This article is excerpted from Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, Third Edition, copyright O'Reilly Media, 2007. Used with permission from the publisher.
Duration: 13 minutes.
The organization of information in web sites and intranets is a major factor in determining success, and yet many web development teams lack the understanding necessary to do the job well. Our goal in this chapter is to provide a foundation for tackling even the most challenging information organization projects.
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 web site development. Organization is closely related to navigation, labeling, and indexing. The hierarchical organization structures of web sites often play the part of primary navigation system. The labels of categories play a significant role in defining the contents of those categories. Manual indexing or metadata tagging is ultimately a tool for organizing content items into groups at a very detailed level. Despite these closely knit relationships, it is both possible and useful to isolate the design of organization systems, which will form the foundation for navigation and labeling systems. By focusing solely on the logical grouping of information, you avoid the distractions of implementation details and can design a better web site.
We navigate through organization schemes every day. Telephone books, supermarkets, and television programming guides all use organization schemes to facilitate access. Some schemes are easy to use. We rarely have difficulty finding a friend’s phone number in the alphabetical organization scheme of the white pages. Some schemes are intensely frustrating. Trying to find marshmallows or popcorn in a large and unfamiliar supermarket can drive us crazy. Are marshmallows in the snack aisle, the baking ingredients section, both, or neither?
In fact, the organization schemes of the phone book and the supermarket are fundamentally different. The alphabetical organization scheme of the phone book’s white pages 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. The alphabetical organization of the phone book’s white pages is a perfect example. If you know the last name of the person you are looking for, navigating the scheme is easy. “Porter” is in the Ps, which are after the Os but before the Qs. This is called known-item searching. You know what you’re looking for, and it’s obvious where to find it. No ambiguity is involved. The problem with exact organization schemes is that they require users to know the specific name of the resource they are looking for. The white pages don’t work very well if you’re looking for a plumber.
Exact organization schemes are relatively easy to design and maintain because there is little intellectual work involved in assigning items to categories. They are also easy to use. The following sections explore three frequently used exact organization schemes.