Laying the Foundation for the House of FACETS
July 02, 2015
By Mary SeligyEarlier this year, while delirious with a spring fever brought on by temperatures as warm as -10 °C, I bought a new spring dress and decided I urgently needed a pair of pale-pink tights to go with it. I headed to a new upscale department store where they would surely have everything in every possible hue. All I had to do was look, and I would find. Or so I thought.
I did find it, but not without being frustrated, mystified, and completely exhausted along the way. After the 10th schlep up and down the escalators looking for what I wanted in every place that made sense to me, I remember thinking “Oh, if only they had done some information architecture research!”
You see, lately, I’ve been looking at just about everything through the lens of information architecture, and that’s because part of my job right now is to create an information architecture plan for the website that will house our new multidisciplinary open access science journal, FACETS.
So what is information architecture (IA) anyway? It isn’t web design, web copy, or user experience design, though it does lay the foundation for all of these things on a website, in the same way that a blueprint describes the vision and plan for a future house and serves as a guide throughout construction.
IA is about how we classify information into a hierarchy of categories, how people will flow from one category of information to another, and how we label the categories. Some of the products of IA are obvious and recognizable, like the navigation (menu) system and the site map. But just as important are the deeper parts of the architecture, such as the links between key concepts in the web copy, how the written content is structured, and myriad other ways that help users understand where they are and how they can get to where they want to be.
But each of us brings a different set of experiences and priorities with us when we visit a website or any other place where information has been organized by other people. What seems like a sensible place to me to find a particular thing may not make sense to you. Similarly, we may look at labels differently: you might understand that a sign labelled “legwear” indicates the area where you would find the pink tights I was looking for at the department store, whereas I might see this and dismiss it as the place where they (obviously!) keep the fancy pants.
The challenge is to design an information architecture that works for as many users as possible. To do this, we have to do research. IA research is a process of discovery that starts with developing profiles of who our users are. This means working out what they will look for on the site, what they want to accomplish, the paths they might take, and what conventions they are used to from visiting similar sites. Next, we look at our business goals, such as what key information we want to convey to our users, and we go through a process of content discovery, to determine our key concepts.
Once we have completed our research, we analyze the information to discover key relationships and work out how users will flow through the site. We create a taxonomy (system of classification) for our information, which will serve as the foundation for our menus, site map, and other tools that help users find their way. Finally, we test our plan with users and adjust it as needed, and then rinse and repeat until we get it right.
Developing a strong and useful information architecture takes time and effort. It’s not an exact science and there is certainly some art to it. But it is well worth it because the work we put in now to develop our information blueprint will help ensure that users find what they need, discover what they want, and come back again to FACETS.
The FACETS website will be launching soon and we hope you’ll take a look! To keep up-to-date on everything FACETS-related, sign-up for the FACETS newsletter.
Mary Seligy is a graduate of the biology program at Queen's University. Before joining CSP as a Business Analyst (IT), she worked variously as a scientific publishing editor, illustrator, and research technologist. Mary is also the technical team lead for Science Borealis.