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Simple goals for information architecture

Information architecture (IA) is a complex subject. The term IA can encompass a wide variety of design considerations and methodologies. I’ve recently run an IA project that focuses on a few aspects of our documentation site, so I decided a post about it may be interesting. I’m hoping the post may help people to wrap their minds around IA before getting into the nitty gritty of such a large topic.

In essence, the focus of our recent information architecture project was to help readers find the information they need. We focused on developers, because they form a significant part of our audience. We looked at three user flows:

  • Entering at the top of the site, looking to explore the products.
  • Entering the site on a page that’s deep in the information hierarchy, coming from a web search or external link and looking for a specific answer.
  • Using the information on a given page.

I’m using the term “top of the site” to mean the conceptual, introductory pages that usually occur first in a navigational structure.

Readers entering from the top of the site

Some readers enter the site in exploratory mode. By that I mean they’re looking for an overview of the product or products, and want to be led through the concepts in a logical flow.

The destinations of your links depend on your analysis of where your readers want to go. For example, user research may show that people want to see a product overview followed by a getting-started guide. Your organisation may also want to help people find a summary of support options or contact the sales team.

Readers entering the site on a specific page deep in the information hierarchy

Many readers enter a site via searching on the web, or by a link that someone else has supplied in a forum or a help article. These readers start their experience of your site on a page that’s deep in your hierarchy of information. They may find the answer to their specific question on the first page they land on, but then they probably want to learn more about the product or tool. Or perhaps they don’t find the answer on the first page they encounter, and they want to look further.

In this case, the navigational elements on and around the page are very important. People need context, to figure out where they are and how they can move around the site to get more information. Here’s a good way to think about it: Every Page is Page One.

Readers getting information from a given page

The structure of a page is an important part of information architecture too. The page needs to provide context, perhaps simply in the form of the navigation aids discussed above. The page may also need to cater for readers who already have a good technical knowledge, and just need a quick orientation of where and how to do something. Other readers may need a detailed step-by-step guide.

In the case of API documentation or other developer-focused docs, the quick guide may be just a code sample, as we discovered in our recent user studies. There’s some information in my post about the Google Maps APIs tutorials.

More about IA

That was a quick introduction to some concepts of information architecture. Here’s more detail from various sites:

Tech writing and IA

Do you have any experiences to share about technical writing and information architecture, perhaps from a different angle that what I’ve described? I’d love to hear about your experiences too!

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