Information Architecture - Part 1

Imagine a national library where a person walks into find a book for reference. But upon reaching, he sees that the entire lot of books is piled up on the floor. He now has to pour through each pile to check where the book he wants is. Chances are that he eventually gets frustrated and walks out grumbling. That is, if he had not given up just upon seeing the pile of books in the first place. Would it have not been easier had each book been arranged in a certain sequence to make the task of selecting a book easier? 

The primary task of Information Architecture is to take the information (read it as an overload of information) in our hand and arrange and structure them to make it usable for the users.

A kitchen is a place of everyday use. Most of the activity that happens in the kitchen is complex and between it all a few things are taken for granted because it is never thought about in any other way- the way things are arranged in the kitchen. All the kitchens around the world follow the same pattern (more or less) of arranging the things. All utensils go together, all cutleries go together, all cereals and grains are kept together, all pulses are kept together, all spices are kept together, everything to do with tea time is kept together and all vegetables and fruits are kept together. In fact you get tools that help you with such arrangements- like a spice holder, where you can keep all spices together even if you move them. Even within each arrangement, there will more organizing. In the arrangement of cutleries, the spoons will be kept together and rarely mixed with the forks. In the utensils section, the pans will be kept together and usually not mixed with the bowls. This kind of arrangement is what everyone has been brought up with. This is a hard core mental model that has been formed and we hardly even realize it! Every element in the kitchen has been chunked into different categories based on their nature.

Information Architecture - Part 1

Similarly, everyone forms a mental model of everything that they do. They learn how a certain things functions and then they expect similar things to function in similar ways. So, when someone goes to a different kitchen, they expect to see all the cereals together, all cutlery together, all cooking utensils together, and do not expect to find the spoon with the bowls and fruits with the cereals.

Information Architecture chunks the information based on such user mental model. 

Information Architecture makes it possible for all the information we have to be structured and labeled in a way that makes it easy for a user to navigate through without hassle and achieve what he was seeking. This is done through Chunking, Labeling and Hierarchy determination. Chunking helps to logically group the information. Labeling gives appropriate names to each group that will sensibly represent the elements in the group. Hierarchy will determine the flow of the information, or he navigation pattern. 

Users look for information in multiple ways. The four main ways are:

1. Known item:

Here the users are aware of what they are looking for, how to look for it and where to look for it. These users need very little help and can cruise through the navigation easily.

2. Exploration:

Here the user knows what they are looking for, but not quite sure how or where to find it. They might cruise through the navigation to check if they can try to figure it out. For such users, auto suggesting comes handy as the users might know some keywords and can narrow down their search with the auto suggestion. 

3.Unknown:

Here the users don’t really know what they are looking for. They might think they know, but it is vague and might require some help to get by. 

4.Re-finding:

Here the users are trying to look for something they have already seen. Just that, they don’t know how to do it again! This can be done by either auto saving last few paths for the users, or by asking the users actively if they want to save that particular path for a later use. 

Consider a user wanting to purchase milk from an online store. He would check the product out directly under the diary section or just search for “milk” in the search pane, because he knows what he wants and quite logically where to find it or even how to find it. 

Think of a customer who wants to purchase pasta, but he does not know under what section it might appear- branded food? Packed food? So he explores around a bit and discovers a new section called “gourmet”. He finds pasta there.

Consider another customer who might want to purchase zucchini and assume that he cannot spell it right, nor can he figure out where he could find it. He has a faint idea what it is not, so he avoids looking around in the dry grocery section and heads for the fresh food section where he cruises through the list of fruits and vegetables in the hope to stumble upon zucchini. In another scenario, it is possible that he types in “zucchini” in the search pane but he does not how to spell it. The system helps him by prompting possible options he might be looking for and it helps him out.

Now, say that the same user returns for zucchini 10 days later. He still does not know the spelling and worse still, he still does not know where to find it. But, luckily, he had saved his previous purchase list and he was able to pick up the vegetable from it without having to go through the agony of trying to typing it in again.