The Map Defines the Territory

Information architecture (IA) is a fascinating and compelling part of information organisation. Search is not a solved problem. Indeed, searchability and findability are among the most nagging problems facing information professionals. Findability—or lack thereof—is one of the defining elements of user experience. Unfortunately, it is also a source of endless frustration. It has the worst usability problem on the web. User needs and goals are obstructed by systemic failures in findability, and a website that is not easy to navigate is functionally useless.

My own experiences with technology have taught me that developers do not necessarily have the perspective to design usable systems. What they may think is an effective system is designed to only support an aspirational, best-case-scenario for navigation. What looks elegant from a coders perspective may not provide an optimal—or acceptable—experience.

Examining the council websites of the cities of Melbourne, Hobart, and Perth highlighted some of these elements. Melbourne and Hobart both demonstrated integrate, sensible designs that kept the same standard layout for the overall navigation of the website, and loaded pertinent content into a dynamically updated frame. Perth, however, insisted on having new subsets of menus and navigations for different sections, many of which had no visible ties to overall structure and obfuscated access to content. Intuitive architecture should provide universal navigation with no ‘orphaned’ avenues of browsing. Every page of the website should be able to function as a landing page with a completely accessible hierarchy of menus demonstrating where the user is, how they got there, and where they can go. As with physical architecture, information architecture relies on firm foundations to build anything stable. Logically relevant parent categories, proper meta-tagging, and a well-represented taxonomies form the bedrock on which any information-rich website should be built.

It is unforgivable for large entities such as a city council to build sloppy websites. All websites—especially those in the public sector—should be doing the right thing by default. Ease-of-use should be rigorously tested through prototyping and wire-framing, and consistency of style and standards should be paramount. Coders hate redundancy, but having logical replication of data facilitates how users really make use of websites—often in a meandering, scattershot approach.

The core thing I have taken away from information architecture is that it has to be—like a building—designed from the ground up. Every element must have a strong foundation of accessibility and functionality that relates to how people are actually using something, rather than designing with your own plan in mind then instructing people how to use it. IA relies wholly on taking an objective approach to design that Isn’t self interested. Developing good IA habits demands stepping outside your own perspective and engaging with that subjective, user experience of using a website.