Form and Function in Information-Rich Web Site Design, A Parable

Rendering-NE-9

(Illustration by L. Chylinski, CMI, Inc.)

Across the street from Mere‘s office, the Ames Public Library is undergoing a massive renovation. Lasting an estimated 18 months, the building is being rehauled from the ground up to better serve the community.

Costing around $20 million dollars, the project will more than double the space inside the building, and seeks to “create a comfortable, flexible, and efficient space for Ames to learn, imagine, gather, and share in the 21st Century.”

The project seems to be coming along nicely, and we cannot wait for the sounds of construction to cease. :)

Now imagine that when the renovation is complete, the library staff brought the books back in boxes and stacked them haphazardly on tables inside the new building. Perhaps they would separate the tables by general genre: kids, science fiction, non-fiction, periodicals, audiobooks, etc.

A state-of-the-art bank of new computers for the citizens to research would sit in an artfully decorated nook, a cafe would serve refreshments, and new releases would be carefully arranged and featured near the front entrance. Fancy new computerized checkout systems would make it effortless to check a book out.

But try to find an older book you are looking for amongst the boxes piled on the tables. What did the renovation actually accomplish? A step backwards in the usability of the library.

The architects, general contractors, landscapers, interior decorators, and IT teams would all have done a masterful job, but the hinge pin component would be missing.

Library science.

All libraries have rows upon rows of carefully arranged bookshelves, arranged according an exacting code, either the Dewey Decimal Classification System, or the Library of Congress Classification System. All libraries use one or the other. They make it effortless to locate an exact volume inside a sea of books, to find a specific and individual “tree” in the midst of the “forest”, to find the proverbial needle amongst the haystack.

These systems are vital to all libraries.

This illustrates the problem with almost every Web redesign I ever see.

The craft of information architecture is to a Web site as the DDC or LCC is to the library.

And almost no Web site redesign teams consider it. Almost no platform I have seen supports it out of the box.

IA is vital to any Web project

If you are in charge of a Web site project, make sure you hire an expert Information Architect as part of the team. A good one will typically be cross functional as a content strategist and or designer.

Make sure that as a project leader you value and understand the basics of it yourself. This will probably require some training and reading on your part. Here is where I would begin.

Books

Information Architecture for the World Wide Web: Designing Large-Scale Web Sites, 3rd Edition

A Practical Guide to Information Architecture

Articles

Training Workshops