When it comes time to build your dream home (.. up in Malibu, perhaps) you'll sit down with an architect, who will use your ideas to generate a set of blueprints. Builders will then use these blueprints as a guide to assemble your home. Cool.
Here in the Information age, the term » information architecture (IA) is the name given to this "blueprinting" (if you will) that we use as a 'schematic' ..
.. to build things where information is the thing being structured. And we build these informational structures in such a way as to make their access easy as possible (.. more logical & intuitive).
Instead of specifying the precise relationships between things such as brick, wood & wiring, IA specifies the hierarchical relationships of .. you guessed it! » chunks of information. (Think » library)
'Hierarchical,' ooh. Big word. Let's take a quick look at what it means.
For example, the labels » General, Colonel & Major are each part of a hierarchical grouping .. of military officers.
I'm no military buff, but these guys are definitely part of a well-ordered group (called the Army, which is itself part of an even bigger group-ing) that have a well-defined relationship with one another.
Likewise, a website contains INFORMATION that should be similarly well-structured and well-ordered .. in the relationships its various sections have with one another.
Information Architecture isnt nearly as complex as this mouthful-of-a-term might imply. In fact, it's actually rather commonsensical. Logical. Pleasing, in a left-brain sort of way. Its goal is to bring order to informaton that might otherwise appear chaotic.
The problem is .. that » most websites (ahem) relegate IA to an afterthought.
I know this was true for me. Sure, I can provide good excuses for this. But the bottom line » no IA leads to » poor site organization, which in turn leads to » poor navigation.
I mean, my navigation is (literally) all over the place. (Look around the home page.) If I could start over, I'd do a better job. And I may do another redesign in the future (.. perhaps based on a 960-grid using Sass & Compass, which would be cool).
••• today's entry continues here below •••
IA becomes increasingly important as the amount of information grows. No need to organize your bookshelf if you have only a dozen books sitting there. But if you have several hundred .. you need a system, right?
Now dont be alarmed. I'm not gonna delve into the nitty-gritty .. but the basic IA technique I read about was called the » CARD SORT.
Get yourself a stack of 3x5 cards. On each one, write a name .. that best describes every piece of CONTENT your site will have. (You know what I trying to say.) Leave out nothing. Brainstorm like a madman across the water.
[ The reason I never did a CARD-SORT for Radified .. is cuz I never knew what CONTENT we would have .. until we had it. Still dont. (But hey, I do have a killer taco recipe I wanna share. The Bug *loves* these tacos. ]
You then arrange these cards and group them according to some organizational hierarchy that makes logical sense to both you and others. (Get the opinion of others, especially potential users.)
[ No doubt, examples here would prove helpful. If you plan on launching a website anytime soon, pick up a copy of the book, which provides plenty of illuminating examples. ]
The point of this seemingly trivial & obviously tedious exercise .. is that it will give your site a well-thought-out organization, which, in turn, will produce a well-thought-out » navigation. The main group headings become top-level navigation. Sub-sections become sub-navigation, etc.
You know when you're visiting a site with good (professional) navigation. Cuz it's a pleasure to use.
The process of doing a card-sort, and generating an IA-diagram, forces you to think (a lot!) about how your site is organized (.. in great detail).
The Movable Type blog does some of this organizing for you. For example, if you click on the link to the category titled 'nietzsche' .. you'll be taken to a page that contains every entry I've done pertaining to the man (6, so far).
If you search Amazon.com for the term 'information architecture,' one of the first books returned is titled » Blueprints for the Web. Their focus, I believe, goes beyond merely creating websites.
IA is like sex. You only miss it when you dont have any. =)
Looking ahead .. some time next month, I'm going to write about » Writing for the Web. This will probably be the easiest topic I've ever written about, cuz .. it's what I do. And in that category (unlike with IA & navigation), I do what they say. (And then some.)
For more along these lines, here's a Google search preconfigured for the query » information architecture website design navigation