hindsight as an example from Dan will show.

For the last intranet that I designed, I included a list of the main categories on the home page. Adjacent to each category name appeared a list of two or three items that best represent that category:

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

It makes so much sense and yet so few sites seem to follow this principle.

Human beings learn by example. Concrete details stick with us more than abstract concepts. You’ve likely seen the advice to use examples and add concrete details to your writing. If not let me point you to two posts from CopyBlogger

Both in essence talk about using specifics and concrete details to improve your writing.

Since we understand examples and concrete details so well it only makes sense to follow the principle of exemplars. One well placed example can convey so much more information that your descriptive prose.

Index cards

Summary

If you’re designing a 5 page site it’s pretty easy to organize the content. You place everything in the top level and link to each page in a single system of navigation. Any site with more than a handful of pages quickly outgrows that simple system of organization. You won’t be able to link to everything from everywhere and you’ll need to make decisions about how best to group your information.

There’s no one right way to organize content, which makes information architecture something of an art as well as a science. Many site’s inevitably reorganize their content as part of a redesign. We don’t always get the structure of our information right or we outgrow the structure initially put in place.

If you follow the 4 principles above (and the 4 we cover next week) there’s a good chance you’ll have to reorganize less. Even better is that visitors to your site will quickly gain a clear picture of what your site is about and be better able to find the information of interest to them.

Once again let me point you to Dan Browns article, Eight Principles of Information Architecture (PDF). It’s only a few pages, it’s easy to read, and it really is packed with great information about content organization.

Next time we’ll look at the remaining 4 principles from Dan’s PDF before moving on to a look at organizing information around keyword themes for search engines. Finally I’ll close this series on information architecture with what I hope will be some practical tips as I share my own process for determining what content to include on a site and how I organize that content.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

9 comments

  1. This is fascinating. I only heard about IA a few months ago, but it hooked me. I start a master’s in professional writing in January, and I’m seriously considering exploring IA ib my thesis.

    I look forward to more like this :) Thanks

    • Thanks Lucy. IA is an interesting subject and worth exploring. By the way I did get your email. My apologies for not writing back yet. As soon as I get up replying to comments here I’ll be replying to your email.

  2. Excellent advice, I especially like the principle of choices. It is so tempting to load up on the options we give to users – resisting this tendency is very difficult but very beneficial for the user experience.

    In this age of information overload, navigating to a website with only two or three calls-to-action can be a big relief.

    • Thanks Kyle. I wish I could take credit for all these principles, but I did grab them all from Dan’s PDF. Some I knew before through not necessarily with the same names.

      The principle of choices is interesting. It’s counter intuitive, because you would think more options, more information would help people make better choices, but it just makes it harder to decide.

    • Thanks Laura. I guess I should have added that link myself a long time ago. My bad.

      I added it now to the end of the post where I mention the remaining 4 principles.

      Thanks for the reminder.

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