Extreme Makeover: Information Architecture Edition

We’re at the point in our project where we’ve got everyone thinking about their information architectures which has got me thinking about good information architecture and how to convey its importance, its essentiallness, its the-website’s-success-depends-upon-it-ness.

Now I don’t generally use Wikipedia as a definitive source but I kind of fell in love with their definition of information architecture as “the art and science of organizing and labeling websites, intranets, online communities and software to support usability and findability.” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_architecture

It’s an art and it’s a science, and just like the arts and sciences, it has a profound affect on your users.

Here’s my favorite thing ever said about information architecture.

“An effective information architecture enables people to step logically through a system confident they are getting closer to the information they require.” – http://www.steptwo.com.au/papers/kmc_whatisinfoarch

There you have it. A good information architecture inspires confidence – confidence that you are going to find the thing you are looking for, confidence that the link you’ve chosen to click on is the right link, confidence that you’re smart and good looking and able to navigate the internet with the stealth and ease of a secret agent.


A bad information architecture makes you feel dumb – dumb blindly clicking on vague link names, dumb because you can’t decipher the seeming logic behind it, dumb like a gamer inside the World of Warcraft for the first time, picked on and left out because you don’t understand the hierarchy, acronyms, and insider terminology.

Nobody wants to feel like that.


Use plain language. Avoid acronyms and insider terminology.

Anyone who has had to consult the internet regularly to make sense of text messaging abbreviations will understand how inherently discriminative acronyms can be. If you’re not in the know, they you’re on the outs. SMH.

The same can be said for many of the clever and confounding names for things our university and college departments have come up with over the years. Maybe they are terms exclusively used in higher education but unknown outside of it. Maybe they are cute and play off the name of your mascot or school color. Maybe they are extraordinarily long and seem like random words strung together. Whatever the case, the prospective student or their parent will not feel clever when they can’t find tuition because it’s behind a link called The Bursar’s Office.

Throw out your org chart.

I don’t mean knock down all your walls and put everyone on balance balls in some egalitarian open office space. I mean don’t use your organizational chart to dictate how you organize your web content. Organize your website according to logical categories in which users would expect to find things, around the common names they call things.

If you need help tapping into what your users are thinking, you can always ask them formally through surveys and focus groups and informally by chatting with your student interns. There are other really great methods for creating user-focused information architectures such as card-sorting and creating user personas.

And keep in mind, even if a category sounds an awful lot like your office name, it may not represent what your office does in a comprehensive way and it may include things that aren’t part of your purview at all. Eek!

Plan for expansion.

A friend of mind uses the term “hillbilly mansion” to describe the uncontrolled and unplanned growth of a website over time. These websites have many unsightly and illogical additions to them because, when new content came along, there was no logical place for it.


When putting together your information architecture, think about everything you may want to have on your website someday even if 90% of it isn’t even a glimmer in anyone’s eye yet and will be developed over time after launch. With good planning, you will have a logical home for that searchable database of databases you’ve got your eye on, those faculty profiles you’re going to write over the summer, and the pics your department head is going to want you to post of that annual scholarship luncheon.

It’s the thought that counts.

Lastly, a question I often get is “what do information architectures look like?” It’s a good question because you would think that there would be something standardized about how we do them, but there really isn’t. Good information architecture can be written up in Word, created in Excel, made pretty in a graphics program, or hand-written on a legal pad. Unlike gifts on Valentine’s Day, it really is the thought that counts. Take a look at this Google images search on information architecture for inspiration.

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