While information architecture as a discipline (or even a science now) has only been around for a short period of time some of the techniques and methodologies it employs have been used by designers and testers of online content and structures for some time. It can useful to look at some of these techniques in the specific context of information architecture as they can provide very useful insights and guides to the principles used and the decisions made in the process of designing an architecture.
There are, fundamentally, two distinct methods of doing user research – a generative method which seeks to discover how users view, categorise and use data themselves without any preconceptions or direction from the testers; and an evaluative methods where a basic structure design is already in place and users have to evaluate how well it fits in with their needs and works in terms of them being able to locate material and navigate between points. As a general rule it is probably wise to use elements of both types in your research to get the most balanced and productive outcome.
Here is a quick summary and explanation of four of the primary techniques, how and when to use them:
Open Card Sorting
Open card sorting is a well-established technique going back to the 1990s or even further. It is essentially an exercise in defining and grouping pieces of data, objects or products, in meaningful groups to make search and utilisation as easy as possible. In open card sorting subjects are allowed to identify and group their own topics and create the headings for the groups they assign them to. This has the advantage of not leading the subjects, allowing natural defining and grouping to occur and discovering exactly how user think and use data. The downside is that it can become extremely disparate and difficult to reconcile into one manageable structure.
Closed Card Sorting
This type of card sorting uses the same technique but is more prescriptive in that the groupings are given to the subjects and they have to assign the individual elements to the groups they feel are most appropriate. This gives more manageable results but assumes that the initial decisions are the most useful and natural classifications for potential users.
Tree testing is essentially reverse card sorting where a proposed structure and classification has already been developed and you wish to test the validity and usefulness of it with subjects. Cards depicting the main headings and sub-classifications are given to testers and they have to perform an assigned search task working from the top level down through the subsidiary levels of classification.
Testing with Low-Fidelity Prototypes
You should only move to this stage when you are fairly certain that you have already captured the basic structural needs through other research and want to test a working prototype to see how it functions in practice. This usually won’t be a full working model of the site but one that emulates the structure and navigation so you can test the logic, relationships and assumptions you have made in getting to this point.
Getting the information architecture of your site right is so important that you need to test and validate at all stages to make sure you are on track and not wasting time, resources and effort on blind alleys. If you are interested in finding out more about this critical area of web design get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.