Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Information Architecture

Kathy's note: This is the third in a 12-part series by Theresa Putkey that discusses the intersection of content strategy and user-centred design. Read all posts by Theresa.

In the last post User-Centred Design and Its Processes, we discussed what user-centred design is and how to learn even more. This post, the third in a series of posts, will give you an introduction to information architecture. My approach is to educate those who don’t know a lot about the practice.  

There are a lot of resources that explain information architecture. I view it, essentially, as helping people create context on the Internet, helping them use these spaces better to build community or achieve goals. A lot of people liken it to regular architecture—that to use a space, an architect needs to design the layout and then the builder has to implement the layout. If a builder came along with a plan, you’d get a really bad building! Information architects are much like regular architects, only IAs work with digital spaces.

Here's a short quote from Wikipedia that sums up IA quite nicely, although probably a bit abstractly:
Information architecture is the categorization of information into a coherent structure, preferably one that the most people can understand quickly, if not inherently. It's usually hierarchical, but can have other structures, such as concentric or even chaotic.
Here's a quote from Iain Barker from What Is Information Architecture
Organising functionality and content into a structure that people are able to navigate intuitively doesn't happen by chance. Organisations must recognise the importance of information architecture or else they run the risk of creating great content and functionality that no one can ever find.
These next two items were from an Explain IA contest on the IA Institute Discussion List. (You may not be able to see the Flickr group if you're not part of the group). Here's a great video from Nate Bolt and Kate Nartker that explains IA:


For more about IA, you can also see my review of Andrew Hinton's article.

How Does IA Fit in with Content Strategy?
In the mind of an Information Architect, I see Content Strategists as taking over where IA left off. The IA might design the space, but someone has to fill it with furniture. Content Strategists do the filling. If the IA is particularly good at handling content, then the IA and Content Strategy role can also be combined into one, with the IA designing the space and filling it. The same holds for the Content Strategist: if the Content Strategist can design and fill the space, that’s great. One point of difference that I see is that Content Strategists would be better at content, in other words, better at writing content. IAs would be better at resolving the information interactions happening on the site, in other words, when the user clicks this, it goes here and the expected result is...

About the Author

Theresa Putkey is an information architect consultant living in Vancouver, BC. With a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California, Davis, she focuses on integrating user needs into website and software design projects. She's currently doing her online Masters of Library and Information Science at San Jose State University. You can find out more about Theresa at, or follow her on twitter @tputkey.

Read all posts by Theresa. 

Monday, March 7, 2011

Content Strategy Deliverable: The Content Review (aka Heuristic or Expert Review)

This article is part of Rahel Bailie's series on content strategy deliverables. To read all articles in the series, visit Rahel's content strategy deliverables blog list at Intentional Design Inc. You can also follow Rahel on twitter @Rahelab.

Content Review sample report

One of the best ways to get an initial picture of content strengths and weaknesses is through an expert review. Also known as a heuristic review, or a content scorecard, the expert review shows how well your current content stands up to industry standards and best practices. 

Benefits of expert reviews
Expert reviews are great for demonstrating content strengths and weaknesses to a client. They’re faster and more affordable than user testing, and can be scaled to meet client and project needs. In conjunction with a content audit, they’re an effective and efficient way to get a really good understanding of the scope of a potential redesign or rewrite of the site. They’re also incredibly valuable in helping to establish project focus and priorities.

Limitations of expert reviews
An expert review is subjective. The quality of the findings is completely dependent on your expertise as a content reviewer. And you need a deep knowledge of writing mechanics and technique, usability and interaction design, information design, content marketing, and branding if you intend to provide holistic results. It’s better to limit the scope of the review to one specific area rather than provide feedback on areas outside of your expertise. It’s also a good idea to have three independent reviewers work through the same heuristics, if possible. Then they collaboratively analyze discrepancies between their opinions and provide focused, consolidated findings. This eliminates some of the potential bias of a single reviewer. 

It’s important to note that an expert review is a diagnostic tool, and content validation should always include testing with real customers. 

Determining the heuristics
It can be a challenge to find the right set of heuristics, or criteria, to include in your evaluation. Typically, I include detailed criteria across 5 – 8 core categories. The focus of the heuristics depends on project and client needs, and your specialized expertise. has some great usability and design guidelines, many of which focus on content. There are tons of different usability and user-centred design guidelines, but they’re all adapted from Jakob Nielsen’s classic set of ten usability heuristics. Think about how these heuristics relate to content and make sure these areas are represented in your criteria. Finally, keep in mind the current best practices for social media and customer engagement when you’re finalizing your criteria. 

Make sure the criteria are specific, granular, can be demonstrated easily, and are organized into relevant categories. In the attached expert review sample, the table of contents shows the categories. The report detail pages will include one page per category, each page listing the specific criteria. In the sample, I’ve demonstrated how one category (Is the information design logical, effective, and consistent?) is made up of eight specific criteria.

Conducting the review
I like to conduct expert reviews around user scenarios. It helps establish a user-centred perspective, keeps you focused on priority areas, and provides a good cross-section of page types. Choose two or three key scenarios to evaluate. 

Create a spreadsheet that includes all of your criteria, the pages you’ll be reviewing, and plenty of space for notes. This is for your eyes only! As you work through the scenarios, evaluate each page based on the criteria. It’s easiest to do multiple sweeps through the pages, focusing on different elements each time. 

Documenting the findings
You end up with LOADS of data from an expert review! The challenge is in boiling it down to key messages that are useful to your client. I always start by providing the big picture, and then drilling down to more detail. For each category, I like to show an example of one criterion with specific comments and recommendations. If a client needs more clarification about specific criteria that I did not highlight, I talk them through it or provide an example at their request. Usually, the focus of the report is on high-level findings and recommendations.

I’d love to hear from other people who conduct content or usability expert reviews. Do you have any other tips or advice? What’s worked for you, or what challenges have you had?