How to use Information Architecture to Make Website Better
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I recently read an article in a popular design magazine. It was a discussion of information architecture and how it relates to building websites. Information architecture, in a nutshell, is the organizing and labeling of websites to support usability. On a website, you are presented with options (for example, links or buttons), you make choices, and then you are presented with what you were seeking. In so doing, you’re completing a series of steps that were all laid out by a designer.
The article goes on to describe how small changes in the way things are designed can make noticeable differences in a pleasant user experience, which is very true. Many designers become complacent, always going with a “standard” approach or following what they see being done on the majority of websites. While this formula can certainly create usable websites, it doesn’t advance the architecture at all.
Putting Yourself in the Place of the User
When I first started working in the field of web design, the year was 1995 and the web was a very different place. Creating websites was a fairly new field and a lot of people were just winging it or using printed material, such as magazines and newspapers, as examples to pattern websites off of.
I can recall the first time I really became aware of usability on a website. I was filling out a web form on a site that was quite lengthy. When I got to the bottom I automatically clicked on the button on the right, assuming it was to submit the form. It didn’t. It “reset” the form, effectively clearing all my data and forcing me to restart. The button on the left was to submit. I remember thinking, how frustrating! It seemed natural to me to have a submit button to the right, so the next time I created a form on a website I made sure the submit button was on the right and I actually left off the “clear” button. I just didn’t see a logical use for it. Today a clear fields/reset button is pretty non-existant. But it’s usually only by placing ourselves in the user position that designers can truly understand how to be more effective.
A New Web
Today designers need to take into account all the different ways a user might access a website: standard computer, tablet, iPad, mobile device… each of these has the potential to display the information architecture differently. It’s critical when creating a website to understand how each of these digital mediums will display. It’s also important to be able to write code that will display correctly. This is now done through what is called responsive design – basically coding a site in such a way that can actually determine which device a user has and then using the code for that specific device. Responsive design is another example of how designers are advancing information architecture.
Looks are Nice, Usability is Paramount
The key to great design is that it doesn’t get in the way of usability. The purpose of design is to enhance a user experience but not overshadow the end goals. If a website’s goal is to convert a looker into a buyer then everything about the design should work towards that goal. Design also has to take into consideration any existing branding. Could you imagine if Target.com had green accents rather than red?
So while the term information architecture might not come up in daily life (or even when you’re working with a designer) it is something you’re interacting with every time you visit and use a website. A great designer will be able to put themselves in your users’ shoes and combine their existing usability expertise to create a more effective website (all the while making your brand look awesome).
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