Three Essential Qualities of Effective IA

It might seem strange that, as one of a few who contributes to the development of Information Architecture (IA) for my company’s clients, I’ve only written about it once beforeon this blog. The reason is that I’ve learned it to be one of the least appreciated (that is to say, least interesting) subjects for both clients and colleagues.

If websites were houses, IA would be the plumbing. It’s there, everyone understands conceptually it’s there, but it’s hidden, out of the way, taken for granted, and to be honest, no one wants to think too deeply about where it all goes after they flush, anyway. The only time it’s really noticed is if it doesn’t work. And then everyone gets upset.

In a society where sex sells, IA is the libido suppressant – whether it works or not. That’s partially why IA has been folded into a much broader category of “experience design.” This not only sounds more exciting, but it also reflects a holistic approach to web design, which is better anyway.

Still, upon Roger von Oech’s recommendation, I downloaded a couple of lectures from The Teaching Company – “Natural Law and Human Nature” and “Argumentation: The Study of Effective Reasoning.” I’ve been an advocate of Natural Law theory since I first read John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government. I lent my copy out to a friend years ago and never got it back, so this was a perfect opportunity to reeducate myself on a complicated topic.

Through the course of the first lecture, the speaker raised three principles of Natural Law that I realized also apply to good IA – which, given my love for Natural Law, might also explain why I chose to become a practitioner of IA, as well.

1. Objectivity.
Some principles of objectivity are universal from site to site, no matter whom the IA professional is. Creating the means for accessible access to contact information comes immediately to mind. And in any case, the IA must exclude the biases of the person who created it in favor of the intended audience. As audiences differ, subjectivity isn’t excluded entirely, but it is subjectivity encapsulated in the biases of the intended audience, making it objective from a certain (and important) perspective.

2. Universality.
In general, what applies to the navigation and interface of one part of the site must also apply to the other areas of the site. Changes in the way the navigation works or the architecture is structured in random parts of the website render it difficult to learn. And where the competition is only one or two clicks away, you want users to immediately feel comfortable staying on your site, and they won’t if they can’t figure out how yours works because it changes all the time.

3. Intelligibility.
Every website has to have a certain consistent logic to it, and they must use words that are easily understood by the intended audience. Although not everyone cares enough to figure out the finer points of that logic, like plumbing, they’ll notice if it doesn’t work. Just because something is different doesn’t mean it won’t work, but it must be sufficiently logical in order to be understood by anyone, and its terminology must be driven by the audience.

None of this should discourage experimentation. Taking things like “objectivity” and “universality” too literally can very easily put you in an unimaginative rut. Just because navigation is commonly found on the left or top of a website doesn’t mean there aren’t solutions better suited to your audience and your organizational goals.

Just be smart about it.

If you are dying to try something, and you’re sure it has a chance to work, don’t be afraid to try it. Just make sure you can justify it according to the above criteria, and then put it in front of users to make certain it meets their criteria. In the end, that is the criteria that matters the most.

– Cam Beck

P.S. A tip of the hat to David Armano for encouraging bloggers to not only share their knowledge, but also to explain how they came to their conclusions.