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Information Architecture Section: Principles of IA

As a rapidly emerging area that combines a number of disciplines, information architecture is easily misunderstood. It's important to visualize information architecture because it can give you a better handle of it's elements.

Information architecture is a systematic method of identifying, organizing, and managing information for a particular need. This online course is particularly interested in information architecture as it relates to website design and development.

By "visualizing information architecture" we mean recognizing the elements that go into an effective information environment and how they all work together to create an engaging website. Rather than just seeing "pages on a screen," an insightful information architect sees the "big picture" of how the information is organized and labeled for easy user access.

Let's explore five principles of information architecture with the systems of a website. Explore the following areas on this page.

Peterson, Glenn & McGlinn, Sharon Hilts (April 2008). Building a community of readers: BookSpace. Computers in Libraries, 6-11, 52. As you work your way through the principles on this page, apply them to the BookSpace example.

Organizational Systems

Information organization and access is a timeless problem and primary task in the field of librarianship and information science. Rapid content growth related to digital and online access over the last few years has created an enormous need for innovation in content organization. As we see more and more people publishing and organizing their own information, the challenges in organizing this information has become even more prominent. Below are some common concerns:

Organization Schemes

There are two general types of organization schemes: exact and ambiguous.

Exact Organization Schemes. Exact organization divides information into well-defined and mutually exclusive sections. It is best for known-item searching when users know what they are looking for.

Ambiguous Organization Schemes. Ambiguous organization divides information into categories that defy exact definition. It is best for browsing and associative learning when users have a vague information need.

Organization Structures

Before you begin developing your own projects, you need to be able to recognize information architecture when you see it. While some websites are collections of webpages that have been thrown into the same folder, others are carefully organized information libraries ready to be accessed.

Information architecture is the process of carefully planning and implementing information-rich materials. The organization structure plays an intangible role in the design of web sites. We find structure all around us - movies are linear, plots may be nonlinear, maps are spatial in structure, etc. Structure defines the way users navigate through the site. Major web site organizational structures include: the hierarchy (top-down), the database-oriented model (bottom-up), and hypertext.

The Hierarchy: A Top-Down Approach

This approach is the foundation for most information architectures. Often viewed visually as hierarchies, family trees, life charts (kingdoms and classes and species), and books (chapters and sections) are examples. Users can quickly and easily adapt to information organized via hierarchy.

"Location-specific" websites often use the top-down approach. Designers start by thinking about their organization (i.e., school, library, museum, nonprofit, business) and considering all the information that people need. Some questions users may ask:

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Examine the entry page of most university websites such as IUPUI. A main page where the designer has tried to anticipate the major questions users bring with them to the website and has designed the site to meet those needs.

The Database Model: A Bottom-Up Approach

Databases are sometimes used to store the components of a website. The term database can be used to describe any organized collection of information arranged for ease and speed of search and retrieval. Or, the term database can also be used to describe the use of a specific electronic database management system software such as FileMaker or Microsoft Access. An electronic library catalog uses the database model. Titles, authors, subjects, keywords, etc. can all easily be searched to locate individual records or web pages (previously known at catalog cards).

"Content-driven" websites often use the bottom-up approach. For example, website collections (i.e., virtual art galleries, poetry collections), sales sites (i.e., auction websites, online catalog sales), and identification keys (i.e., animal database, science tables) often use bottom-up construction. They start with a collection of individual pieces of information or resources and bring them together with a "front-end" starting point or search tools.

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Examine the All Recipes website. This website contains individual pages where information is "chunked" so that browsing and searching are supported. The chunks are sequenced in a logical manner. And the structure inherent in the content allows the answers to the user's questions to come to the surface. Go to the recipes page of All Recipes. Notice how each collection contains a different folder such as This can also be done with subdirectories or folders. Each categories has a folder such as Bread, Desserts, and Salad.

Hypertext Approach

Hypertext is a highly nonlinear way of structuring information. It involves items or chunks of information to be linked and the links between the chunks. Because it can be potentially very complex and confusing for users, it is often used to complement other organizational structures.

Creating a cohesive organizational system involves the utilization of a variety of schemes and structures. The web presents us with ambiguous language, content that is unrelated in many ways, and different perspectives.

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Look for all three approaches (the hierarchy (top-down), the database-oriented model (bottom-up), and hypertext) at the NOAA website.

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Practice different ways to organize "stuff". For example, buy a bag of mixed candies. Create an organizational structure for your bag of goodies. What scheme/s did you use to organize your "goodies"? What structure defines your collection?

Optional Reading - Read Chapter 4: The Anatomy of an Information Architecture and Chapter 5: Organization Systems in Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, 3rd edition by Peter Morville & Louis Rosenfeld.

Labeling Systems

Beside the overall organization of the website, labeling is another key concern for the information architect. Through labeling we are able to represent the larger pieces of information present in our web site. The goal of labeling is to communicate information efficiently. Labels should speak the same language as the users while reflecting the site's content. They should also educate the user about new concepts and provide explanations when necessary.

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Examine the labels used on United State Postal Service's home page. Identify each of the labels used and briefly discuss each one considering the following: Do the prominent labels on this page stand out to you? If they do, why? If a label is new, unanticipated, or confusing, is there an explanation? Or are you required to click through to learn more?

Varieties of Labels

Be sure to select the best label for the job.

Contextual Links


Within Navigation Systems

Index Terms

Iconic Labels

Designing Labels

General Guidelines

Sources of Labeling Systems

Fine Tuning the Labels

  1. Sort the list of terms alphabetically and remove duplicates
  2. Review for consistency of usage, punctuation, letter case, etc.
  3. Look for obvious gaps in the system - is the future considered?
  4. Remember that you'll need to continually improve and work on your labeling system as users and content continue to change

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Choose any online mail order catalog to carefully examine. Using the catalog as a model of organization, answer the following questions:

Is there an organizational scheme present? Is it exact or ambiguous?
Is there an organizational structure present? Is it hierarchical, a database type, or the unlikely hypertext?
Can the organizational scheme/structure translate to the web or should it be changed? If so, how would you change it?

Are labels present to identify and communicate meaning?
Are they appropriate?
What type/s are they? contextual, headings, navigational, index terms, iconic?
How would they need to be change in order to be used on the web?
What new types of labels would need to be in place in order to make the information accessible via the web?

Optional Reading - Read Chapter 6: Labeling Systems in Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, 3rd edition by Peter Morville & Louis Rosenfeld.


Navigation Systems

Just as your home needs doors and windows to gain entry, your website needs quality navigation.

When a user interacts with your website, they are navigating. Regardless of whether people will be browsing the website or using a search tool, planning is critical. The navigation elements such as buttons, directories, and indexes must all be focused on helping the users fulfill their information needs.


It's essential that your user is oriented within the page and website. They should always know where they are located in your cyberworld. The information hierarchy should be clear and consistent to help them build a mental model of the organization scheme. In other words, the user should know the layout of the house so they can easily move between rooms.

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Try Keith Instone's Navigation Stress Test. He asks three basic questions: Where am I? What's here? Where can I go? 

Jump into the middle of a website. Can you get back to the home page? Select a random page. Can you figure out where you are in relation to the rest of the website? Are the links descriptive? Can you tell where the next page will lead?

Navigation Systems

Navigation systems can be embedded, supplemental, or advanced.

Embedded Navigation

Embedded navigation systems are integrated into the context of the site to help users understand where they are and where they can go.

Global (site-wide) navigation systems. These are intended to be present on every page of a web site such as a navigation bar at the top of each page.

Local navigation systems. These enable users to explore the immediate area such as local navigation systems. They provide access to subsites within the main web site such as a bar along the left-hand side of the page.

Contextual navigation. These links are specific to a particular page, document, or object such as "see also" links.

Ask yourself:

Supplemental Navigation

Supplemental navigation systems exist outside the content-bearing pages and provide alternative ways to access information.

Sitemaps. These present a "bird's eye view" of the top few levels of the information hierarchy. This broad view of the content and facilitates provide easy access to the content.

Site indexes. These provide direct access to content through keywords or phrases. Normally organized alphabetically, they work well with users who know the name of the item they are seeking.

Guides. Tours, tutorials, and micro-portals focused on a specific audience, topic or task provide customized linear navigatin. They often introduce new users to the site's content and functionality. These tools should be kept short, easy to exit, and designed to answer questions.

Wizards. These systems assist users in specialized tasks.

Search. Searching systems are also part of the navigation.

Advanced Navigation

With the introduction of Web 2.0 additional options are available for making your website dynamic.

Personalization and Customization. Many websites allow users to select what content they wish to have presented at a particular time. MyYahoo is a popular example.

Visualization. People like to visualize the website. Some people use metaphors, while others use themes or graphic organizers. Explore Search CubeSpezify, and Quintura.

Social Navigation. Options such as forums, comments, tags, profiles, and other elements allow people to more easily find each other and engage others online.

Navigation Ideas

As you design your navigation keep the following ideas in mind:

Control. Give users control over their navigation. Provide tools so visitors can decide where they'd like to go.

Consistent. Keep the navigation consistent throughout the website so people will know where to look.

Status. Be sure to let make users aware of their current status. A good navigation system gives the visitor a clue as to what page they are currently on. On option is to simply unlink the text link so it isn't underlined or in the link color. You can also fade an icon or unlink it as well.

Suggestions. Provide help and suggestions so users know their options and what they might do next.

Match Theme. After planning out your site, use your overall impression to decide if your site navigation should be casual and friendly, technical and serious, businesslike or goofy. Find a visual theme that represents the overall content and carry that throughout the site.

Logic. Using simple text and graphical icons that represent different section or simple buttons with word labels is easy and obvious for the end user.

Compact. Keep the primary navigation system in a compact package, at the top of the page, the bottom, or off to the side. If the page is long, put the navigation system at the top and bottom. Use both graphical buttons and text links for those who don't or can't display graphics. It's always a good idea to have more than one way to navigate.

Access. Every section of the website should be available within 3 clicks.

Navigation Checklist

Read Web Style Guide: Interface Design and Navigation and Wayfinding for some background information on accessibility.

Optional Reading - Read Chapter 7: Navigation Systems in Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, 3rd edition by Peter Morville & Louis Rosenfeld.

Search Systems

When users enter your site they may simply wish to browse information. In other cases, they'd like to use an alphabetical or chronological index. If they have a specific needs, the user may wish to conduct a key word search. Your website must be ready to accomodate each of these options.


Browsing involves users following paths through the site to explore specific content objects. These users may not be looking for something specific. Their information needs may be less defined than a person who uses a formal search tool. For example, users might browse through the continuing education course listings at the public library.

Users may browse using a hierarchical, supplemental, or contexual approach.

Hierarchical browsing involves accessing a primary, established path. For example, a user might select the Science department, then choose Life Science. Directories are often used in this type of browsing.

Supplemental browsing involves accessing adjunct views of the site. For example, some sites provide varied types of indexes, guides, site maps, and lists patrons can use for navigation. For example, some websites provide a "what's new" section to help users find the newest entries in the site. Supplemental tools repackage content objects into a variety of guides to meet different needs.

Contextual browsing involves moving from interest to interest within content objects. For example, in the 42explore project links are provided for related projects. For example, the hurricane page provides links to other disasters such as the tornado and flood pages. Some people refer to these as "see-also" navigation.


An index is a non-hierarchically organized resource that directs users to content objects that share a particular attribute. For example, groupings might be alphabetical or chronological.

Indexing is an important part of information architecture. It's the process of assigning attribute values to content objects. In library science, we refer to this process as cataloging and classification.

Indexing can be performed manually or automatically. For the 42explore website we do the indexing ourselves by assigning key words related to each topic.

However for complex websites, software can automate the process. Software is used to automate the index process using three methods: concept extraction, rule-governed attribute value extraction, and direct extraction.


While some users enter the system to browse, others have a very specific information need. These users enter terms into a search tool that results in the identification of content objects. The search can concentrate on one area of the website such as a content collection, or the entire website. The system can search the full text of content objects or specific attributes. For instance, users will probably search rather than browse your online catalog.

Although web developers can design their own search engines. Most small-scale developers use the tools provided by companies such as Google. These services provide sponsored tools that allow users to search your website or the general search engine.

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Go to the Google Business Solutions page for more information on the services Google offers - many for FREE! You may wish use the Google Custom Search Engine.

Read Web Style Guide: Site Structure and Search Engine Optimization for additional background information on search features.

Optional Reading - Read Chapter 8: Search Systems in Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, 3rd edition by Peter Morville & Louis Rosenfeld.


Metadata is simply descriptive information about data. It is used to identify key data (i.e., words, numbers, topics, categories) for each page. In a traditional library catalog this would include author, title, and subject information.

In website development metadata information is generally referred to in three ways: Intrinsic (i.e., object data such as file name, file size), Administrative (i.e., author, creation date), Descriptive (i.e., title, subject, audience, keywords).

This metadata is essential in a database-type model because it allows the information architecture to apply the structure of a relational database to the heterogeneous, unstructured information present in web sites. It also affords powerful searching and browsing capabilities that would otherwise be lost.

Controlled Vocabulary

Controlled vocabulary is a collection of preferred terms that are used for precise information retrieval. These terms are used in creating indexes, databases, and other formal tools for accessing content.

Optional Reading - Read Chapter 9: Thesauri, Controlled Vocabulary, and Metadata inInformation Architecture for the World Wide Web, 3rd edition by Peter Morville & Louis Rosenfeld.



Building a Meta-data Based Website by Brett Lider and Anca Mosoiu

Controlled Vocabularies: A Glosso-Thesaurus by Fred Leise, Karl Fast, Mike Steckel

Creating a Controlled Vocabulary by Fred Leise, Karl Fast, Mike Steckel

Web Developers Journal

Web architecture: Metadata (indepth on topic

What Is A Controlled Vocabulary? by Fred Leise, Karl Fast, Mike Steckel


Some ideas adapted from Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, 3rd edition by Peter Morville & Louis Rosenfeld.

Some ideas from B. Helling, 2002.

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