The Need for Information Architecture
The Web is an organic growth whose tendrils stretch across corporate networks and into our homes. Page by page, link by link, we have grown a vast digital jungle. Taming this wild landscape, guiding people to answers amid the chaos, is the design challenge of the information architect.
-- Rich Julius, President and Founder, Specific Impulse Inc.
Imagine a building without a design; a collection of rooms, floors, and corridors assembled with no master blueprint and little or no ongoing planning. Would you be able to find your way around? Would you even know what's there? Would you feel comfortable doing business in such a building?
Richard Saul Wurman defines Information Architecture as "the structure or map of information which allows others to find their personal paths to knowledge." Many organizations suffer with unplanned, organically grown web sites and web-based applications whose continual reconstruction leaves visitors confused and frustrated.
Just as a building architect designs structures that are both aesthetically pleasing and functional, an information architect ensures that your information structures are well-planned, functional, and usable.
The job of the information architect starts with business needs analysis, because every interactive project is really a business project. It isn't enough to understand your information structures; the goal is to understand how your business works, in order to know how best to automate the flow of information so that it meets key business goals.
Web sites and web-based applications need to serve two constituents: the information providers and the information consumers. Architected sites and systems are easier to build and maintain, and are designed to accomplish clearly-defined and measurable goals: increase business, reduce support costs, improve communication, educate visitors, and so forth.
For that reason, user-centered design must be approached in the context of goal-based design. The trick is to achieve the best user experience while focusing foremost on business needs. Occasionally this means difficult tradeoffs; for example, consumers may not like standard promotional marketing practices from a usability standpoint, but because these can result in an uplift in sales, they may be a competitive necessity.
Well-architected sites follow a logical and intuitive structure, presenting information in a way that the information consumer will understand and respond to favorably. Market and audience analysis, user-centered design and testing, and ongoing evaluation achieve "walk-up" interfaces that delight visitors and ensure that you meet your business objectives.
Information architecture is critical for web-based applications, hosted services, document libraries, and globalization. Building Web-based systems and managing multilingual content represents a major investment in time, cost, and human resources. Information architecture goes a long way to reduce risk and ensure a successful outcome. But it also reduces overall cost by improving planning and communication and by eliminating the chaos associated with complex projects.
Specific Impulse offers an information architecture toolkit designed to organize information for use in web sites, portals, extranets, intranets, and web-based applications. StageOne makes it easy to model a company's information architecture, and it enables end-users to begin managing and storing their information almost immediately.