Components of an Information Architecture

In this conclusion to a two-part article on the anatomy of an information architecture, we take a close look at its typical components. It is excerpted from chapter four of Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, Third Edition, written by Peter Morville and Louis Rosenfeld (O’Reilly, ISBN: 0596527349). Copyright © 2007 O’Reilly Media, Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher. Available from booksellers or direct from O’Reilly Media.

Information Architecture Components

It can be difficult to know exactly what components make up an information architecture. Users interact directly with some, while (as we saw above) others are so behind the scenes that users are unaware of their existence.

In the next four chapters, we’ll present and discuss information architecture components by breaking them up into the following four categories:

Organization systems
  
How we categorize information, e.g., by subject or
   chronology. See Chapter 5.

Labeling systems
   How we represent information, e.g., scientific
   terminology (“Acer”) or lay terminology (“maple”). See
   Chapter 6.

Navigation systems
  
How we browse or move through information, e.g.,
   clicking through a hierarchy. See Chapter 7.

Searching systems
  
How we search information, e.g., executing a search
   query against an index. See Chapter 8.

Like any categorization scheme, this one has its problems. For example, it can be difficult to distinguish organization systems from labeling systems (hint: you organize content into groups, and then label those groups; each group can be labeled in different ways). In such situations, it can be useful to group objects in new ways. So before we delve into these systems, we’ll present an alternative method of categorizing information architecture components. This method is comprised of browsing aids, search aids, content and tasks, and “invisible” components.

{mospagebreak title=Browsing Aids}

These components present users with a predetermined set of paths to help them navigate the site. Users don’t articulate their queries, but instead find their way through menus and links. Types of browsing aids include:

Organization systems

The main ways of categorizing or grouping a site’s content (e.g., by topic, by task, by audiences, or by chronology). Also known as taxonomies and hierarchies. Tag clouds (based on user-generated tags) are also a form of organization system.

Site-wide navigation systems

Primary navigation systems that help users understand where they are and where they can go within a site (e.g., breadcrumbs).

Local navigation systems

Primary navigation systems that help users understand where they are and where they can go within a portion of a site (i.e., a subsite).

Sitemaps/Tables of contents

Navigation systems that supplement primary navigation systems; provide a condensed overview of and links to major content areas and subsites within the site, usually in outline form.

Site indices

Supplementary navigation systems that provide an alphabetized list of links to the contents of the site.

Site guides

Supplementary navigation systems that provide specialized information on a specific topic, as well as links to a related subset of the site’s content.

Site wizards

Supplementary navigation systems that lead users through a sequential set of steps; may also link to a related subset of the site’s content.

Contextual navigation systems

Consistently presented links to related content. Often embedded in text, and generally used to connect highly specialized content within a site.

{mospagebreak title=Search Aids}

These components allow the entry of a user-defined query (e.g., a search) and automatically present users with a customized set of results that match their queries. Think of these as dynamic and mostly automated counterparts to browsing aids. Types of search components include:

Search interface

The means of entering and revising a search query, typically with information on how to improve your query, as well as other ways to configure your search (e.g., selecting from specific search zones).

Query language

The grammar of a search query; query languages might include Boolean operators (e.g., AND, OR, NOT), proximity operators (e.g., ADJACENT, NEAR), or ways of specifying which field to search (e.g., AUTHOR=“Shakespeare”).

Query builders

Ways of enhancing a query’s performance; common examples include spell checkers, stemming, concept searching, and drawing in synonyms from a thesaurus.

Retrieval algorithms

The part of a search engine that determines which content matches a user’s query; Google’s PageRank is perhaps the best-known example.

Search zones

Subsets of site content that have been separately indexed to support narrower searching (e.g., searching the tech support area within a software vendor’s site).

Search results

Presentation of content that matches the user’s search query; involves decisions of what types of content should make up each individual result, how many results to display, and how sets of results should be ranked, sorted, and clustered.

{mospagebreak title=Content and Tasks}

These are the users’ ultimate destinations, as opposed to separate components that get users to their destinations. However, it’s difficult to separate content and tasks from an information architecture, as there are components embedded in content and tasks that help us find our way. Examples of information architecture components embedded in content and tasks include:

Headings 

Labels for the content that follows them.

Embedded links 

Links within text; these label (i.e., represent) the  content they link to.

Embedded metadata

Information that can be used as metadata but must first be extracted (e.g., in a recipe, if an ingredient is mentioned, this information can be indexed to support searching by ingredient).

Chunks

Logical units of content; these can vary in granularity (e.g., sections and chapters are both chunks) and can be nested (e.g., a section is part of a book).

Lists

Groups of chunks or links to chunks; these are important because they’ve been grouped together (e.g., they share some trait in common) and have been presented in a particular order (e.g., chronologically).

Sequential aids

Clues that suggest where the user is in a process or task, and how far he has to go before completing it (e.g., “step 3 of 8”).

Identifiers

Clues that suggest where the user is in an information system (e.g., a logo specifying what site she is using, or a breadcrumb explaining where in the site she is).

{mospagebreak title=Invisible Components}

Certain key architectural components are manifest completely in the background; users rarely (if ever) interact with them. These components often “feed” other components, such as a thesaurus that’s used to enhance a search query. Some examples of invisible information architecture components include:

Controlled vocabularies and thesauri

Predetermined vocabularies of preferred terms that describe a specific domain (e.g., auto racing or orthopedic surgery); typically include variant terms (e.g., “brewskie” is a variant term for “beer”). Thesauri are controlled vocabularies that generally include links to broader and narrower terms, related terms, and descriptions of preferred terms (aka “scope notes”). Search systems can enhance queries by extracting a query’s synonyms from a controlled vocabulary.

Retrieval algorithms

Used to rank search results by relevance; retrieval algorithms reflect their programmers’ judgments on how to determine relevance.

Best bets

Preferred search results that are manually coupled with a search query; editors and subject matter experts determine which queries should retrieve best bets, and which documents merit best bet status.

Whichever method you use for categorizing architectural components, it’s useful to drill down beyond the abstract concept of information architecture and become familiar with its more tangible and, when possible, visual aspects. In the following chapters, we’ll take an even deeper look at the nuts and bolts of an information architecture.

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