Information architecture is about designing systems. It's easy enough to design one web page, but to design a web site comprised of thousands of pages that all share a lot of the same parts is more complex. A good Information Architect designs his sites with these things in mind:
- Each part should be easy for other developers to find in the directory structure
- Each part should fit together with the other parts seamlessly
- If custom parts are created there should be a standard way to place them such that a standard pattern emerges
- There should be a naming convention defined for all pieces of data
- There should be room for collaboration and community of practice to emerge during the construction of a given architectural structure
For the Division of Administration and Finances' web site for California State University, Long Beach the information architecture presented a unique challenge. When I started working on the site there were only about a hundred pages. Each department had some contact information, an "about us" paragraph describing what that department was responsible for or a mission statement. The site had a "Forms" section where all of the forms for all of the offices were housed. The navigation was all in the sidebar on the right side of the page. The links in the navigation were based on what the department head decided should go in there. There was no cohesive structure or standard organization to any of it. It was chaos. I couldn't find anything and neither could anyone else. What's more once you found what you were looking for it was impossible to tell which department was responsible for the content and if there was any pertinent information nearby.
My immediate response was to organize the site by the structure of the organization. The organization chart is a visual representation of who reports to whom. Along with putting the content in that structure it became obvious to create an interactive orgchart. Each department has a piece of the orgchart. If you are on the department's home page there is always a link to their orgchart. The rest of the site (content pages) are placed in the site structure according to the orgcharts. When the web liasion for a department delivers content for the web the developers know dexactly where that content goes in the site structure. Order was restored!
I then set about creating a navigation scheme that reflects the organization. Let's say someone sends you a link to a page. You have no reference point to deturmine where you are in the hierarchy of the web site. With my navigation scheme, you can always climb your way back to the top of the hierarchy by repeatedly clicking the top-most link in the sidebar navigation.
Next I designed tabs at the top of the page. Tabs are not only large and easy to click, they are conceptually easy to understand. Eveybody knows what a tab does. The site was then divided up into large categories. The categories are based on the most commonly used sections of the website.
We are working on coming up with better categories. For instance, there was initially a group called "Safety and Risk Management". That group was responsible for "Risk Management", "Safety" and "Workers' Compensation". It resided in Facilities Management. It was originally created for the needs of Facilities because they were (and still are) the ones doing the most dangerous work. It became obvious that other employees needed those services as well. The individual parts of the old Safety and Risk Management group have been divided into their separate functions based on what department manages that type of service. From an administrative perspective it makes perfect sense. Risk Management is now in Financial Management. Safety is now called Environmental Health and Safety and is part of Physical Planning and Facilities Management. Workers' Comp is now in Human Resources. That is how the organization is structured so that is reflected in the information architecture of the site. But now, as a user, where do we look for safety related things if we were used to looking in one place before.
That's where User Experience comes into effect. This reorganization has just occured so we have not worked out how to create categorical structure for these services yet. Please stay tuned as this story unfolds before our eyes. I will update this page with more content as we update the Administration and Finance pages.