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Sep 28, 2002: Questions Information Architects Ask (Part I)

In June 2002, Margaret Hanley and I asked our Nielsen Norman seminar attendees to list their burning information architecture questions. Not surprisingly, we found that information architects are people with a lot of questions. The list below comes from our San Francisco attendees; a week from now I'll put up a similar list from our Sydney attendees.

Unless you're an IA enthusiast/masochist, don't read through these lists in their entirety. However a glance or two might be interesting, especially if you're going to be doing some IA teaching yourself. Or if you just plain want a sense of what's going on in your peers' heads. Perhaps these lists will be a useful artifact for some future historian of IA.

Anyway, here you go; enjoy:

  • The relationship/conflict between technology and IA—for example: technology driving the side structure and how to avoid that; having a complex architecture that has in fact outrun the available technology and how to deal with that; limited IT resources to support IA and how to compromise.
  • Are there any rules/theories for when usability, findability and showability conflict?
  • How can we best influence the consistent application of IA in a decentralized site management model?
  • How to do IA for a very large site with different audiences and goals, and a wide range of services?
  • What is the best way to capture/measure ROI for IA work? I am receiving a lot of push-back on the value of my role as an IA and success is often attributed to design and development.
  • Do you agree that user testing is the true test for good IA?
  • Can you speak to the Portal Concept being perverted and no longer standing up?
  • Why do you hate the terms “Taxonomies” and “Hierarchies”?
  • How do you deal with the challenge of creating navigation that is both organizational and task-based?
  • Should Word documents, Excel files, PDFs, and so forth be stored on a separate server from HTML files?
  • Can you explain the difference between how information appears to be structured based on UI navigation, and how it is really structured on the server?
  • What techniques can you describe to help business users and designers understand that your deliverables (site maps especially) are conceptual and not how the site will ultimately look?
  • I’m developing and intranet for a small, but complicated, bio-tech company. My difficulty is related to organizing disparate content, some of which is so classified I can’t even view it to get and idea of how to organize it. Help!
  • What are your thoughts on balancing traditional explicit ontological navigation with (or against?) newer knowledge-based engines that essentially mask or hide the underlying content structures? Is one or both innately better? Better only for some user types or info-seeking behaviors? Can you have both and not have a mess?
  • How does one break into the field or tailor a resume to become an information architect?
  • Is there only one site map format? Or a best format? I find that I can come up with many different representations, but my boss wants one.
  • How do you balance the flexibility needed for an evolving website with the consistency demanded by a cohesive architecture?
  • Can you speak to Auto-Categorization (specifically: Quiver—a Pure Play Produce, Verity—A Search Engine Approach, MS Share Point—An Enterprise Architecture)?
  • In your consulting experience, at what point do companies decide/know they need an IA professional? When they call, what are they asking for?
  • Our applications have to support many languages (7 to be exact)—what are your IA process recommendations for designing internationalized sites with one UI/IA team supporting the different languages?
  • What is the status of an IA professional certification or accreditation program?
  • How about those distracting animated GIFs on front/home pages? On a home page, is less content better? What is the general rule of thumb?
  • Is less really more? Should I expand the number of navigation categories or limit the categories to broad topics (the latter will require users to click down to specific information)?
  • I’m the content manager, housed in the marketing department, for a large insurance company. IT, however, still thinks it owns IA. I’m going to have to use some kind of data modeling tool that satisfies the IT area’s need for specs and documentation in order to drive through a business need to reorganize our site. Any suggestions?
  • Topical vs. Functional: I tend to see the “support” section as a part of the “product” that is being supported and so a functional support view is an overlay on top of the “standard” product view. This leads to difficulty in navigation when you suddenly flip from the overlay into the primary organization and navigation. Thoughts? Solutions?
  • Write a job description for an IA that reflects an ideal balance of qualifications and organizational support for that position that would enable the IA to be both practical and valuable.
  • What is the difference between IA and Info Design, if any?
  • How do you approach “fixing” a web application that is “broken” (bad usability, structure, etc.) especially with a limited budget?
  • How do you communicate value of IA to technical managers?
  • We are redesigning a website of more than 2000 pages. What are some common mistakes companies make when assuming a redesign project?
  • How can content management solutions (Interwoven, Stellent, Documentum, etc.) be used to improve and help solve IA issues as opposed to escalating the anarchy?
  • What are the most compelling IA deliverables (compared with tangible GUI design)?
  • Give examples of business/financial analysis.
  • How could IA accommodate personalization (collaborative information aggregation)?
  • Content partners’ presentation: how does it affect IA?
  • How do you look at an existing site and analyze content gaps and redundancies before re-architecting the site? Are there specific techniques for this?
  • Everyone in my company treats meta-tagging as an onerous job. However, a good tag is too essential for our customers to search. What approach will help to solve the meta-tagging problem? Each design team (engineers of different product) has their own interpretation of terms. How do we present terms consistently to customers? Customers understand terms differently too, how can we get terms communicated properly?
  • After a site redesign, with architecture that one is happy with and that works, what do you see as the ongoing challenges (besides keeping content current)?
  • How often should a complete redesign be considered?
  • If IA is comprised of three things, should IA be done by one person who makes sure they cover all three areas? Or do three people do the IA with their strengths/perspectives?
  • Biggest challenge is to improve the information architecture of a site where the structure and design are mostly out of my control. Not always easy when there is a disconnect between the two. You have to make due with what you are given, and be creative within the limits.
  • Could you comment on web site brandings:
    • How far down do you brand?
    • How similar toes your branding need to be on lower levels?
    • When do you let people “do what they’re going to do?”
  • If you have to do damage control, what would you consider to be the low hanging fruit?
  • How can you properly architect an application when your company has gone to iterative development? Meaning they want to develop a business activity or process down to the prototype level, out of context of the whole application. You won’t know what your navigation should be as the requirements for the entire application have not yet been determined.
  • Two types of people visit your site: people that know your products or services, and those that do not. Can you build a home page that addresses both types of customers and how would you go about doing it? And can content structure address both?
  • Regarding corporate structure and large corporate web sites with both static content and ecommerce applications: what’s the best argument for why corporate brand managers are relevant to web design, IA, the development process later rather than earlier, and that they shouldn’t be able to impose colors, fonts, and even templates/navigation without first determining how it will impact the IA? This goes back to visual presentation versus everything that has to happen before you get to that layer.
  • Please give examples, stories, or anything regarding helping sell the value of the time IA takes (valuing the complexity and subtlety of thinking involved).
  • There are sometimes political power issues that develop from IA’s interdisciplinary and integral role in the product development process. “Do you think you own this product?” Discuss.
  • How to build/design a centralized web site/IA for a highly decentralized organization?
  • Measuring the success of IA. What are the criteria?
  • ROI for IA development? What are the most common techniques?
  • Can you speak to overlaying multiple taxonomies or labeling systems over a single repository?
  • How do you architect an infinitely deep contact list, maintaining distinction between employees and clients?

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Comment: PeterV (Sep 30, 2002)

Come to think of it, this is a good list of interview questions when hiring IA's :)

Comment: Paul Nattress (Sep 30, 2002)

Great questions - looking forward to hearing your answers Lou!


Seriously though, to try an answer some of the ROI/justification of IA questions, I'd like to say that IA is an integral part of the design process and therefore the ROI that is attributed to the successful design/redesign of a site will apply to all of the elements that make up the design team.

Comment: PeterV (Sep 30, 2002)

I always say: "IA processes make design accountable.", and then explain it a bit. The business people seem to get that. I rarely refer to the "IA is really good at organising information, which is exactly your problem" argument.

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