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Chapter 1: Setting the SceneAll of us have discovered websites we think are terrific because they're practical, entertaining, informative, helpful, efficient, friendly, visually pleasing, or have some other quality we appreciate. Then there all those awful sites we surf through once and hope we'll never need to visit again. But what is a bad website? For me, it's one that makes it hard to find the information I need or difficult to carry out the transaction I want to make.
For every outstanding website, there are probably a thousand bad ones; and not just sites put together by enthusiastic amateurs, frequently those of large international corporations are just as poor. Of all these sites, about half fail because of badly designed graphics - forcing visitors to sit through interminable downloads, read illegible typefaces, or cope with distracting visual gimmicks. Many of the remaining 50 percent also suffer from poor visual design, but their basic problem is far greater: visitors leave in frustration because the designers simply didn't organize the content in a very convenient way.
These sites hide useful information under improbable menu headings or, worse still, forget to include important details (sizes, prices, even basic contact information). They waste their visitors' time. They waste their company's money. They damage their company's image. They don't get repeat traffic. They don't communicate their ideas effectively. Most important of all, they fail to promote their goods and services.
Granted, judging the quality of a website is highly subjective, but who really cares whether 50 percent of them feature poor organization or 48.6 percent or 34.8 percent; nomatter how you cut it, the problem is enormous. In fact, the 30 January 2000 issue of the weekly news magazine, Time, had some interesting statistics: during the period July '98 to July '99, 3.2 million people opened online bank accounts in the United States a very impressive result. However, during that same period, 3.1 million Americans closed their e-bank accounts. Half of those who gave up explained that they were unhappy with the customer service or thought the sites were too complicated! Good information architecture is one of the keys to avoiding this kind of business disaster.
1.Defining information architecture
At a conference in Boston in April 2000, arranged by the American Society for Information Science, 400 bright and talented individuals spent anentire weekend trying to do just this: define information architecture. The conference was an enormous success in terms of professional networking, but it failed to agree on a definition.
Part of the problem was that individual "information architects" often perform radically different tasks depending on their specific job and educational experience. For example, experts with a background in library science frequently deal with issues that benefit from their extensive knowledge of indexing and cataloging techniques. On the other hand, someone with a computer science background is more likely to focus on the design and integration of databases. Nevertheless, both are information architects (and yes, I realize that I have generalized with regard to their respective talents).
I'm not sure that any single, all-encompassing definition will ever be found - nor am I convinced that it's necessary to do so ("engineers" gave up years ago). However, for the purposes of this book, "information architecture" deals with the arrangement of browser-based information (more specifically, the internal relationships between individual web pages) so visitors can do whatever they came to do with as little effort (and confusion) as possible.
Unfortunately, the importance of information architecture as it relates to the web is vastly underrated, frequently misunderstood, and usually ignored, as demonstrated by the millions of amateurish sites lurking about cyberspace. It's interesting to note that while hundreds of books have been written on web design, only a handful deal with information architecture. Nevertheless, if you're game, the following pages have been put together so your site can succeed where so many others have failed!
We all learned the basics long ago
Remember when you had to write term papers in school? The chances are, you began by sketching an outline - starting with an introduction and ending with a conclusion. In between, you organized your information in logical sections that helped you build your story and gather your thoughts. This is what information architecture is all about: arranging information in a logical fashion.
Naturally, a term paper is something that is meant to be read in a linear fashion, which is equally true of most other articles and virtually all fiction. On the other hand, encyclopedias, magazines, user manuals, and other multi-author/multi-subject works are designed to let you jump to a specific entry or article rather than forcing you to read the whole publication from end to end. A website is similar, with the added advantage of hypertext, which lets you flip to a new page, chapter, or volume with a single click.
Encyclopedias arrange subjects in alphabetical order. Reference books have a list of chapters and often an index. Magazines usually feature a contents list...