WebReference.com - Part 1 of chapter 5 from Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, 2nd Edition. From O'Reilly (3/8).
Information Architecture for the WWW, 2E. Chapter 5: Organization Systems
Have you ever tried to find a file on a coworker's desktop computer? Perhaps you had permission. Perhaps you were engaged in low-grade corporate espionage. In either case, you needed that file. In some instances, you may have found the file immediately. In others, you may have searched for hours. The ways people organize and name files and directories on their computers can be maddeningly illogical. When questioned, they will often claim that their organization system makes perfect sense. "But it's obvious! I put current proposals in the folder labeled /office/clients/green and old proposals in /office/clients/red. I don't understand why you couldn't find them!"
The fact is that labeling and organization systems are intensely affected by their creators' perspectives. We see this at the corporate level with web sites organized according to internal divisions or org charts, with groupings such as marketing, sales, customer support, human resources, and information systems. How does a customer visiting this web site know where to go for technical information about a product they just purchased? To design usable organization systems, we need to escape from our own mental models of content labeling and organization.
We employ a mix of user research and analysis methods to gain real insight. How do users group the information? What types of labels do they use? How do they navigate? This challenge is complicated by the fact that web sites are designed for multiple users, and all users will have different ways of understanding the information. Their levels of familiarity with your company and your content will vary. For these reasons, even with a massive barrage of user tests, it is impossible to create a perfect organization system. One site does not fit all! However, by recognizing the importance of perspective, by striving to understand the intended audiences through user research and testing, and by providing multiple navigation pathways, you can do a better job of organizing information for public consumption than your coworker does on his or her desktop computer.
Politics exist in every organization. Individuals and departments constantly position for influence or respect. Because of the inherent power of information organization in forming understanding and opinion, the process of designing information architectures for web sites and intranets can involve a strong undercurrent of politics. The choice of organization and labeling systems can have a big impact on how users of the site perceive the company, its departments, and its products. For example, should we include a link to the library site on the main page of the corporate intranet? Should we call it The Library or Information Services or Knowledge Management? Should information resources provided by other departments be included in this area? If the library gets a link on the main page, then why not corporate communications? What about daily news?
As an information architect, you must be sensitive to your organization's political environment. In certain cases, you must remind your colleagues to focus on creating an architecture that works for the user. In others, you may need to make compromises to avoid serious political conflict. Politics raise the complexity and difficulty of creating usable information architectures. However, if you are sensitive to the political issues at hand, you can manage their impact upon the architecture.
3. [Back] It actually gets even more complicated because an individual's needs, perspectives, and behaviors change over time. A significant body of research within the field of library and information science explores the complex nature of information models. For an example, see "Anomalous States of Knowledge as a basis for information retrieval" by N. Belkin. Canadian Journal of Information Science, 5 (1980).
4. [Back] For a fascinating study on the idiosyncratic methods people use to organize their physical desktops and office spaces, see "How Do People Organize their Desks? Implications for the Design of Office Information Systems" by T.W. Malone. ACM Transactions on Office Information Systems 1 (1983).
Created: September 23, 2002
Revised: September 23, 2002