Can information architecture principles be easily put to good use when trying to help your readers find relevant content on your site? When your web site is so full of content that a simple search box won't do the trick anymore, what can you do to structure and make all of your content more easily accessible?
Photo credit: Ndul
By employing sound information architecture principles you can develop a content organization and navigation strategy that allows your readers to easily locate what they are looking for while having a rich and enjoyable user-experience.
For example visual site maps and visually grouped search results are much better approaches to help a user find what he is looking for than traditional linear text-based search engine result pages.
The information provided is exactly the same, but it's the way the information itself is presented, organized and connected to your navigation system which provides two very different user experiences.
And these type of challenges were the ones encountered by Stefano De Caro, Nicoletta Di Blas and Luigi Spagnolo a team of content and information architects, when asked to design an interface and content navigation system capable of handling a huge amount of data belonging to the Italian cultural heritage archives.
Following their successful work, the team decided to prepare an in-depth report where they explain and illustrate their fascinating research and content design journey. Their goal is to help more people understand how information architecture principles can be effectively utilized to structure the content of a web site and how these same principles can help you repurpose information in ways that make it more easily discoverable and visually-intriguing for your readers.
While Part 1 of this report dealt more with the theory and the challenges behind the design of a large cultural web site, Part 2 explains what are the actual steps you need to take to organize and present information in simple and engaging ways without overwhelming your final readers.
Here is Part 2 - Information Architecture: How To Help Users Find Relevant Content (Part 1)
by Stefano De Caro, Nicoletta Di Blas and Luigi Spagnolo
Fig 1: SEE-IA design strategies satisfy fundamental requirements of the user experience.
Findability, serendipitous discovery, "at a glance" sense-making, playful exploration, branding and communication strength, as well as, of course, usability were considered critical requirements for the web site (Figure 1).
To tackle this challenge, we introduced SEE-IA (SEarch-Enhanced information architecture - pron. "see ya"), an integrated set of interactive and RIA-enabled design strategies that leverage existing search patterns, such as faceted search, and properly integrates them with engineered information architectures, to support important requirements for the user experience (see Figure 1) in large, content-intensive web applications.
The combination of search mechanisms and information architecture has already been exploited, but quite exclusively on digital libraries, archives and the like only, where information retrieval is the main user experience and therefore findability is the main requirement.
The novelty of SEE-IA lies in the fact that it blends faceted search (empowered by RIAs) with information architecture, supporting not only findability (see goals 2 and 3) but also serendipity (goal 4), "at a glance" sense making (goal 1), and playful exploration (goal 7).
Strategies for properly communicating introductory content over a collection of information are also proposed (goal 5) and for enhancing branding and communication (goal 8).
1. Simplify Content Hierarchy
The first steps of a SEE-IA design are the same as those of a "traditional" information architecture.
But instead of plunging into levels and levels of hierarchy, the designer stops almost at the surface, rather concentrating on:
- Communication issues (definition of the relevant facets, as well as of the collections of homogeneous or heterogeneous items to search into, e.g. "cultural venues", including "museums" and "archaeological sites"),
- visualization strategies for facets (e.g. tag clouds), and
- search results (interactive maps).
The idea is that the hierarchy of the web site can be simplified by designing in advance its first levels only (corresponding to the main sections) and delegating the creation and customization of the deeper levels (the group of topics) to search mechanisms.
As already mentioned in the background section of this paper, faceted search permits simulating dynamic access structures.
Does the user want to find museums in southern Italy related to Magna Graecia (Italian Greek colonies) civilization? No problem.
- Select "museums" from a "type of cultural venue" facet,
- "Southern Italy" from the geographical facet and
- "Magna Graecia" from a cultural facet (e.g. showing the main civilizations and periods of Italian history).
- If "soprintendenze" (local branches of the Ministry) are interesting too, add this value to the "cultural venue" facet, eventually getting a customized list (Figure 4).
The user can select the above facets in the any desired order, getting results after each selection in a quick, highly reactive way.
These results turn out to be navigation hints that steer the interaction, like… in a dialogue!
Thus playful exploration and serendipitous discovery are supported, as well as the search for something specific.
2. Visualize Search
An effective visualization of both facet values and results is crucial for allowing "at a glance" sense-making.
We propose to use tag clouds to visualize the facets’ values, and interactive maps and lists for the results.
2.1 Tag Clouds
Values belonging to particularly relevant facets can be displayed as tag clouds, where the font size of the term is proportional to its relevance.
Moreover, the size of the terms changes as interaction moves on and new selections are made (see figure 3).
2.2 Interactive Maps
Fig 2: The interactive map offers the user the possibility to select the type of cultural venue (museums, soprintendenze or archeological sites: B), the geographical area (C), and the cultural dimension (D). Results are shown in the map (A) by means of circles, the color and size of which tell "at a glance" the type of venue and its relevance to the user.
To enhance "at a glance" the understating and communication strength of a web site, one option is the use of maps where results are geographically displayed.
But, instead of coupling exact locations and items (that would result in a mess – were the items too many and too closely located), results are shown by means of markers, the size and colors of which are signs on their own.
For example, in our case studies, three kinds of venues can be explored (museums, "soprintendenze" and archeological sites). Each of them is visualized by a marker (a circle) of a different color.
Moreover, the circle’s size correspond to the number of results (which is also explicitly stated by a number in the middle of the circle itself – see figure 2).
For example, in our case study, zooming on the geographical area is possible (displaying results at region’s level, down to provinces and the exact location).
2.3 Interactive Lists
Fig 4: Museums and "soprintendenze", focusing on "Magna Graecia" in Southern Italy. An interactive list (A), with introductory information (B), an interactive tooltip (C), and search history (D), is provided.
Traditional lists with a sequence of items are another possibility (figure 4).
The user here is allowed to sort and group items according to the same criteria of the facets.
2.4 Groups of Items
Groups of items; for example, "museums and archeological sites of Magna Graeciain Southern Italy", are an important way to suggest to the user where relevant information is.
A mere list of items, however, is often not sufficient.
A "traditional" information architecture usually provides a meaningful introduction, by explaining; for example, what Magna Graecia was.
A "traditional" search engine would instead provide a mere list of items (hopefully suitably ranked), leaving to the user the task of making sense out of it: Dynamically created groups of items, such as a list of search results, may be relevant, but also "disconcerting" if not properly introduced.
Since it is obviously impossible to plan in advance an introduction specifically tailored for a group of topics that is dynamically created, we propose to associate a brief explanatory text (and image) to each facet’s value.
This text can be used as a tooltip before making a selection (see Figure 4-C) and as an introductory text after the selection is made (Figure 4-B); the combination of the single terms’ explanations can be used as a sort of introductory text, that although not specifically tailored could still greatly help users make sense of their browsing experience.
Eventually, some groups of topics could be pre-planned and therefore deserve ad hoc introductory texts if they emerged as relevant according to the web site’s usage statistics or if the curators deemed them interesting.
A combination of search mechanisms and (partly pre-planned) information architecture will emerge over time.
3. Focus On Context and Orientation
Once users locate a set of items, say for example, "museums and archeological sites, about Magna Graecia in Southern Italy", a number of typical actions may follow:
- Glancing through the index of items,
- selecting one item and looking at its details,
- navigating to the next item (guided tour),
- navigating from one item to a related one (hypertext navigation),
- navigating back to the index for selecting another item, etc.
To support these activities, "context" and "orientation" are critical.
If traditional, well engineered information architectures are very good at this, search engines, in general, are not.
In SEE-IA, dynamically generated groups of items are "first class citizens". They can be experienced with rich interface elements such as modal windows and consolidated navigation patterns (like indexed and guided navigation: See Bolchini and Paolini, 2006) so that:
- The passage between the two types of navigation is natural and
- the orientation, i.e. the user awareness of the current status of navigation, is still ensured.
A search history (like the one show in figure 4-D) can be introduced to let the user go back to the previous steps of exploration, listed as links in inverse chronological order.
Dynamically generated sets can become "temporary indexes", valid only within the current session, or can be saved, becoming a stable feature of a customized version of the web site (available to the users who generated them).
As far as links and hypertext navigation are concerned, there is no difference between the predefined set of items and the dynamically generated one.
Customized information architecture is what we are aiming at, and what is provided by this application.
Fig 3: Browsing Archeology (Museums and Soprintendenze) in Italy. Northern Italy (A), with Romans ("Romani") being the most important civilization, and Southern Italy (B), where Magna Graecia ("Magna Grecia") and Italics ("Italici") civilizations emerge as relevant too.
The benefits for the user are:
In addition, there is a remarkable educational effect: Users acquire knowledge not only from predefined contents but also from something that emerges dynamically from the interaction and visualization themselves.
For example, if they select the Northern area of Italy, "Romans" is the most important cultural dimension, while "Italics" is poorly represented (Figure 3-A).
Selecting the Southern area, "Magna Graecia" and "Italics" emerge as relevant too (Figure 3-B).
Or if they look at the cultural dimensions for Northern Italy, they may be surprised to discover that Celts are there. This is a piece of information they do not get by reading a text, but rather by playfully interacting with the application.
Serendipitous "learning by doing", which is so typical of games (Gee, 2005), is thus supported.
Of course, a fundamental pre-requisite for this playful exploration is a quick and reactive interface: That is why the use of RIAs is "mandatory".
After having illustrated the positive impact of SEE-IA methodology on user experience requirements, we focus here on the feasibility and reliability of implementing web applications based on our approach.
This new generation of web sites can be implemented using and extending reliable, existing tools, such as proprietary or open source content managements systems, as we did for our case study, where the EzPublish 4.0 open source CMS was employed, with the proper customizations.
AJAX frameworks and lightweight open source tools like Simile Exhibit can be employed as good starting points for implementing faceted search and rich interactive visualizations.
Search servers like Apache Solr can ensure high scalability, allowing multi-faceted searching on thousands of items contemporarily.
The high flexibility of SEE-IA makes it suitable not only for new web applications "designed from scratch", but also for existing web sites penalized by a too rigid and complex hierarchical organization.
It is possible to apply the SEE-IA design strategy to simplify the overall hierarchy by reducing the number of levels and by reusing the metadata coming from the existing classification criteria (and additional metadata, if required) for building dynamic, multi-faceted navigation structures.
RIA-based solutions on top of the redesigned information architecture will provide at-a-glance and deeper understanding, communicative impact and user engagement.
In this paper we discuss the creation of a new generation of (very) large content-intensive web sites, coupling "traditional" engineered information architectures (offering strong organization, powerful navigation, context orientation, etc.) with features provided by search patterns and advanced interfaces.
For the users, benefits are the possibility of easily locating what they are looking for, and most of all, the chance of engaging in a rich and educational experience where "learning" comes not only from texts, but also from the interaction itself.
For designers and developers, SEE-IA dramatically simplifies the problem of designing complex information architectures and allows them to concentrate on the communication/cultural issues directly.
Future research will consider the following aspects:
End of Part 2 -- Part 1 here
Originally written by Stefano De Caro, Nicoletta Di Blas and Luigi Spagnolo for Archives & Museum Informatics, and first published on April 21st, 2010 as In Search of Novel Ways To Design Large Cultural Web Sites.
About Stefano De Caro
Stefano De Caro is General Director for Antiquities within the Italian Ministry of Culture, as well as a University lecturer, archaeology researcher and editor of several scientific journals in the cultural field. De Caro has been awarded honorific distinctions from Italian and French state officials for his cultural merits.
About Nicoletta Di Blas
Nicoletta Di Blas is a researcher with the Department of Electronics and Information of Politecnico di Milano. She currently teaches Communication Theory for Politecnico di Milano (Como campus) and Communication for Cultural Heritage for the University of Lugano (Switzerland), at the TEC–CH (Technology-Enhanced Communication for Cultural Heritage) master course.
About Luigi Spagnolo
Luigi Spagnolo has taken his Master of Science in Computer Engineering for Communication from the Politecnico di Milano, graduating with honors in 2008. Since 2009 he is a doctoral student in computer science at the Politecnico di Milano. He works at the HOC-lab of the Department of Electronics and Information of the Politecnico di Milano, collaborating at design and development of the new website for the Directorate-General for Antiquities of the Italian Ministry of culture and at other web projects.Stefano De Caro, Nicoletta Di Blas and Luigi Spagnolo -