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You wouldn’t build a house without an architect, so why build a webpage without one?

Some people use the seven Ps; Proper, Prior, Planning, Prevents, Piss, Poor, Performance. But I prefer that to assume will make an ass out of you and me. Either way, the general gist is the same, that if you don’t prepare properly then ultimately you are likely to end up in the shit! These sorts of sayings have emerged because people who actually have a brain have decided to learn from the mistakes that they, and others, have made and have reflected on why they have ended up several streets from where they intended to be. In some industries of course the lessons are fairly obvious and quick to learn. Not many people decide to build their house roof first by balancing it off some rickety scaffolding while they then fill in the walls. And I’m sure the designers of the first ships learnt fairly early on that trying to float a ship with no hull, yet plenty of cannons and sails, generally didn’t tend to work. But why is it that in other industries we seem quite happy to continue making the same mistakes over and over simply because the consequences are initially more subtle?

In web design people will often try to cut corners, particularly in the stages of a project that are considered less “necessary”. And this is understandable because web design isn't cheap. One of these areas that is often overlooked is information architecture, the discipline of assessing and weighting the information for a page and then structuring the page so that the information gets the right level of priority and attention. But why is this important? Well, often a page will have quite a lot of information to convey and so you will need to guide the users to what is most important. But it is also about structuring an intuitive and accessible page where content isn’t overlooked or even lost because the design doesn’t adequately present the content.

To demonstrate the point take a look at the back of a minibus I saw recently.

I like to think that in this inclusive world that we now live in, the simple reason this has happened is that the sign fitter's guide dog simply isn’t that good at judging where to place a ‘school children’ sign on the back of a van. In reality the reason is likely to be much more mundane; that there is probably legislation to say where on a van this sign needs to be placed. And where there is legislation there is Johnny Jobsworth following it to the letter at the expense of everyone and everything else. And so we’ve gone from a van that had a lot of really useful information on it to one that is mostly illegible. Well done Johhny Jobseeker, as he will no doubt shortly be known.

But this illustrates a really good point when it comes to information architecture. What I can glean from this van in its current state is that People to Places own it, that it has some sort of website and phone number, although I don’t know what the full address or number is, that it is used for school, was provided by Heathrow Community Fund, although also by AutoService. It was converted by Brecon Coachworks Ltd, it has a registration plate, the rear door is an emergency exit and you pull the door to open (outwards). Because we are intelligent people we can also guess that the almost completely obscured blue badge highlights that this vehicle carries disabled passengers and therefore the rear door will be used for a chair lift. 

We can assume from what we know about the information provided that the order of importance for this information, and therefore what my attention should be drawn most to, is:

  1. It is a school bus
  2. It carries disabled passengers
  3. The rear door is an emergency exit
  4. It opens outwards
  5. Registration
  6. It belongs to 'People to Places'
  7. The phone number
  8. The website
  9. Who provided the bus x2

The first four points above are relevant to safety and give information on how much space to leave for access and how to drive around the vehicle. The fifth point is a legal requirement for the vehicle. The rest are subsidiary information but points 6, 7 and 8 probably have significant value to the owners. Point 9 is the least important information based on the intended usage of the vehicle.

The problem is that in reality this vehicle provides only the following information (in full):

  1. It belongs to People to Places
  2. It is a school bus
  3. Who provided the bus
  4. Registration
  5. The rear door is an emergency exit

The other information on the bus is incomplete and so provides little or no value or information. Crucially we can’t see that it carries disabled passengers and so the significance of the rear opening door is completely undermined.

Now consider this scenario in terms of a webpage. The principal is the same. If we were to plan the information out in an information architecture exercise we would identify that the key bits of information we absolutely need to display are:

  1. It is a school bus
  2. It carries disabled people
  3. The rear door opens outwards and is an emergency exit

We would also identify that the school bus sign has to go in a certain position due to legislation so we can plan the rest of the information around it, whilst maintaining visual hierarchy. Once we’d done that, and factored in the registration which is fixed to a position anyway, we would then consider our next most important information (phone number, website and owners) and put them together in order to keep the information in context. We’d finish with the less important information. It might look something more like this:

All of the information is now clearly visible. The prominence of the most important information is weighted enough to draw attention and the information is contextual; all of the owner information is at the top. All of the safety and access information is together and central / at driver height, all of the provider information is together. Most importantly, with a little forethought and planning, the bus can have all the information structured to be useful, relevant and accessible.

The same goes for a website, but in many ways that forethought is even more important. If you have key information that you want a user to get, key calls to action that you want them to notice at the relevant point in their journey (i.e. only when you know they've absorbed certain information and when they have been 'warmed up' towards a conversion), and if you want certain types of content to be more prominent than others, then taking the time to undertake an information architecture exercise is the only way to really get this right.

In the end, people are stupid. And given the opportunity they will take the line of least resistance. That is natural. What is the point of information architecture? It is to take the journey that you want the users to make, and present it as the line of least resistance. It is a discipline, it is an art and a skill. And if you don't do it then you will fail to deliver all the value that you need. In short, if you assume you have structured everything right, instead of actually going through the planning to ascertain that, then you will make an ass out of both you and your end users.

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