Expert Voices: Peter Morville on Why Information Architecture Matters

By CIOinsight

Expert Voices: Peter Morville on Why Information Architecture Matters

The internet is well into its second wave of growth, powered by the popularity and effectiveness of search engines, the widespread adoption of broadband, burgeoning e-commerce, social networks and the like. But no Web site can succeed on the strength of Google searches alone. To keep viewers coming back, Web sites still need well-organized information and superior visual design. But how best to achieve these elusive goals?

Answering that question is the purview of information architecture: the art and science of designing Web sites to make them as usable as possible. Among the pioneers in the field is Peter Morville, president and founder of Semantic Studios, an Ann Arbor, Mich., consultancy, and author of Ambient Findability and (with Louis Rosenfeld) Information Architecture for the World Wide Web. Morville received an M.S. from the University of Michigan's School of Information, in 1993, just as the World Wide Web was getting on its feet. That led him into site design—he helped create Borders Group Inc.'s first corporate Web site—and then into his primary interest: the design of information systems.

Morville, who now serves on the faculty of Michigan's School of Information, spends much of his time consulting and writing about the experience of Internet users. He recently spoke with Editor Edward Baker about how such Web-focused concepts as findability, credibility and authority can improve that experience. An edited version of their conversation follows:

Next page: The Meaning of Information

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The Meaning of Information
CIO Insight: How do you define information architecture?

Morville: Information architecture deals with the structure and organization of a Web site. It's about the design of the navigation and searching systems, the design of taxonomies, and making sure that they work both for browsing and searching, with an emphasis on making sure people can find what they're looking for. And it isn't necessarily limited to the Web. You can think about these organizational issues across any kind of media or channel, though the Web is where these issues are most concentrated.

How has information architecture changed as the Web has grown and Web-site visitors have become more sophisticated?

It's funny. Early on, "IA" was a new term—nobody actually had the job of information architect. Now there are a lot of people who have "Information Architect" on their business cards. And within the community, we've advanced quite a bit in our knowledge of how to do this work well, and how to integrate things like usability testing into the process so that we're not relying solely on our expertise and experience.

At the same time, there's a huge separation between companies that have embraced information architecture and are doing a good job on their Web sites, and those that are still back in the mid-1990s, building terribly organized sites that are tremendously frustrating to use.

A company's Web site is now very often the most visible expression of its identity. It's the channel through which most user interactions happen. So the trick is to align the information architecture for the Web site with that company's brand and identity, in recognition that the Web site is a very important instantiation of the brand.

Do you think that, as a rule, people have gotten better at Web-site design?

If you look at the Web today versus the Web in 1995, the improvements in information architecture have kept pace with the improvements in visual design. We all remember some of the horrors of the mid-1990s: all those image-intensive sites that took forever to load.

At the same time, it's easy to assume there's been more progress than there really has been. The technology keeps changing and improving very rapidly, but information architecture is more about words and language and organization, and to some degree psychology. Since we as humans aren't getting a lot smarter, the field doesn't advance as quickly as the technology does.

What gets in the way of good Web-site design?

Sometimes bad Web sites are bad because there's a lack of understanding about usability, findability, and the user in general.

Other times you have really smart, knowledgeable people, but politics prevent a good solution. I've seen lots of cases where if you gave any single person in a corporate Web-design group the ability to design the site, they would do a great job, but working all together they end up doing a terrible job.

Another typical problem: I had a client who had recognized they had a terrible Web site and wanted to make improvements. So they decided that developing some portal software in a content-management solution would help. But they actually made things worse: By putting all their content into a dynamic database system, they ended up focusing more on the technology at the back end than on the user experience at the front end. The result was a horribly slow site where pages, even on a high-speed connection, were taking up to a minute to load. It was a case where they had good intentions, but they actually managed to go backwards.

Next page: Beyond Usability

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Beyond Usability
You've always concerned yourself with the notion of usability.

Right. But, you know, a few years ago, I began to get a bit tired of the word usability. When I consult with companies, I ask executives what they're looking for in the redesign of their Web site, and without fail they'll say, "Well, we want it to be more usable." And I'll say, "Great, what does that mean?" The word "usability" has grown to be almost the equivalent of "quality."

So for the past few years I've been talking about what I think are some of the other qualities of the user experience. I came up with a user-experience honeycomb that includes other terms as well, such as "useful," "desirable," "findable," "accessible" and "credible" (see "Value on the Web," this page). There are a lot of things beyond usability that we're striving for in designing the user experience.

Your most recent book is called Ambient Findability. Why has findability become so important?

A few years ago, I realized that I felt a little bit trapped inside a box of my own creation: Information architecture can add a lot of value, but findability really cuts across every discipline. People who are designers and developers and engineers and people in marketing all contribute to whether or not a Web site supports findability—that is, enabling people to find what they're looking for easily and quickly.

So findability isn't limited to information architecture. It's not even limited to the Web. And in a world where we have exponential increases in the amount of information that's available, and so much competition in the realm of advertising pushing to get people's attention, I think findability becomes even more important. What we need to do is make sure that when a customer, or a prospective customer, wants to find information about a product, we really enable them to find what they need when they need it. And that's really what findability is all about: looking at all the different ways to make that possible.

Over the past several years, the biggest area of opportunity in improving findability has been in the area of search—whether that's doing search-engine optimization to make sure your site is coming high in the organic, or natural, results of a Google search, or just getting into the click-advertising business. But again, this blends into such areas as marketing and even into the way the products are designed.

There's also a psychological side of information architecture that involves such issues as credibility and authority. How does that affect site design?

Many of us in the information architecture world, myself included, are guilty of talking too much about findability, but, in fact, information architecture is also a very important element in establishing credibility and communicating authority on the Web.

In my presentations, I'll often use Forrester Research as an example, because they have a really interesting taxonomy for their products, which are technology research reports. That taxonomy—the way they organize and structure what they think of as the set of industries and technologies they follow—communicates a lot about Forrester's vision, and it really helps to establish their authority in these areas. It's not just about helping people find the report they're looking for.

Taxonomy, and especially the way information is structured on the home page, has a really big impact on how people perceive your company, your vision and mission. Even the words you use—whether you decide to use a warm, friendly, kind of down-to-earth language, or focus more on expert vocabulary—affect how people perceive your authority and whether they trust you and feel comfortable with you.

B.J. Fogg's Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University has led what I consider to be some of the most interesting research into Web design in the past five or six years. They look at which elements of Web design influence people to believe in, and trust, what they're seeing on the Web. In one of their early studies, they learned that users were placing look and feel—visual design—and information architecture very high among the factors that influenced whether they trusted a particular Web site.

Next page: Making Web sites Count

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Making Web sites Count
Are methods emerging for tracking the value of improvements to the information on a Web site thanks to intelligent architecture?

There are a lot of different ways to try to track value. None of them are perfect, and attempting to apply quantitative measures to information architecture improvements is really difficult.

I'll tell you a positive story, and then I'll talk about all the difficulties. I recently worked with the National Cancer Institute on a redesign of their cancer.gov Web site. We were doing a fairly shallow redesign, not changing any of the content. We weren't even changing the deep structure for the document level. We really did a visual redesign and a restructuring of the first few levels of the site. We were able to make some really dramatic improvements in the ability of visitors to the site to find what they were looking for, and that resulted in the National Cancer Institute winning quite a number of awards for the site. More important, it moved right up to the top of the American Customer Satisfaction Index for e-government. So we were able to really get some positive improvement in the site and some metrics from a third party to show that.

The problem is that most of my clients focus on that customer satisfaction index as an important metric, when, in fact, it's a holistic measurement. It can't tell you whether it was the visual design that made the difference, or whether it was the content. The metric tracks what's important: the overall user experience. So it's very difficult to isolate the information architecture from the other elements of the user experience. You could certainly do that in a research lab, but in the real world all of these factors work together. It's quite possible to do a beautiful information architecture redesign but completely destroy the experience by messing up the graphic side of things.

Another thing that's interesting about metrics is how easy it is to oversimplify. Some of the metrics that a lot of analyst firms put out depend on managers thinking, "If we could just reduce the number of clicks—the amount of time it takes somebody searching to find what they're looking for—then in an intranet setting, for instance, we could save millions of dollars a year of lost employee time."

There's some truth to that. A poorly designed site that's wasting employees' time means you are losing money. But I would also argue that the searching and browsing experience is one of the most valuable ways knowledge workers learn, and it's not a straight line from point A to point B. It's an iterative and interactive process where we might enter a couple of keywords, do a search, find a few documents, and learn that we should actually be searching for something a little bit differently.

So we don't necessarily want to optimize for reduced numbers of clicks and speed if that means we're reducing our employees' learning opportunities.

Is there an overarching goal to information architecture?

That's one of those big-picture philosophical questions. I guess part of what excites me about the Web, and makes me feel good about doing information architecture, is that it helps people get better at sharing information. People have used the metaphor that in creating the Internet we're creating a central nervous system for the planet, wiring ourselves together and making the ways that we're able to communicate and share information much more fluid. Of course, in order to feel good about that, you have to have a certain amount of optimism that if we enable people to communicate and share information better, they'll ultimately make better decisions.

This article was originally published on 05-22-2006