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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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Content itself can have information architecture embedded within it. The recipe in Figure 4-5 shows a nutritious drink from the Epicurious site.

Figure 4-5.  A recipe for the thirsty from Epicurious.com

Beyond the navigational options at the top of the page, there’s not much information architecture here. Or is there?

The recipe itself has a clear, strong structure: a title at the top, a list of ingredients, then preparation directions and serving information. This information is “chunked” so you know what’s what, even without subtitles for “ingredients” or “directions.” The recipe’s native chunking could also support searching and browsing; for example, users might be able to search on the chunks known as “recipe titles” for “salty dog” and retrieve this one. And these chunks are sequenced in a logical manner; after all, you’ll want to know the ingredients (“Do I have four ounces of grapefruit juice?”) before you start mixing the drink. The definition and sequential placement of chunks help you to recognize that this content is a recipe before you even read it. And once you know what it is, you have a better idea what this content is about and how to use it, move around it, and go somewhere else from it.

So, if you look closely enough, you can see information architecture even when it’s embedded in the guts of your content. In fact, by supporting searching and browsing, the structure inherent in content enables the answers to users’ questions to “rise” to the surface. This is bottom-up information architecture; content structure, sequencing, and tagging help you answer such questions as:

  1. Where am I?
  2. What’s here?
  3. Where can I go from here?

Bottom-up information architecture is important because users are increasingly likely to bypass your site’s top-down information architecture. Instead, they’re using web-wide search tools like Google, clicking through ads, and clicking links while reading your content via their aggregators to find themselves deep in your site. Once there, they’ll want to jump to other relevant content in your site without learning how to use its top-down structure. A good information architecture is designed to anticipate this type of use; Keith Instone’s simple and practical Navigation Stress Test is a great way to evaluate a site’s bottom-up information architecture (http://user-experience.org/ uefiles/navstress/).

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