The task of information design aims to break down and organize the information that is to be presented on the Web site in a way that facilitates easy retrieval by the target user group or groups. You generally start with a large volume of information that is not necessarily organized in a Web-friendly manner if it is organized at all. Your job as a information designer is to break down, organize and present that information on the Web site you will be designing.
The main tools at your disposal to create a great information architecture are as follows:
- Content Outline
- Site Map
Discovery means finding out everything you can about how the Web site will be used. Who will the users be? What will they be looking for? What tasks will they perform? What content will be provided and what is the hierarchy of importance? To learn this you need to go beyond what the client hands you, and find out as much as you can about their industry, their position in that industry, and their target audience.
Identifying all the information to be included in the site upfront is very important. Finding out in the middle of a project that you have a whole category of information that you hadn’t counted on can send you back to the drawing board and waste a lot of everyones time. Of course clients will often think of something they want to add after you have started or even completed the design. A good discovery phase in which the client is closely involved will make that less likely.
Now that you have that big pile of information, it is time to break it down. The Content Outline should indicate every bit of information that will be found on the web site and determine the hierarchy of that information given the goals of the Web site. I recommend no more than 7 categories on any level of the outline. More than that will be difficult of the user to comprehend in a glance, thus making your design unintuitive. Too few categories per level will hide the structure from the user in the depth of the site.
Site Maps are basically web versions of flow charts. They are visual representations of the site structure and hierarchy and should include everything you have in the outline. It is helpful to number them in a way that corresponds to your content outline. The site map will allow you to work out the basic navigation of the site and show the way in which pages link to one another.
Now that you have a basic feel for the navigation of the site you can create Wireframes. Wireframes are schematic versions of the finished web pages. They will include specific information about navigation and content of each page, but not necessarily the page layout. That comes later, in the graphic design phase. Wireframes can even be done as HTML pages with working links to give the client a feel for the navigation. This will also allow you to perform usability testing if you desire.
Once you have your wireframes completed, you have enough information about your content to move on to the graphic design phase.