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The Anatomy of an Information Architecture

If you've ever had trouble recognizing what an information architecture is, or building one for your web site, you've come to the right place. This article will set you on the right track. 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.

  1. The Anatomy of an Information Architecture
  2. Defining Information Architecture
  3. Answering User Questions
  4. Content and Information Architecture
  5. Invisible Information Architecture
By: O'Reilly Media
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May 29, 2008

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What we’ll cover:

  1. Why it’s important (and difficult) to make an information architecture as tangible as possible

  2. Examples that help you visualize an information architecture from both the top down and the bottom up
  3. Ways of categorizing the components of an information architecture so you can better understand and explain IA

In the preceding chapters, we discussed information architecture from a conceptual perspective. This chapter presents a more concrete view of what information architecture actually is to help you recognize it when you see it. We also introduce the components of an architecture; these are important to understand because they make up the information architect’s palette. We’ll cover them in greater detail in Chapters 5–9.

Visualizing Information Architecture

Why is it important to be able to visualize information architecture? There are several answers. One is that the field is new, and many people don’t believe that things exist until they can see them. Another is that the field is abstract, and many who might conceptually understand the basic premise of information architecture won’t really “get it” until they see it and experience it. Finally, a well-designed information architecture is invisible to users (which, paradoxically, is quite an unfair reward for IA success).

IA’s lack of tangible qualities forces all information architects to be salespeople to some degree. Because it’s highly probable that you’ll need to explain information architecture to several important people, including colleagues, managers, prospects, clients, and perhaps your significant other, it’s in your interest to be able to help them visualize what an information architecture actually is.

Let’s start by looking at a site’s main page. Figure 4-1 shows the main page for Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, Minnesota, USA.

Figure 4-1.  Gustavus Adolphus College's main page

What’s obvious here? Most immediately, you see that the site’s visual design stands out. You can’t help but notice the site’s colors (you’ll have to take our word for it), typeface choices, and images. You also notice aspects of the site’s information design; for example, the number of columns—and their widths—changes throughout the page.

What else? With a careful eye, you can detect aspects of the site’s interaction design, such as the use of mouseovers (over main menu choices) and pull-down menus for “Go Quickly To” and search options. Although the college’s logo and logotype are prominent, the site relies on textual content (e.g., “Excellence,” “Community,” and so forth) to convey its message and brand. And although this particular site functions well, you’d learn something about its supporting technology (and related expertise) just from the main page—for example, if it didn’t load properly in a common browser, you might guess that the designers weren’t aware of or concerned with standards-compliant design.

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