Information Architecture for the World Wide Web
Amazon.com named Rosenfeld’s and Morville’s Information Architecture for the World Wide Web the best computer book of 1998. In terms of designing the information-rich Web sites that meet the needs of our technical communication users, Amazon’s assessment is correct. The authors take an approach significantly different from most Web-design authors we’ve read-they focus on the architecture of the entire site rather than on the design of individual pages. They write for information designers, not for graphic designers or computer programmers. In short, they write for people who manage the dissemination of large volumes of information-us.
We find it particularly noteworthy that the authors hold advanced degrees in information and library science. They effectively promote the perspective of professionals who have long focused on helping confused, time-short individuals find what they need in physical and virtual libraries. For example, they discuss search systems in the context of the reference interview, which was designed by reference librarians engaged in associative learning with the person who is searching for information. They believe that with an understanding of users’ major needs we can design search and indexing systems, as well as organizational structure, to enable us to cover 80 percent of the questions most of our users will ask. For the other 20 percent, we need to connect the users with actual human beings who can handle the really tough questions and feed this information back into the site.
The first half of the book focuses on the essential elements of a superbly organized Web site: organization, navigation, labeling, and searching. Refreshingly, the authors set these essential elements squarely in the world of content. They assume that we have lots of information to provide (they have designed sites with over 100,000 pages) and users who want that information. In chapter 3 on Organizing Information, they walk us through several organizational schemes, pointing out that many of them are difficult for outsiders to understand. They point to examples of sites that are useful only if the customer has already memorized the internal organization of the company. They explain the shortcomings of strictly hierarchical as an organizing principle, and complete the picture with recommendations about using documentation databases with a controlled vocabulary of keywords.
Chapter 4 on Navigation Systems explains the importance of building in flexibility and consistency. The authors discuss the utility and problems inherent in frames, tables of contents, indexes, site maps, and guided tours to enable users to move quickly around a site to the information they need. Chapter 5 discusses one of our favorite topics, labeling links. The authors include excellent recommendations about including adequate naming of links, scope notes to augment the brief names, the use of meta-tags and title tags to support browsing and searching through links, and the problems associated with graphic or iconic links (they are more difficult for most of us to understand). They even provide advice on finding the best naming system for your Web site links by analyzing users, interviewing experts, characterizing content, and using controlled vocabularies.
Chapter 6, another favorite, focuses on the problems with badly designed search systems. The authors advocate, as our director, Dr. JoAnn Hackos, has for many years, customizing the search interface so that it meets the needs of our particular users. They also provide excellent advice on how to index your Web site so that users get to what they need quickly.
The second half of the book is devoted to doing research with users, organizations, goals, functions, and content. Rosenfeld and Morville provide details about tactics to use in interviewing, conducting meetings, and resolving conflicts. Included with the good advice are templates of forms you can use to gather the information you need. Throughout, they emphasize the need of the information architect to design for usability and to focus the research and discussions away from personal preferences or company peculiarities toward user-centered design.
Information Architecture is the right book for a technical-communication organization to read as you begin the design of an information-rich Web site or are about to embark on a redesign. This book has solid advice from people who understand sound information access and the architecture that must underlie it.