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Information Architecture For Technical Communicators: What Does One Need to Know?


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Guest lecture to students at University of Limerick in Limerick Ireland in March 2008.

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Information Architecture For Technical Communicators: What Does One Need to Know?

  1. 1. Information Architecture For Technical Communicators: What Does One Need to Know? Christopher S. LaRoche, Adjunct Lecturer School of Professional & Continuing Education (SPCS) Northeastern University March 2008 Copyright © 2008 - Christopher S. LaRoche & Northeastern University
  2. 2. Welcome• CSL Background - Technical Writer - 13 years - Taught technology the past time - 8 years• Evolution of this lecture - Involved in information architecture as writer - Saw connections between IA in writing/usability - Teach a class in information architecture at Northeastern - Seemed good to try and bring all this information together in a lecture
  3. 3. Abstract AbstractThis lecture includes an overview of the concept ofinformation architecture, including the origins and workingdefinition of the topic. The four main informationarchitecture topics discussed here are informationorganization, navigation, labeling, and search systems.This lecture focuses on online content and information, butis applicable to hard-copy technical documentation as well.
  4. 4. Introduction Introduction• Although information architecture is relevant to many different products, we will tend to focus more on Web sites in this lecture. But good information architecture ideas and thoughts are relevant to any group of complex information that needs organization. This is part of our daily job as technical communicators.• With the advent of the Web explosion the last decade, the needs and usefulness of information architects has become not only more important, but people now are creating and building careers specifically as information architects.
  5. 5. Introduction Introduction• Information Architecture is ??. Many varied definitions and understandings of information architecture.• Richard Saul Wurman is considered the creator of the term information architect – he was a graphic designer and architect by training. He created the term as a response to the massive amounts of information created with haphazard structures and/or little or no organization.• Wurman coined the phrase “information architect” to try and describe someone who organized and presented the information in a logical order.
  6. 6. Definition Wurman’s Definition“The information architect is: 1) the individual who organizes the patterns inherent in data making the complex clear.2) a person who creates the structure or map of information which allows others to find their personal paths to knowledge.3) The emerging 21st century professional occupation addressing the needs of the age focused upon clarity, human understanding, and the science of the organization of information.” (Richard Saul Wurman, 1976)
  7. 7. Definition Wurman’s Additional Definition”The key to making things understandable is tounderstand what it’s like not to understand.” (Richard Saul Wurman, Information Anxiety 2, Indianapolis: Que 2001, p 23)
  8. 8. Taxonomy Taxonomy• The word taxonomy is another term used often and frequently incorrectly when discussing anything related to information architecture!• According to Morville and Rosenfeld: “The foundation of almost all good information architectures is a well-designed hierarchy or taxonomy.” (p. 69)• Taxonomy can be used as synonym of hierarchy. Basically, good information architects are always striving to build a well designed taxonomy (hierarchy).
  9. 9. Big Points Information Architecture - Big Points• These four topics are the main points of agreement on what information architecture should and does do. These are the topics discussed in this lecture: – Information Organization and Organization Systems – Navigation Systems – Labeling Systems – Search Systems
  10. 10. Defining and Prioritizing Defining and Prioritizing• As technical writers, we have been doing types of information architecture our entire career when we outline, organize, and manage technical content.• Librarians have a unique advantage in this field, as much of their work involves categorizing and organizing massive amounts of information.• The concept of an information architect has become a “stand-alone” specific profession over the last 5-8 years, mostly due to the explosion of the Web and so much additional information being available and needing to be accessible.
  11. 11. Defining and Prioritizing Defining and Prioritizing• As technical writers, we often focus on flavors of information architecture to organize our own content: be it for hard-copy or online books, online help, Web sites.• Various IA specialties are completed by most technical writers: organizing, labeling, and navigation of our content.• Some writers and editors focus on nomenclature and vocabulary to produce standardized wording/vocabulary and Style Guides.• Some writers focus on more tools and technical aspects Increasingly, using a Content Management System (CMS) is part of this process – and IA is crucial in this endeavor.
  12. 12. Innies vs. Outies Innies vs. Outies• Having someone (an “Outie”) not familiar with the internal organization who can look at your documentation or Web site and is invaluable to review your information. Natural to actually become part of your organization vocabulary and culture within a few months of working in that environment. Great for documentation reviews.• At the same time, having someone (an “Innie”) who knows how politics and how things work within your internal company will allow you to realistically discover what you can and cannot accomplish within your company. [Morvile & Rosenfeld, 21]
  13. 13. Organization Systems Organization Systems• Conceptual Models – since humans are pattern seekers, our minds are always searching for patterns and models. This helps our own mental model on how to structure information that can be easily used and recalled.• While we have the biological aspects of wanting to find patterns, much of our own systems we classify reflect our own cultural and social views and perspectives. [Morville & Rosenfeld, 53]• Humans seek pattern and organization on many levels hundreds of times per day. Understanding this is part of the entire IA process.
  14. 14. Organization Systems Organization Systems - Challenges• The amount of information available, particularly via the Web, increases exponentially every year. Regrettably, with all the information, there is not a corresponding amount of classification or information architects used to classify and organize this information.• A view of “put the information out there and people will find it” is still too prevalent – and no regard to how people think or how information is best classified is realized.• Ambiguity – how we communicate (primarily words) often have different meanings/connotations to people. Concepts and terms that are not concrete can be interpreted widely.
  15. 15. Organization Systems Exact Organization Schemes• Exact organization of very well-defined and concrete information. Assuming users will have some knowledge and background in that they want and little room for ambiguity. – Alphabetical – quite common, especially in dictionaries, encyclopedias, and bookstores. Most indexes in this format. – Chronological – various types of information is best displayed this way, such as history books & press releases. – Geographical – often a good way to “chunk” information, specifically in larger entities. Logical to organize information this way for big companies – such as listing benefits offered by geography [Morville & Rosenfeld, 60-61]
  16. 16. Organization Systems Ambiguous Organization Schemes• Ambiguous organization is for users who have a vague understanding of what they need, but do not have defined and concrete goals. This scheme is often more useful for finding information that is not exact or when people are unsure of end goal. Although more messy and subjective, often the end-result is more satisfying to the user. - Topic – quite common for specific areas, such as finding specific areas like jobs or news. - Task– pretty specific in a user is trying to perform a specific task and Amazon and ebay are the best known types here. If you are creating online help (help file or Web based help) – this is almost always the type of scheme you will use since you are attempting to answer user questions.
  17. 17. Organization Systems Ambiguous Organization Schemes– Metaphor – also quite common to use. The computer desktop is the most obvious (Windows Explorer, for example). Be careful of this since it can cause problems and is very cultural specific!– Hybrids – this most common option can be the most problematic! Can have either shallow hybrids or deep hybrids – and are fine as long as excessive content and tasks don’t get put together too much. Be careful of having too many conflicting schemes come together. Often this is difficult since many groups within a company control different parts of the Web site, but try to stay with one scheme once your site is complicated! [Morville & Rosenfeld, 66-68]
  18. 18. Organization Systems Organizing Navigation Systems – Broad and Shallow• Broad and Shallow – this site is often more flat and somewhat linear. This could have too many options at the top level. It would look similar to this structure type:
  19. 19. Organization Systems Organizing Navigation Savings – Narrow and Deep• Narrow and Deep – this site is often deeper with several levels. This could have too deep a structure. It would look similar to this structure type:
  20. 20. Organization Systems Language Issues• Though this is a base of technical writing, understanding the vocabulary of your users is crucial.• Within the information architecture field, having a controlled vocabulary (a fancy word for strict editorial standards) is crucial. If agreed up on terms are used – when people use them it will have similar meaning!• Make sure your controlled vocabulary is actually the terminology and way your user community uses the terms. Avoid having internal company jargon permeate into this area or you will be in trouble!
  21. 21. Navigation Systems Navigation Systems - Overview• Analogy of house building is useful here: “Structure and organization are about building rooms. Navigation design is about adding doors and windows.” (Morville & Rosenfeld, 115).• A solid idea of your audience will help with creating an efficient navigation system for your product. Since the audience level may be fairly narrow, you may sometimes customize navigation as appropriate to the product.• At the same time, like much of information architecture, there is a certain level of ambiguity in this entire process.
  22. 22. Navigation Systems Navigation Systems – Browser Issues• Within you navigation, exploit your browser’s potential, do not cripple it. Do not ever do the following: – Modifying the visited/unvisited link without excellent reasons (keep it underlined if a link and unvisited should be blue and visited should be magenta/red/purple) – Disabling the browser’s Back and Forward button – Disabling/limiting the bookmark ability (Morville & Rosenfeld, 118)
  23. 23. Navigation Systems Navigation Systems - Context• Always attempt to provide a context in the Web site so that if a user arrived into the middle of a rather deep Web site, he/she can navigate to a higher level or get out of the site easily.• The flexibility of hyperlinks allows folks to arrive anywhere within a Web site, but with that flexibility the navigation and design must respond to that.• For example, there should always be an indication on every page showing where you are within the navigational structure of the Web site.
  24. 24. Navigation Systems Navigation Systems – Mental Model• With showing where you are on a site that you randomly locate, helps to show the user the mental model of the organization/navigational scheme of the Web site.• Again, knowing your audience will help with trying to construct the mental model of the site’s users, though that is always on some level a bit ambiguous since you will not always have defined every user.• Refer to Keith Instone’s site to test this idea:
  25. 25. Navigation Systems Navigation Systems – Global Navigation• Global System – assumed and usually on every page of a Web site. Often the highest level of navigation.• The tab metaphor across the top of the page is the most common, usable, and excellent method of consistency.• Unsurprisingly, the Apple and Amazon Web site are the best of this style and have used it well. Also note the highlight of the page you are on (slightly darker):
  26. 26. Navigation Systems Navigation Systems – Supplemental Navigation• Not as crucial on smaller sites with less pages and/or hierarchy, but still a very good thing to include as part of building solid navigational systems on Web site.• Types of supplemental navigation systems include the following: – Sitemap – Site Index – Breadcrumbs – Search
  27. 27. Navigation Systems Navigation Systems - Future• Social networking – the great “what if” and stay tuned!• Become more defined the last few years, specifically sites such as Friendster, Bebo, Facebook, and MySpace.• Where will this type of social networking go – will likely expand but in what permutation and how that does affect navigation remains to be seen.
  28. 28. Navigation Systems Navigation Systems – Company Politics• How and who designs and controls your Web site is a HUGE issue in how the navigational systems are implemented and used.• Within an organization, often have many players who control portions of Web site and hence the navigational structure can vary and lack consistency.• If at all possible, attempt to have control over your site in either a centralized way so one group retains control of the site. If not, having at a minimum a global embedded navigational system is great so the user can always “escape” from a point in the site if need to.
  29. 29. Navigation Systems Navigation Systems – Tips and Tricks• It is always safe and more usable to have your navigation use text instead of graphics for navigation.• If you do use graphics, include ALT tags as a text alternative in case the graphics do not work.• Never disable the browser Back and Forward buttons. They are there for a reason! Use them to your advantage.• Keep hyperlinks blue (unvisited) and red/magenta/purple (visited) and underline (yes still).• Never use click here.
  30. 30. Navigation Systems Navigation Systems – Tips and Tricks• Having navigation at the top of each page (global) and on the left-hand side (local/sub sites) often works best and is now a well-accepted standard.• Include the navigation at the top of each page (global) on every page in the Web site – regardless of the site’s size.• Try to make site map to how a user would use the site, not how the hierarchy of the site is set up – often subtle but distinctive difference! Map to the user’s mental model.• Redundancy is not evil. If it helps the user understand and navigate the site, redundancy is ok!
  31. 31. Navigation Systems Navigation Systems – Tips and Tricks• Avoid having pages open in a new browser window – unless you have good reason and note accordingly to the user.• Navigational systems provide good visual queues to users.• Remember some users might be on old systems with dial up – don’t make things too image heavy or difficult to use.• Remember to test on several browsers (IE, Mozilla, and Safari) unless you have the luxury of an intranet or know your users only using one specific browser.
  32. 32. Navigation Systems Navigation Systems – Tips and Tricks• Just avoid the headache – DON’T USE FRAMES. Ever!• If you can, create a set of templates for your HTML pages. Even having a template for global and local/sub site pages makes thing much easier for the user and helps solidify the navigation systems.
  33. 33. Labeling Systems Labeling Systems - Overview• Many different ways to create a Labeling system well, as well as not so well!• Although the basis of solid labeling is crucial, the idea of having a solid idea of your audience will help with creating an efficient labeling system for your product, much like navigation. Since the audience level may be fairly narrow, you may sometimes customize labeling as appropriate.• Labeling never will be 100% accurate, since language is by its nature ambiguous, multi-meaning, and fluid.
  34. 34. Labeling Systems Labeling Systems – Mental Model• Content developers are almost always creating labels when developing content in books, help files, and Web sites.• Again, knowing your audience will help with trying to construct the mental model of the site’s users, though you will not always be able to define your every user.• Still, the main/home/index page is often a good queue to see if labeling is effective or not in the Web site – transparent is often best! These questions can help and figure out a label’s effectiveness (or in-effectiveness):  Do labels stand out? If so, why?  If new or unfamiliar term, it is obvious from the term or info?  Do you have to go deeper into the site to learn about label on higher navigation level? (Morville & Rosenfeld, 83)
  35. 35. Labeling Systems Labeling Systems – Usefulness• Several quick methods to see if labels are useful: – Are they representative of what user would expect on page? – Does each label clearly differentiate itself? – Are labels user focused, or are they internal “company speak”? – Do labels re enforce or reduce the user’s impression of the company or product. (Morville & Rosenfeld, 85-86)
  36. 36. Labeling Systems Labeling Systems – Label Types• Contextual Links• Headings• Terms
  37. 37. Labeling Systems Label Types – Contextual Links• Basic hyperlinks that exist throughout the entire Web.• Contextual links are often beyond the control of the information architect since the content specialists are often creating these links.• In this situation, best to have suggested guidelines through editorial standards or style guide so there will be a level of consistency in these type of links.
  38. 38. Labeling Systems Label Types – Headings• Headings detail the content within a page or chunk, and also act as a very subtle hierarchy.• The hierarchical nature and/or relationship in or between headings is reinforced through various characters such as “numbers, font sizes, colors and styles, white space and indentation.” (Morville & Rosenfeld, 90).• Even if not a conscious pattern acknowledgement, how we see the relationship of the hierarchy (parent, child, or sibling) reinforces our understanding of the relationship. We then make inferences about the label as well. (Morville & Rosenfeld, 90). Be consistent with headings!
  39. 39. Labeling Systems Label Types – Labels Within Navigation Systems• Tied into the discussion about navigation systems. This type of label system is also a navigation bar and must be applied consistently throughout the Web site.• With this type of label, consistency is even more important. Also have terms that are meaningful to the user. Worst situation would be having a consistent term that is just not applicable to the user, so balancing good term with consistency throughout the site is a dual goal since either one incorrect makes it ineffective.
  40. 40. Labeling Systems Label Types – Terms• With maturing of Web, some terms are becoming standards and are pretty safe to use – and understood by most users: – Home – Search, Browse – Site Map, Index, Contents – Help, FAQs, Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) – News, Events, News & Events – About, About Us, Announcements (Morville & Rosenfeld, 93) – Jobs, Careers
  41. 41. Labeling Systems Labeling Systems – Designing Labels• Be careful of many terms that have so many different understandings in different cultures. Can be dangerous and is just the nature of the ambiguity of language, and the English language makes it more difficult with its unique flexibility.• Only a very few labels are universally understood – such as a stop sign (due to same color and shape).
  42. 42. Labeling Systems Labeling Systems – Company Politics• How and who designs and controls your Web site is a large issue in how Labeling Systems are implemented and used.• For example, with contextual links, having a set of standards helps with having consistency.• If at all possible, attempt to have control over your site in either a centralized way so one group retains control of the site. If not, having at a minimum a global embedded navigation system (the Apple example shown earlier) with clear labels is great so the user can always “escape” from a point in the site if need to.
  43. 43. Labeling Systems Labeling Systems – Tips and Tricks• Keep labels and term short – to one or two words.• Don’t forget META, TITLE, and ALT tags within your Web pages.• Consistency and standards can really help with ease of use and mental models being understood – as long as the labels actually are what the user understands.
  44. 44. Search Systems Search Systems – Overview• Search – show tie into writing with Books – think searching in a PDF file and good index. With online help/Web browser, a well designed nav/lab system as well as a Search.• Without a doubt, Google has so changed the landscape of the entire search “mental model”. The transformation has happened from making search a bunch of cryptic characters to one where you use natural language speaking terms to search for information.• Even with Google making the search concept so much more accessible and straightforward, the downside is that the level of expectation of search retrieval has also increased exponentially. So consider yourself forewarned!
  45. 45. Search Systems Search Systems – Considerations• Before implementing search on your Web site, you must decide if it is needed, and consider the following: - Is your site big or “deep” enough to justify a search engine within the site? There are no rigid rules for this, but anything under 25 or so pages realistically does not need search – either solid navigation and/or site map/index should suffice. - If your site invests in search – will it divert from other resources? A really well-developed navigation is still more crucial than search – “search engines become Band-Aids for sites with poorly designed navigation systems.” (Morville & Rosenfeld, 146)
  46. 46. Search Systems Search Systems – Considerations• Do you plan to optimize the search system for your site? With search becoming so much better, this is an increasing expectation of users. If you are not going to do this – reconsider implementing search. (Morville & Rosenfeld, 146)• Consider alternatives to search – depending on the size and budget, a site index/site map can work just as well. (Morville & Rosenfeld, 146-147)
  47. 47. Search Systems Search Systems – Reasons to Use• We have just spent the last few pages mentioning how much you need to consider not using search. The following are some very good reasons to consider using search or why it could be so important in your own Web site: - When you have a huge site, it helps locate information when you have too much information to browse – this is especially true in sites that increase in size rather quickly. (Morville & Rosenfeld, 147) - If you have a fragmented Web site – for whatever reasons – the idea of search could help tie together the site by using the search as a “Band Aid” of sorts. Really helps in companies with a “silo” structure of various departments (and hence Web sites). (Morville & Rosenfeld, 148)
  48. 48. Search Systems Results – How to Display and Show• The following are various methods to display search results, with each having its own advantages/disadvantages: - Sort by alphabet – good general purposes sorting method. - Sort by chronology – best if time is the crucial factor in search results. - Ranking by relevance – bit subjective and depends on the algorithm – depends on the query terms, frequency of terms, closeness of terms in appearance, where terms occur, etc. - Ranking by popularity - how popular and how many links are tied into the site itself from other links is used in this method. Tends to marginalize smaller sites with few visitors! (Morville & Rosenfeld, 167-175)
  49. 49. Search Systems Search – the User Interface• There was until Google came along a real variety of types of search interfaces, but simplicity won out thankfully!• Have a basic search text box you can type in and a Search or Go button next to it – that is what most users now expect in a search.• If you have a search and want/expect users to use it, make sure it is in a visually obvious place – the upper right corner of the site is often the safest default.
  50. 50. Search Systems Search Systems – Company Politics• How and who controls the search design, user interface, and updates is crucial and often a political football within companies.• Thought often difficult to do, try to make sure that the information architect is involved as much as possible in this process since it makes things easier for all parties involved if a search system does really adhere to the user’s mental models!
  51. 51. Future Future of Information Architecture• As technical communicators, we have been doing information architecture as part of our daily job for a very long time – it just was not recognized as such until somewhat recently. The way that we create navigation and label systems and structures is one of the core tasks we do as writers – and trying to make it match what we think the user of the documentation would need and want.• Our expertise and knowledge in this area will only continue to increase over the next few years, so it is always smart to “sell” this as one of your many abilities when looking for employment.
  52. 52. Future Future of Information Architecture• As an example, witness the explosive growth of In many ways, this site is a “throw back” to the early days of the Web with almost all text and links/hypertext.• The way the site was designed – and focusing on geographical areas – is ingenious. It also has an incredible consistency for a site its size (note that in every city you visit, the information is always located in the same place). In some ways the emergence of this site is a reaction to so many huge poorly designed Web sites. For example, you would not think of using search while at craigslist!
  53. 53. Future Future of Information Architecture• There has been explosive growth of the field of information architecture. IA has been discussed greatly since the advent of the Web, but the last five years - as the amount of information available has exploded exponentially - the need for information architecture has become much more.• The level of information available will continue to increase for the immediate future. Expect much more of our daily life interactions and information “pushed” online. For example, much medical information and how we monitor and track our own personal health will move online the next decade (specifically in the US).
  54. 54. Conclusion Conclusion• Overall, there are many opportunities for technical communicators to show our information architecture experience in most of the work environments we are working in. The explosion of available information the past decade has dictated this!• Both the growth of the profession and job opportunities are healthy signs that this area is one that will not only grow, but will be around for quite a long time into the future.• Please feel free to send me email with any questions:
  55. 55. Links Information Architecture Links• IA Institute:• Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA):• ACM SIG CHI:• Society of Technical Communicators:• Rosenfeld’s site:• Mystery Meat Navigation:
  56. 56. Links Information Architecture Links••• Mental Models For Search Emerging:• Taxonomy Warehouse:• ThesauriOnline (American Society of Indexers):