Reading Notes of Information Architecture (Part II)

Information Architecture FOR THE WEB AND BEYOND

Siyu's Newsletter
10 min readNov 10, 2019

Part II

Basic Principles of Information Architecture

…four systems that are shared by most interactive information environments: organization systems, labeling systems, navigation systems, and search systems.

“invisible” systems that help shape the information environment behind the scenes: thesauri, controlled vocabularies, and metadata

Chapter 5

The Anatomy of an Information Architecture

Visualizing Information Architecture

  • The “hamburger” menu icon provides access to the site’s navigation and search systems
  • Organization systems present the site’s information to us in a variety of ways, such as content categories that pertain to the entire campus (e.g., the top bar and its “Academics” and “Admission” choices), or to specific audiences (the block on the middle left, with such choices as “Future Students” and “Staff ”).
  • Navigation systems help users move through the content, such as with the custom organization of the individual drop-down menus in the main navigation bar.
  • Search systems allow users to search the content
  • Labeling systems describe categories, options, and links in language that (hopefully) is meaningful to users

Top-Down Information Architecture

Categories are used to group pages and applications throughout the site; labels systematically represent the site’s content; navigation systems and a search system can be used to move through the site.

Many common “top-down” questions that users have when they land on a site, including:

  • Where am I? (1)
  • I know what I’m looking for; how do I search for it? (2)
  • How do I get around this site? (3)
  • What’s important and unique about this organization? (4)
  • What’s available on this site? (5)
  • What’s happening there? (6)
  • How do I engage with them via various other popular digital channels? (7)
  • How can I contact a human? (8)
  • What’s their address? (9)
  • How can I access my account? (10)

Bottom-Up Information Architecture

Instead of being dictated “from above,” bottom-up information architecture is suggested by and inherent in the system’s content.

…web-wide search tools like Google Search…want to jump to other relevant content on your site without learning how to use its top-down structure…It provides context for the content, and tells us what we can do while we’re here

  • The information architecture tells us where we are
  • It helps us move to other closely related views
  • It helps us move through the information hierarchically
  • It allows us to search the content based on various criteria, such as different time periods and locations.
  • It allows us to share the content with others.

Its bottom-up structure is defined primarily by the metadata and deep contextual links embedded in the content (the photos) it contains, presented in a way that makes sense given how people are used to organizing photographs.

Invisible Information Architecture

Information Architecture Components

  • Organization systems: How we categorize information (e.g., by subject or chronology
  • Labeling systems: How we represent information — for example, using scientific terminology (“Acer”) or lay terminology (“maple”)
  • Navigation systems: How we browse or move through information (e.g., clicking through a hierarchy)
  • Searching systems: How we search information (e.g., executing a search query against an index)

Browsing Aids

When browsing, users don’t articulate their queries through search fields, but instead find their way through menus and links. Types of browsing aids include:

Organization systems: Also known as taxonomies and hierarchies, these are the main way of categorizing or grouping content (e.g., by topic, by task, by audiences, or by chronology)

General navigation systems: Primary navigation systems that help users understand where they are and where they can go within an information environment

Local navigation systems: Primary navigation systems that help users understand where they are and where they can go within a portion of an information environment (e.g., a subsite)

Contextual navigation systems

Search Aids

  • Search interface
  • Query language
  • Query builders
  • Retrieval algorithms
  • Search zones
  • Search results

Content and Tasks

Headings: Labels for the content that follows them

Embedded links: Links within text; these label (i.e., represent) the content they link to

Embedded metadata: Information that can be used as metadata but must first be extracted (e.g., in a recipe, if an ingredient is mentioned, this information can be indexed to support searching by ingredient)

Chunks: Logical units of content; these can vary in granularity (e.g., sections and chapters are both chunks) and can be nested (e.g., a section is part of a book)

Lists: Groups of chunks or links to chunks; these are important because they’ve been grouped together (e.g., they share some trait in common) and have been presented in a particular order (e.g., chronologically)

Sequential aids: Clues that suggest where the user is in a process or task, and how far he has to go before completing it (e.g., “step 3 of 8”)

Identifiers: Clues that suggest where the user is in an information system

“Invisible” Components

  • Controlled vocabularies and thesauri
  • Retrieval algorithms
  • Best bets

Chapter 6

Organization Systems

The beginning of all understanding is classification. — Hayden White

As we struggle to meet these challenges, we unknowingly adopt the language of librarians. How should we label that content? Is there an existing classification scheme we can borrow? Who’s going to catalog all of that information?


Classification systems are made of language, and language is ambiguous


Heterogeneity refers to an object or collection of objects composed of unrelated or unlike parts…Most digital information environments, on the other hand, are highly heterogeneous in many respects. For example, websites often provide access to documents and their components at varying levels of granularity.

Their levels of familiarity with your company and your content will vary…by recognizing the importance of perspective, by striving to understand the intended audiences through user research and testing, and by providing multiple navigation pathways

Internal Politics: you may need to make compromises to avoid serious political conflict.

Organizing Information Environments: Organization systems are composed of organization schemes and organization structures. An organization scheme defines the shared characteristics of content items and influences the logical grouping of those items. An organization structure defines the types of relationships between content items and groups.

Before diving in, it’s important to understand information organization in the context of system development. Organization is closely related to navigation, labeling, and indexing. The organization structures of information environments often play the part of the primary navigation system.

Organization Schemes: The dictionary’s alphabetical organization scheme is exact. The hybrid topical/task-oriented organization scheme of the supermarket is ambiguous.

Exact Organization Schemes

Let’s start with the easy ones. Exact or “objective” organization schemes divide information into well-defined and mutually exclusive sections.

  • Alphabetical schemes
  • Chronological schemes

A complementary combination of organization schemes is often necessary.

  • Geographical schemes

Ambiguous organization supports this serendipitous mode of information seeking by grouping items in intellectually meaningful ways.

Rigorous user testing is essential.

  • Topical organization schemes
  • Task-oriented schemes

On the Web, task-oriented organization schemes are most common in the context of websites where customer interaction takes center stage.

  • Audience-specific schemes (Audience-specific schemes can be open or closed.)
  • Metaphor-driven schemes

You need not look further than your desktop computer with its folders, files, and trash can or recycle bin for an example.

First, metaphors, if they are to succeed, must be familiar to users.

Second, metaphors can introduce unwanted baggage or be limiting.

  • Hybrid schemes (multiple organization schemes)

The structure of information defines the primary ways in which users can navigate.

The Hierarchy: A Top-Down Approach

First, you should be aware of, but not bound by, the idea that hierarchical categories should be mutually exclusive. Within a single organization scheme, you will need to balance the tension between exclusivity and inclusivity. Hierarchies that allow cross-listing are known as polyhierarchical.

Second, it is important to consider the balance between breadth and depth in your hierarchy.

If a hierarchy is too narrow and deep, users have to click or tap through an inordinate number of levels to find what they are looking for.

If a hierarchy is too broad and shallow, as in this case users are faced with too many options on the main menu and are unpleasantly surprised by the lack of content once they select an option.

When considering breadth, you should be sensitive to people’s visual scanning abilities and to the cognitive limits of the human mind.

…when dealing with issues of breadth versus depth we suggest that you:

  • Recognize the danger of overloading users with too many options.
  • Group and structure information at the page level.
  • Subject your designs to rigorous user testing.

In contrast to breadth, when considering depth, you should be even more conservative…For new information environments that are expected to grow, you should lean toward a broad-and-shallow rather than a narrow-and-deep hierarchy.

Instead, you need to understand how metadata, controlled vocabularies, and database structures can be used to enable:

  • Automatic generation of alphabetical indexes (e.g., a product index)
  • Dynamic presentation of associative “see also” links and content
  • Fielded searching
  • Advanced filtering and sorting of search results

Creating Cohesive Organization Systems

Should you organize by topic, by task, or by audience? How about a chronological or geographical scheme? What about using multiple organization schemes?

That’s why it’s important to break down the information enviornment into its components, so you can tackle one question at a time. Also, keep in mind that all information-retrieval systems work best when applied to narrow domains of homogeneous content.

When considering which organization schemes to use, remember the distinction between exact and ambiguous schemes. Exact schemes are best for known-item searching, when users know precisely what they are looking for. Ambiguous schemes are best for browsing and associative learning, when users have a vaguely defined information need…Language is ambiguous, content is heterogeneous, people have different perspectives, and politics can rear their ugly head. Providing multiple ways to access the same information can help to deal with all of these challenges.

The top-level, umbrella architecture for the environment will almost certainly be hierarchical. As you are designing this hierarchy, keep a look out for collections of structured, homogeneous information.

Chapter 7

Labeling Systems

Varieties of Labels

  • Contextual links: Hyperlinks to chunks of information on other pages or to other locations on the same page
  • Headings: Labels that simply describe the content that follows them, just as print headings do
  • Navigation system choices: Labels representing the options in navigation systems
  • Index terms: Keywords, tags, and subject headings that represent content for searching or browsing

Develop consistent labeling systems, not labels

  • Style: Haphazard usage of punctuation and case is a common problem within labeling systems, and can be addressed, if not eliminated, by using style guides.
  • Presentation: Similarly, consistent application of fonts, font sizes, colors, whitespace, and grouping can help visually reinforce the systematic nature of a group of labels.
  • Syntax: It’s not uncommon to find verb-based labels (e.g., “Grooming Your Dog”), noun-based labels (e.g., “Diets for Dogs”), and question-based labels (e.g., “How Do You Paper Train Your Dog?”) all mixed together. Within a specific labeling system, consider choosing a single syntactical approach and sticking with it.
  • Granularity: Within a labeling system, it can be helpful to present labels that are roughly equal in their specificity.
  • Comprehensiveness: People can be tripped up by noticeable gaps in a labeling system.
  • Audience: Mixing terms like “lymphoma” and “tummy ache” in a single labeling system can also throw people off, even if only temporarily.

Chapter 8

Navigation Systems

  • We use navigation systems to chart our course, determine our position, and find our way back; they provide a sense of context and comfort as we explore new places.
  • The surface layer of navigation — what people actually interact with — is changing very fast.
  • There are various types of navigation systems; three common ones are global, local, and contextual systems.
  • The tools we use to explore information environments — such as web browsers — provide their own navigation mechanisms.
  • Building context — allowing users to locate their positions within the system — is a critical function of navigation systems.
  • Global navigation systems are intended to be present on every page or screen in the information environment.
  • Local navigation systems complement global ones, and allow users to explore the immediate area where they are.
  • Contextual navigation systems occur in context of the content being presented in the environment, and support associative learning by allowing users to explore the relationships between items.

Chapter 13

  • Building context — allowing users to locate their positions within the system — is a critical function of navigation systems.
  • Global navigation systems are intended to be present on every page or screen in the information environment.
  • Local navigation systems complement global ones, and allow users to explore the immediate area where they are.
  • Contextual navigation systems occur in context of the content being presented in the environment, and support associative learning by allowing users to explore the relationships between items.



Siyu's Newsletter

I go by 思玉Siyu. UX Designer/Consultant at Thoughtworks. Former HCI student at University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. Blog: