Setbacks to Information Architecture During Web Design & How to Overcome Them

Posted on February 6, 2015 by in Tips & Tricks | 5 comments

Setbacks to Information Architecture During Web Design & How to Overcome Them

If you’re reading this blog, you probably have a passion for doing good work with your web design clients, and want to stay up to date with best practices. In the Web design industry, we love what we do, and in a way, it’s more than a job: it’s an expression of our creativity. Every site is an accomplishment demonstrating our well-thought out strategies and collaborative efforts.

So, in a way, you probably love the idea of information architecture (IA), and have probably been doing it already, even if you haven’t been calling it that. Organizing content, creating navigation hierarchies and deciding what’s important to have on a home page are all part of information architecture.

Let’s face it, not all clients ‘get it.’ And hey, they are paying the tab, so they get the final say. Sometimes their concerns about the task of doing proper information architecture planning are reasonable. And we’ll get to that.

The point to know is that in ‘real life,’ when rubber hits the road, there are setbacks when it comes to doing good content architecture, layout planning, and so on.

If clients insist on having something done in a way that is ‘just wrong’ by your standards, well, there isn’t much you can do as a freelancer when you’re knee deep in a project and arguments are not worth your time. This scenario applies to various aspects of the web design process. But today we’re just going to talk about one of those aspects: the information architecture.

Sometimes customers make suggestions that are bad for IA. So, how do you convince them to go with your ‘better’ ideas without sounding pompous about it?

Let’s break this down to specific cases and discuss possible solutions for them. Really, this is going to come down to explanations, and how the facts are presented. Having an understanding of IA on your side will help with re-telling these explanations below.

Information Architecture Setback #1: “It’s Too Time Consuming or Expensive”

Let’s say you are being pressured to go faster on a web project. But IA takes time. And planning. And time is money.

People are often are on time and budget constraints. This is huge, and a legitimate concern when you’re running a business. Money doesn’t grow on trees, and don’t we all know it. Even Steve Krug, renowned usability expert, says, “Most people don’t have the budget to hire a usability consultant to review their work – let alone have one around all the time” (from ‘Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability’ 2nd Edition).

So, consider the following:

Information Architecture Saves You Time and Money Later

Here is the thing: information architecture can actually save you both time and money. It doesn’t make things take longer, even if it seems that way at the start of a project. It actually prevents mistakes from happening later. The last thing you want are those “uh oh….we overlooked that one” type of scenarios near the end of your website project. So naturally, as with any project, you would plan in advance.

The way to avoid this is by starting with your content, not your design. Morten Rand-Hendriksen, who teaches a course on this subject titled, ‘Mapping the Modern Web Design Process’ at Lynda.com, points out that:

A website does not start in Photoshop or with a theme. A website starts with the content and a careful exploration of how best to bring that content to the end-user. Mapping out the information architecture of a site requires that you a) have all the content (and know that it speaks to the target user), and b) know how each piece of content relates to the others and have an understanding of what the end-user wants when she visits the site and how to organize the content in such a way that she finds what she is looking for in a quick and easy way.

Information Architecture Can Make You Money

In Steve Krug’s book, he has a section called, “Is this trip really necessary?” There he says the following about why we should learn usability (of which information architecture is a part):

I could recite some of the usual awe-inspiring statistics about how many umpteen gazillion dollars will be left on the table this year by sites that don’t mind their usability P’s and Q’s.

…You know from your own experience as a Web user that paying attention to usability means less frustration and more satisfaction for your visitors, and a better chance that you’ll see them again.

Also, statistics explained by Neilson Norman Group have this to say about information architecture as an essential part of making money online:

Bad IA is now the greatest cause of task failures because it’s the stumbling block for getting anywhere on a site. Users try to find their way around a site, and if they’re particularly motivated, they might even try again if they fail. But if users are repeatedly led in circles or dumped into no-man’s land by weak search, they give up and leave for another site. That’s why deficiencies in your IA are costing you a lot of money, right now.

… even though IA causes only 10% of tasks to fail, you don’t get just 10% more business from improving your IA. Our work on the return on investment (ROI) from usability suggests that business metrics are more likely to increase by around 80%. The extra 70% benefit comes from antagonizing customers less, so that they’re more likely to stay on your site.

There you have it. The experts will tell you that not working on IA will end up costing you more than saving you.

There’s an Easy and Cheap Way to Start Information Architecture Planning

Chances are, someone is putting some thought into a site’s content structure, even if it is not the best. Everyone can agree that a site should be organized, so hopefully this isn’t an opinion that you need to prove.

The place where I find people get most confused is on their blog. The blog is where content overload can happen, and it’s hard to know how to categorize types of articles or posts. Thankfully, there exist what we call ‘taxonomies’ in WordPress, and they are here to help! But you need to create your own taxonomies. What’s the best way to go about doing that? Morten has a suggestion:

One good place to get started is by doing card sorting exercises with target audience test subjects: Write the heading of each piece of content on an index card and ask test subjects to organize the content in a way that seems logical to them while allowing them to create taxonomy headings or other structural elements. Doing this with several test subjects will give you a clearer picture of how the audience perceives the content and will give you a baseline for the IA of the site.

Yes, admittedly this will take a bit of time, but at least it’s not the advanced, overwhelming task of having to formulate professional charts and diagrams, which a professional information architect would do. And if you’re serious about your website being made in the best way possible, you should definitely pursue those more advanced tasks with a professional. But if you can’t, at least do what you can.

As for the cost of card sorting, all you need is some paper, pens, and a handful willing participants to share their thoughts (or get out of their cubicles for a little while). If you’re not sure how to start, check out this guide by Smashing Magazine titled, ‘Improving Your Information Architecture With Card Sorting: A Beginner’s Guide.’

Information Architecture Setback #2: “I Really Like the Way This Other Site Looks” / “I Want to Use This Template” 

The problem here is that, according to Abbey Covert’s slideshare presentation on IA (see slide 23), there is a difference between “looking good” and “being good.”

A certain site may look good, and if it is actually good, it’s because a lot of thought probably went into its content. We are not looking at design aesthetics alone when we consider how to make a site great. You always need users to be able to find the information they are looking for, and fast. This is a problem if your client is focused on looks alone, and only wants to work within a specific template they’ve found, or wants to copy a design just for its design.

Morten warns us against this:

In the WordPress ecosystem Information Architecture is often overlooked because the themes people turn to are built to be generic one-size-fits-all solutions. For IA to work you need to build sites starting with the content. In most cases people who use WordPress build sites starting with the theme which turns the process on its head. To be truly successful with IA you need to map out the architecture first and then find a theme that supports your plan. In most cases that means the one-size-fits-all solutions out there simply won’t work and you are looking at a custom build.

Here is how to bring to light the need for IA planning, instead of template-picking at the start of a website design:

It’s Time to Start Asking Questions

The best way to overcome this is really, to start asking inquisitive questions. Ask your client why they want a certain design. As Abbey’s slide indicates, complexity can come from not asking ‘why’ enough. If you ask why enough times, your client may soon start to realize they probably haven’t thought this out very well.

Ask if they have their content ready. If not, ask things like, ‘so since you like this design, can you tell me what content you want to have in this spot? What about this spot?’

Also ask, ‘so what is the main thing you want users to be able to do on your home page?’

Usually, if they are basing their ideas off of a pre-made theme or another design, the answers here just won’t fit. The goals won’t match up. There probably won’t be a spot for that ‘thing’ they want their users to do on the home page. It should become evident rather quickly that what they need is a solution that fits them. They can still have the nice website. But they need to be willing to step outside the confines of what already exists, to create something new.

Information Architecture Setback #3: “This is Too Complicated / High End for Us; We Just Need Something Simple”

No site can live without information architecture. Yes, it can be a very deep and detailed process when a site is very large and users could be faced with information overload. But it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. As Steve Krug says in his book about usability (mentioned above), “It’s not rocket surgery.”

Here is how to approach this one:

Don’t Use Fancy Words to Explain Information Architecture

This is really your job as the web designer and salesperson. If you throw really difficult terms out there and don’t prep your client for what those terms mean, you could scare them away from this. Remember that semantics itself can be considered part of information architecture (it’s part of labeling and creating meaning). So be the information architect you are and speak simply.

If it sounds complicated, it probably will be – for your clients. Use terms they know, or explain what your terms mean with words they can digest. Information architect and teacher Abbey Covert wrote an excellent post explaining how she ‘sells’ IA, describing the different wording she uses for different audiences.

I have to applaud Abbey for her introductory note. Here is a teaser of that article, which will hopefully make you go read the whole thing:

In my opinion, IA is not something that needs to be sold. IA is already inherent to whatever someone is working on or has in place. If you are making something, you will be tackling the IA within and around it. With or without me you will “do IA.”

I guess in sales speak we could say “IA is included for free in all projects” — because a system without an information architecture does not exist. Rather than selling information architecture, I find that I do have to “explain” what it is and why it matters so that it can be worked on and improved upon (not ignored or inherited which is all too often the case)

There you have it again. You can simply say that no matter what, information architecture will be part of any web design process. Our goal is just to make it better. And we can do it with tools as simple as pens and paper. Not so scary sounding now, is it?

Information Architecture Setback #4: “My Print Designer / Staff Member / Niece (etc.) Thinks It Should Be Different”

You will notice that clients change their minds a lot. Usually this is because of some influences they have, either internally at their company or externally with their family and friends. This has to be expected when working in an industry that is artistic. Humans are different, and possess differing opinions. So when an organization is large, there may be a lot of stakeholders to please. If the organization is small, it can be just as difficult to come to conclusions. This can be because of indecisiveness about goals, or because only one person’s view is dictating the project. You need different sets of eyes to make things better.

So how do we overcome this objection to what we feel we know would be the right decision for information architecture? Honestly, you’ll hate that I’m saying this, but the planning of content should be done on a website beforehand. I know that’s hard advice to take when you’re knee deep in a project and clarity about navigation or content wasn’t decided on earlier. So let’s look at this from the perspective of a not-so-perfect, already messy situation (let’s face it – they happen).

Let’s do Some Simple Tests on Our Website

When someone asks a friend or coworker, “do you like this?” they will get the wrong information. You know why? Because what people think they like isn’t that important with something as complex as finding information. When you pose a question like that, what they may think they should comment on are the design aesthetics. Truly, what people like (correct me if I’m wrong) is not wasting their time, and being able to find information they want quickly on a website.

So the test question about what people like is the wrong question to begin with. The test should be a task. How long does it take for information to ‘click’ with a person? Do they have to think about what they’re doing on a website before they do it? Do they even know what they’re looking at when they first land on your website? If they don’t, something is wrong, according to Steve Krug (see page 11 of his aforementioned book).

Search Discovery wrote an article explaining how to do an information architecture audit in just three simple steps. If you don’t have a lot of time for user tests, you can at least pause and ask yourself the questions they bring up in that article, titled, ‘Is Your Site Confusing? Three Quick Information Architecture Audits.’

But remember, when we are too close to a subject, we can overlook things that others may find glaringly obvious. Going back to Abbey’s slide, we need to remember that “being too close to the problem can make you forget to remember what it is like to NOT understand.”

To Conclude: Some IA is Better Than no IA

When I asked Morten what his biggest pet peeve was with IA, he told me this:

It’s going to sound generic, but my biggest complaint is that a lot of sites have no information architecture. Or rather the person who built the site never considered the architecture of the site when it was built. This can manifest itself in may different ways: confusing or non-existent navigation, no clear hierarchical structure between content, lack of taxonomies and categorization of content, overuse of categories and tags (usually categories and tags that only contain one item), and the popular but often useless “one-page layout” where everything is piled into one place.

We’ve all seen this happen. But my thoughts upon reading his answers were that sometimes, no matter how hard we try, parts of IA can be a loosing battle. This is because it’s an area that needs education to be understood. Not many people understand websites.

While we may be ambitious to make beautifully planned sites for our clients, the fact of the matter is, once they get their hands on our well-crafted work, they’re going to change it anyway. Some of you may be chuckling right now. Many of us may have those portfolio cases where we just won’t show the end result of a project because it has been demoralized by clients who seem to not care when things are misaligned, colors don’t match, or menu items don’t make sense.

Clients change their minds all the time. Over and over. But you can start by leading them in the right direction with explanations. And by putting a scope limit on your projects, of course.

Really, good information architecture starts with YOU, however. Knowing web design requires that you know about user experience and content strategy, from which extends information architecture, as Morten explains:

Information Architecture is not a stand-alone element of web design – it is a part of a much larger picture. IA stands in line with (or falls under) User Experience design (UX) and Content Strategy. To create great IA you need a solid content strategy and you have to consider the user experience at every level. These three combined comprise what I call “Informational User Experience” – the art and science of presenting content in an understandable way that is easy to navigate and delightful to access. Really learning information architecture means learning content strategy and UX as well.

Your very concepts and project management need to adapt to information architecture and all these other principles so that it is hard not to follow them when it comes time for changes. That’s hard, I know. I’ve been there. And you will still have some tough cases.

My question now is, what are our experiences with information architecture setbacks? Tell us how you overcame them! Sharing ideas will help make us all better at what we do!

Who is Morten Rand-Hendriksen Anyway?

We’ve gotta give our thanks to Morten for giving his time to be interviewed especially for this article. In addition to his course on Lynda.com on this subject, Morten also gave a talk not too long ago at WordCamp Seattle titled, ‘Web Design is a Process.’ You can check that out on WordPress.tv here. Morten has 12 years of experience as a web designer and developer. He is also instructor at various schools including Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver. He is a core contributor to WordPress too! Follow him on Twitter: @mor10 (get it, Mor-ten? Lol)

Article thumbnail image by Doppelganger4 / Shutterstock.com

5 Comments

  1. Thanks Joyce for wonderful article. Planning is important starting a project. Every building needs an architect plan before starting the construction work. Each site can be different by design perspective but should be meaningful by information. Thanks again…

  2. Most of the people most of the time stay inside Face Book.

  3. Excellent articles, top class tips & referral to external resources, and all about a subject that is so critical & fundamental to everything that follows in the design process – thanks so much!

  4. Excellent article, and so very true. One of the biggest problems with clients is IA. They cannot organize their ideas without “seeing” them, and you can’t design until the ideas are minimally organized… it’s an egg-chicken problem. And like you say, the problem, to begin with is that they make themselves and others the wrong question: do you/I like this? When the question is: Is this useful and clear for the person who I am trying to communicate/sell my stuff to?

  5. Thank you for writing this article. I think it does a great job of tackling some of the IA development issues we face with well-intentioned clients. I have found that many clients are aware that’s there’s a problem with their current sites, they just need someone to guide them and help them sort throughout the clutter.

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