It can be difficult to know exactly what components make up an information architecture. Users interact directly with some components, while other components are so behind the scenes that users are unaware of their existence.
In the next four chapters, we’ll present and discuss information architecture components by breaking them up into the following four categories:
How we categorize information, e.g., by subject or chronology. See Chapter 5.
How we represent information, e.g., scientific terminology (“Acer”) or lay terminology (“maple”). See Chapter 6.
How we browse or move through information, e.g., clicking through a hierarchy. See Chapter 7.
How we search information, e.g., executing a search query against an index. See Chapter 8.
Like any categorization scheme, this one has its problems. For example, it can be difficult to distinguish organization systems from labeling systems (hint: you organize content into groups, and then label those groups; each group can be labeled in different ways) . In such situations, it can be useful to group objects in new ways. So before we delve into these systems, we’ll present an alternative method of categorizing information architecture components. This method is comprised of browsing aids, search aids, content and tasks, and “invisible” components.
These components present users with a predetermined set of paths to help them navigate the site. Users don’t articulate their queries, but instead find their way through menus and links. Types of browsing aids include:
Primary navigation systems that help users understand where they are and where they can go within a site.
These components allow the entry of a user-defined query (e.g., a search) and automatically present users with a customized set of results that match their query. Think of these as dynamic, automated counterparts to browsing aids. Types of search components include:
The grammar of a search query; query languages might include Boolean operators (e.g., AND, OR, NOT), proximity operators (e.g., ADJACENT, NEAR), or ways of specifying which field to search (e.g., AUTHOR="Shakespeare”).
Presentation of content that matches the user’s search query; involves decisions of what types of content should make up each individual result, how many results to display, and how results should be ranked, sorted, and clustered.
These are the users’ ultimate destinations, as opposed to separate components that get users to their destinations. However, it’s difficult to separate content and tasks from an information architecture, as there are components embedded in content and tasks that help us find our way. Examples of information architecture components embedded in content and tasks include:
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).
Certain key architectural components run completely in the background; users rarely (if ever) interact with them. These components often “feed” other components, such as a controlled vocabulary that populates embedded metadata fields. Types of invisible information architecture components include:
Whichever method you use for categorizing architectural components, it’s useful to drill down beyond the abstract concept of information architecture and become familiar with its more tangible aspects. In the following chapters we’ll take an even deeper look at the nuts and bolts of an information architecture.