We’re living in an age of information abundance, but it’s difficult to retrieve, enjoy, and use these vast resources without order and planning. That’s where information architecture (IA) comes in.
There is more than one definition for IA, but I think this explanation from usability.gov is a good place to start:
Information architecture (IA) focuses on organizing, structuring, and labeling content in an effective and sustainable way. The goal is to help users find information and complete tasks. To do this, you need to understand how the pieces fit together to create the larger picture, how items relate to each other within the system.
At Keyphraseology, we look at website architecture when performing technical audits because we know that a website stands a much better chance of succeeding organically if its structural design and on-page terminology aligns with the needs of its audience, not to mention the tendencies and limitations of bots.
IA has grown to be one of my favorite topics because it’s so useful. It’s a foundational, empathetic, and systems-based way to tame information chaos.
I was fortunate enough to attend World IA Day 2015 in Tampa a couple weeks ago, which is a free, annual conference about information architecture that’s held in cities around the world.
Here are five ideas I took away from the presentations and panel discussion.
1. Don’t lose sight of what users need to do.
One of the slides from Karen Bachmann’s (@karenbachmann) presentation “Building a Solid Foundation: Usability & Information Architecture” quoted Donna Spencer, which read:
Usability testing isn’t about checking whether the people can use your website. It’s about checking that your website lets them do what they need to do. It’s a subtle but important difference, and one to keep in mind when you’re testing. You are testing your work, not people’s abilities.
I think the subtle difference addressed here is a powerful idea even if you’re not doing usability testing.
In marketing, sometimes it can be tempting to get wrapped up in objectives borne out of complex strategies. Website pages may become little more than stepping stones intended for use towards marketing goals.
But if we focus so much on “use” that we lose sight of what people need to do, we can cause unnecessary user frustration and may lose customers.
When thinking about digital marketing strategy on a website, making a mental shift from “Can this be used?” to “Can users do what they need to do?” helps add empathy into the work. It may be a concept rooted in user experience (UX), but I’d argue it’s good digital marketing, too.
2. Some data is better than no data.
I think sometimes smaller operations don’t consider user testing an option because it may seem out of reach, like it’s an initiative reserved for companies with huge budgets and seasoned UX teams.
It was interesting to hear stories from the panel about how UX professionals at large organizations have encountered budget limitations that forced them to get creative with testing. For example, one person recounted a time where they used Craigslist to get people to test a site in exchange for Starbucks gift cards.
When asked about user testing and companies with very limited budgets, the panelists’ overall response boiled down to this: some data is better than no data.
Whether you’re posting an ad on Craigslist, enlisting the help of family and friends, or asking co-workers to lend their perspective, it’s incredibly helpful to get different viewpoints.
If you’re a interested in learning more about how to do UX with a small or one-person team, this book was recommended: The User Experience Team of One.
3. Make sure that you’re speaking the same language as your audience.
Back in the days when keyword data was readily available, digital marketers had a lot of linguistic data to help guide terminology decisions. We knew which keyword phrases were popular, which tended to lead to conversions, and which seemed to fall flat.
Keyword data is much more limited now, but the need to understand an audience’s language is as important as ever.
Example of an Open Card Sort, Source: Rosenfeld Media
One way to gain insight into this area is through card sorting, a process that Bachmann touched on in her presentation. When used generatively, card sorting is an effective way to learn how people draw relationships between concepts and which terminology they tend to use.
4. Hold a kick-off meeting before projects.
The importance of holding kick-off meetings came up during the Q&A part of Lara Fedoroff’s (@lara_fedoroff) presentation, “Dysfunctional Design: Fostering happy human interaction between developers and designers.”
Kick-off meetings are helpful because they establish context for a project, which is a foundational IA concern that is as useful in structural design for technology as it is in day-to-day business operations.
These meetings are a good time to define goals, link smaller tasks to the big picture, and make work more meaningful for everyone in the process. In short, it’s a way to get everyone on the same page.
Clear, concrete goals go a long way. Buzzwords, not so much.
Source: Toothpaste for Dinner
As digital marketers, particularly consultants, sometimes we’re tasked to guide companies through big changes (like website overhauls), which often means working with people from various departments who all bring different skills to the table. Establishing context for the team can make the end-game clearer and everyone’s contributions more meaningful.
5. Be prepared for changing needs.
The theme of World IA day was “Architecting Happiness.” I followed up with panelist Bett Correa (@betterworkinc), who drives Customer Experience Architecture at a large telecom company and also does podcasts about software architecture (Architectural Concepts Podcast), to ask about how she sees IA contribute to user happiness in her role.
Customers/users need their systems to meet their needs, and their needs change. The system infrastructure’s architecture must allow for future low cost and high speed change. The way that a system is architectured can either make cost of change high or low. Low cost means that the system can be changed quickly to meet changing customers’/users’ needs. Customers/users will continue to be happy with the system in the future.
While Bett’s role as an software architect may be different from that of a marketer, I’d argue her future-thinking approach to architecture and how it relates to overall user happiness is a mentality that applies to digital marketing, too.
We work in a fast-moving space where web technologies are rapidly evolving, including the retrieval patterns of search engines. When making technical recommendations, we have to consider the realities of today’s digital landscape as well as the potential for change in the future.
If we encourage technical solutions that are open to the ever-changing needs of users and bots, we’re more likely to be setting clients up for long-term success, in part because their audience is more likely to remain happy with the company’s web presence.
World IA day seems to be appearing in more and more cities each year, so hopefully next year there will be an event near you! If there is, I’d encourage you to check it out.