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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Information Architecture: How To Improve Content Findability On Your Web Site - Part 1

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How can you leverage information architecture to improve content findability and facilitate online content exploration on your web site? Making all the bits of your content you have published easily findable to your readers is not an easy task, especially when you have a large amount of content items that needs to be indexed and made searchable.

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Photo credit: Ndul

A team of Italian information architects tried to address this exact problem as it tried to define and plan the content structure and information-finding solutions needed to empower the new web portal from the Directorate General of Antiquity of the Italian Ministry for Culture Heritage, which is planned to go public in Autumn of 2010.

The challenge for Stefano De Caro, Nicoletta Di Blas and Luigi Spagnolo was to cope with the huge amount of data that belongs to the Italian cultural heritage and to present this data in the clearest, most immediate and visually-compelling way possible, while meeting simultaneously the diverse needs of normal website visitors, the Italian Ministry and stakeholders.

After a thorough research, their research analysis made it clear that a standard web search functionality would be unsatisfactory when a very large amount of data content to be indexed and made searchable, because the search function requires that users' requests (carried out using keywords) match precisely the keywords that the website originally utilized to define its content articles. If no such match is established, information tends obviously to remain unfound.

What is needed instead, is a way to aggregate similar and contextually-relevant results that users could be interested in. By looking at things from this perspective it appeared that the best way to achieve this goal was to seriously consider the adoption of some so-called Rich Internet Applications (RIAs), which are web applications that adapt in real-time to users' inputs, choices or past preferences.

The implementation of RIAs was employed also to leverage "serendipitous discovery", the act of stumbling upon unforeseen interesting pieces of content, and "faceted search", the ability to search for a customized group of relevant topics that is spontaneously generated upon user input.

As information overload remains a major concern for website owners and publishers, websites need to be organized in a way that leverages information architecture principles so that they help you, the website owner, make them become more accessible for your readers while providing information within a richer, more engaging experience.

This in-depth report, republished here on MasterNewMedia in two parts with permission from the authors, may serve as a good source of inspiration to develop an effective strategy to deal with large amounts of content needing to be made easily findable in an easy, intuitive and visually-engaging experience for the final user.

Here is Part 1 of this in-depth report: (Part 2 here)

 

In Search of Novel Ways To Design Large Cultural Web Sites

by Stefano De Caro, Nicoletta Di Blas and Luigi Spagnolo



Introduction

A web site, in all domains and in cultural heritage in particular, is meant to support a variety of communication goals, like:

  • Providing practical information,
  • offering an "at a glance" understanding of what the permanent collections are about,
  • supporting a pleasant and enticing exploration,
  • allowing the user to locate a specific piece of content, as well as
  • promoting the institution's brand, some selected pieces of content (shop-window effect), etc.

As long as the site is small, "traditional" information architecture can cope with these needs.

But when the site gets large and information-intensive, the traditional structure starts "cracking" as layers upon layers of navigation are added, and disappointment becomes a common user experience.

Straight search engines have provided a reasonable solution to support just one of the above goals: Allowing the user to locate a specific piece of content.

In this paper we illustrate how Rich Internet Applications (RIAs), combining lightweight information architecture with advanced search paradigms (like faceted search) and interactive visualization strategies, can be used to better support a number of communication goals.

The examples are taken from the new web site for the Directorate General of Antiquity of the Italian Ministry for Culture Heritage (to become public in Autumn 2010), where both a huge amount of content (the Italian archeological heritage) and a variety of users' profiles (from scholars to amateurs and tourists) are managed.

 





Why Search Is Unsatisfactory For Content Findability

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A cultural heritage web site is meant to fulfill a number of sophisticated communication goals. Some of them are quite obvious; for example:

  • Offering an effective overview of the content (What is the permanent collection about?),
  • supporting a pleasant and enticing exploration (Show me something interesting!),
  • allowing the user to locate some specific pieces of information (Who painted Monna Lisa? What are the opening hours?), etc.

There are other stakeholder goals which are less obvious but still very important, like promoting the institution's brand (e.g. "We are young and innovative") or putting forth, as in a shop-window, some selected pieces of content (e.g. the highlights section).

As long as the site is small, "traditional" information architecture can cope with these needs, but when the site gets large and information-intensive, the traditional structure starts "cracking" as layers upon layers of navigation and transversal paths among them are added.

Disappointment becomes a common experience for the users, who feel lost, like the visitors to the "Library of Babel":

"When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness.

All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure. (...) As was natural, this inordinate hope was followed by an excessive depression.

The certitude that some shelf in some hexagon held precious books and that these precious books were inaccessible, seemed almost intolerable." (J. L. Borges (1941)

The search function has proven an unsatisfactory solution, as it is only capable of locating some specific piece of information, providing that the user can precisely identify it (i.e. use the same keyword the site uses), while all the other communication goals are hampered by an overloaded and strained information architecture or some extravagant communication strategies.

Let us see two examples.

 



1. The Louvre Museum Database

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The Louvre web site offers access to its database of works on display: The Atlas.

Let us imagine searching the Atlas for "women portrayed by women".

  • The combination "women painter / s", gives no result.
  • With "women paintings," three results are there:

    • "The Death of Sardanapalu" by Eugen Delacroix;
    • "A Singer and a Theorbo Player Performing a Duet", formerly known as "The Singing Lesson by Caspar Netscher"; and
    • "Betchu and his family" (image missing), a painted limestone from ancient Egypt.

    Strangely enough, are there only three paintings in the Louvre somehow related to women? Should not Mona Lisa at least be there?

  • A new combination, "woman portrait" gives 25 results. None of the artists is female (and by the way: Mona Lisa is still not there!).

The advanced search is of no help.

We can select the "category of work" (painting), but the other fields (like "artist") do not fit our purpose.

But we know that the Louvre does display "women portrayed by women", like for example the portrait of Catherine, Countess Skavronsky, by Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun.

 



2. The Metropolitan Museum of New York

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The Metropolitan Museum of New York's web site puts on evidence, in the home page, a new work of art every day.

An interested user is given the possibility of browsing the guided tour (next-previous) of all the featured works of art.

The point is that... There are 28,196 works (information retrieved on January 25, 2010). What kind of communication goal are they fulfilling? How can the user effectively explore this huge set (let alone find something specific)?

 





Rich Internet Applications Vs. Search

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It is clear that, in order to effectively cope with a huge amount of content on one side and the need to support a number of communication goals on the other, a new approach is required.

In this paper we illustrate how Rich Internet Applications (RIAs), combining lightweight information architecture with advanced search paradigms (like faceted search) and interactive visualization strategies, can be used to better support a number of communication goals in the case of large, information intensive web sites.

None of these elements is new on its own, but the way they are designed (in view of a varied set of communication goals) and combined provides a highly effective solution.

The examples are taken from the new web site for the Directorate General of Antiquity of the Italian Ministry for Culture Heritage (to become public in autumn 2010), where both a huge amount of content (the Italian archeological heritage) and a variety of users' profiles (from scholars and professionals in the field to amateurs and "ordinary" tourists) are managed.

 





An Historic Overview of Information Architecture



Standard Web Sites Have a Hierarchical Structure

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According to traditional information architecture (Rosenfield and Morville, 2006), the part of a web site that allows access to information is usually hierarchical, i. e. structured as a tree, where the root is the home page.

The web site core contents - also defined by Paolini and Bolchini (2006) as topics - (e.g. detailed information on artworks and exhibitions in a museum web site) represent the leaves of such tree and can be "appended" to more than one "branch" (Weinberger, 2007).

The topics can be in fact grouped homogeneously according to several criteria (e.g. for artworks, "all the masterpieces", "by subject", "by artist", etc.), with the aim of providing several ways for gaining access to the same pieces of content.

Such "groups of topics" (Paolini and Bolchini, 2006), together with an introductive content (e.g. for "Leonardo's Masterpieces", a brief introduction to Leonardo Da Vinci's contribution to painting), constitute the access structures (the branches of the tree) to core information, and therefore are used to build up the overall navigation of the site.

If the access structures are many, to reduce information overload they are grouped into one or more levels of hierarchy (this means that the outer, thinner branches are joined to thicker branches of the tree), ending up with a single taxonomical "sitemap" that encompasses the whole information architecture of the web site.

For large web sites, however, the overall hierarchy resulting from the design process is not completely satisfactory (Crystal, 2007): Users cannot easily locate what they are looking for, and interesting pieces of information are buried under levels and levels of navigation (Weinberger, 2007; Morville and Callender, 2010).

 



The Limitations of Search In Organizing Rich Information

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Search engines - both external or within the web site - are often the only way for users to find what they are looking for.

Continuing the tree metaphor, search can be considered as an automatic mechanism that "generates" the branches from a heap of leaves (Weinberger, 2007): Search builds dynamic access structures (Sacco, 2006) to contents that are not pre-planned by designers and are (or should be) tailored to the specific needs of the user.

Mackinlay & Zellweger (1995) show how, already in the earlier years of the web era, search and browsing were considered as the two faces of the same medal: Navigation was in fact seen as a way for dynamically building queries on the database and exploring the results.

As web engineering and web information retrieval developed and, in a certain sense, "diverged", such an assumption was put under discussion.

Ojakaar and Spool (2001) and Spool et al. (2004) claimed that keeping users from using search was a best practice for usability and findability, as if search was a dangerous shortcut for designers, a sort of "diabolic temptation" they had to resist!

Indeed, a total reliance on traditional textual search (in Google's style) is far from being an optimal solution (Yee et al., 2003; Spool, 2004) for a number of reasons:

  • The user may have a generic need,
  • difficult to translate into a specific search query (and does not receive any good hint from the search engine); moreover,
  • the overall communicative "message" promoted by the web site may not be conveyed.

In other words, the balance between push (contents that are offered by the web site without explicit demand) and pull (contents accessible on demand only) would be too much moved towards pull (Morville, 2007).

However, in those years search was changing.

 



The New Approach To Content Findability: Faceted Search

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New "exploratory search" (Marchionini, 2006) approaches emerged, also supported by rich interfaces (see next paragraph), transforming the search experience into a richer dialogue between the application and the user, and characterized by iterative refinements, as in the original "berry-picking model" by Bates (1989).

In particular, a better balance between push and pull can be reached with faceted search (Sacco, 2006; Tunkelang, 2009), also frequently known as faceted navigation (Yee et al., 2003; Hearst, 2009; Morville and Callender, 2010), a pattern increasingly employed for exploring collections of multimedia contents, and based on the progressive application of filters that the system combines together.

By clicking on links (as in normal navigation), the user selects a combination of metadata values belonging to several classifications called facets. Each facet corresponds to a particular orthogonal dimension.

E.g., for an artwork, there may be the following facets:

  • Medium: Painting, sculpture...
  • Subject: People, landscape...
  • Technique: Oil, watercolors...
  • Style: Impressionism, pop-art...

Traditional web architecture also includes multiple classifications (the "groups of topics").

The difference is that in faceted search the user is allowed to freely combine dimensions coming from different facets, thus creating personalized groups of topics (e.g., expressionist paintings illustrating landscapes).

 



How To Implement Faceted Search: Rich Internet Applications

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"Rich Internet Applications" (RIAs) are web applications with interfaces that are comparable to desktop applications, in terms of responsiveness and complexity, while in fact they are not.

Different from plain XHTML pages, single elements of RIA pages may change interactively, according to users' inputs or other events, and with animation effects, without the need of (re)loading the whole page from the server.

Technologies for implementing RIAs include:

RIA-based tools like Simile Exhibit (Huynh, Karger and Miller, 2007) can be used to implement faceted search and advanced visualization of results, even though they are currently suitable for collection of some hundreds of items only.

 





Why Going Beyond Web Search Is Important

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A web site is typically aimed at supporting a number of communication goals.

A user may want to:

  • Make sense of something "at a glance",
  • search for a specific piece of information,
  • put in relation pieces of information (painter - work of art - artistic movement - similar works of art etc.)

Moreover, a user would gladly welcome the chance to:

  • Stumble into unlooked-for pieces of content ("serendipitous discovery")
  • create customized "groups of topics".

"Serendipitous discovery" is partially supported by the strategies like the "highlights" section (also called "director's choice") or the guided tours section. The second is not supported at all (being the "my museum" section a totally different - and definitely more cumbersome - way of gathering the user's favorite items).

Eventually, there are the stakeholder's needs.

An institution, when communicating to its audience via a web site, may want to:

  • Create what we may call a "shop-window" effect about its content;
  • entice users to "stay and play" with the content (playful exploration);

  • convey the institution's overall brand (e.g. "we are young and innovative") and some intended messages (e.g. "richness of content").




End of Part 1 -- Part 2 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

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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

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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

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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.




Photo credits:
Why Search Is Unsatisfactory For Content Findability - madmaxer
The Louvre Museum Database - VisitingDC
The Metropolitan Museum of New York - VisitingNewYorkStateSearch
Standard web Sites Have a Hierarchical Structure - Boobie
The Limitations of Search In Organizing Rich Information - pmtavares

Stefano De Caro, Nicoletta Di Blas and Luigi Spagnolo -
Reference: Archives & Museum Informatics [ Read more ]
 
 
 
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posted by on Tuesday, August 24 2010, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015


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