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Information Architecture Section: Strategies

Once you've done some research, you're ready to begin planning your website. However before jumping into the technical aspects and web design, you need to develop a strategy. How will you approach the planning process? Who will be involved?

What's the "big picture" in terms of the information architecture? For example, top-down and bottom-up are the two main approaches to building information architectures. In many cases these two approaches are interwoven and occur simultaneously.

This page contains four elements: top-down, bottom-up, management, and project plan.

Optional Reading - Read Chapter 11: Strategy in Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, 3rd edition by Peter Morville & Louis Rosenfeld.

Top-Down

The top-down approach focuses on the context of the content and the user needs. It involves looking at the "big picture" of the site such as the breadth and depth of the site. It asks the question: knowing the needs and interests of the audience, how should information be organized, grouped, and presented?

When designing a hierarchy, you need to be certain that your categories are mutually exclusive. In some cases, you can use cross-listing but this requires lots of extra work and can be confusing. Also, consider the balance between breadth (the number of options at each level of the hierarchy) and depth (the number of levels in the hierarchy). It's important to recognize the danger in overloading the user with too many options. Group and structure information at the page level. In addition, be sure to subject your design to strenuous user testing.

The Blueprint

A blueprint for the site is developed that visualizes that scope of the website. Many developers use software such as Inspiration to create a visual diagram that represents the location of content objects. You can download a trial version of this software to use in planning.

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Go to Inspiration. Download the trial version. Use it to design the structure of your website.

Another option is to try one of the online tools such as Bubbl

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Download the TLTC Planning Map (in PDF format). This document was used for planning a website. Notice the notes, possible filenames, and other planning information.

 

Bottom-Up

The bottom-up approach focuses on creating building blocks that are the components of the web page, web project, or web site. The developer creates content objects that are organized for easy storage and access. In basic web projects, this may be a series of web pages organized with an index page.

For example, a school library media center might develop a book review project that contains a separate page for each book review. Each page might contain the name of the book, author, genre, cover art, book review, reading level, and reviewer. In high-end websites, it may be a complex database that can access information many different ways. For example, online catalogs can be very sophisticated.

Database Approach

Many websites are set up using this type of organization with individual pages that are all connected through a "home page", index, or search tool. Most beginning web developers simply use their "first page" as the "front-end" for their pages rather than using a formal search tool. However, you should still keep the database idea in mind. In other words, if you develop a consistent format for each of your pages, it will be much easier for people to find their way around. This consistency may simply be a consistent "area" of the page for navigation, titles, paragraphs, headings, and review. Another way to establish this consistency is to use CSS (Cascading Style Sheet) to promote a consistent use of fonts, sizes, styles, colors, etc.

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Go to Butterflies and Moths of North America. Examine the way that the information is organized and accessed.

The easiest way to develop a bottom up site is focusing on creating individual web pages and connecting them with links. However, there are other ways to generate web pages. For example, dynamic web pages can be generated by using traditional database software such as FileMaker or Microsoft Access. Data is automatically inserted into a web page template based on a search. It's much like using the "mail merge" to create a personalized letter using Microsoft Word and Access. Websites such as Amazon, e-bay, recipes website, etc. use this type of system. Most beginners create individual web pages with links, rather than developing a formal database.

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Go to the Visual Elements Periodic Table example. This project contains content objects for each element. It includes information such as name, symbol, number, the origin of the word, a description, image and who, where, and when it was discovered. The information is accessed through a visual map index.

In many bottom-up projects, the information is organized in a database format.

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Go to the USDA Plants Database. It contains information about a wide range of plants including the technical name, common name, symbol, group, family, growth habit, duration, image, and US nativity. A word search is used to find the desired information by common name, scientific name, and symbol. For example, you can search for poison ivy.

Content objects are discrete pieces of information.

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Go to the Collection Finder section of the Library of Congress: American Memory exhibit. Explore a collection using the keyword search or browse by subject, author, or title. Also, read about how the collection was built and cataloged. These collections were organized using the bottom-up approach. Like a catalog record, each content object contains atttributes such as a call number, creator, data, digital ID, format, notes, subjects, title, and statement of responsibility. In addition, each object contains attribute values. For example, in the Presidential Inaugurations collection you can view a photograph of the Lincoln's second inaugural. The creation date is an attribute and the attribute value is 1865.

Granularity

Granularity involves the level of complexity of a content object. The levels are from coarsely grained to finely grained content objects. Coarsely grained content objects are bigger chunks that many have many small parts such as websites, collections of things, and database. Finely grained content objects are smaller pieces such as graphics, documents, web links, video clips, or audio clips.

Library catalogs and links pages are common examples of bottom-up approaches.

Benefits of Bottom-Up

Why spend the time to think in terms of the bottom-up approach? If you start out with identifying a standard set of attributes for content objects, your website will be much easier to access. In addition, the consistency will help users find the information they need. You don't need to develop a complex database structure, it may simply be a standard layout for similar pages with an easy-to-use index.

try itTry It!
Go to the 42explore project. The website is made of hundreds of individual pages that include the topic, graphic, definitions, top annotated links, activity ideas, websites by children, additional websites, teacher websites, and vocabulary.

Three types of indexes are provided including a date index that lists topics in chronological order by the day they were posted, a topic index that lists all topics alphabetically, and a subject index that lists topics alphabetically within school subject areas. Additional indexes could be added such as a listing by Dewey number.

Examples

Let's explore some simple, bottom-up examples from schools and libraries:

Book Reviews - This page contains an alphabetical list of book reviews including the title, author, book review, and reviewer. There's also a place where students can submit their own reviews.

Guardians of Freedom - This page contains the 5th and 6th grade student projects from the World War II Oral Histories Project. The oral histories can be accessed by location served and alphabetical order.

Skokie Public Library Program Information - This page provides library program information in the categories of computer classes, exhibits, films, lectures, literary events, and performances & cultural events. Within each page it contains the resources and a description.

Teachers Share Their Favorite Books - This page provides an alphabetical list of teachers at the top of the page. Each teacher section contains the name of the teacher, a list of book titles and authors, and a photograph of the teacher.

Worthington Memory - This online scrapbook of Worthington History contains 372 items dating from 1803 to the present. It can be searched or browsed.

try itTry It!
Choose one of the following topics: oral history projects, standards-based lesson plans, special events (i.e., banned book week, reading month, Women's history month), student poetry archive, subject area links, teacher favorite books, or come up with your own. Brainstorm the attributes of the content objects in a web project on this topic.Brainstorm other types of content-rich projects that could be organized using the bottom-up approach.

 

Management

As you plan your strategy, it's important to create a management structure for your content. These are the guidelines you'll follow in authoring, evaluating, organizing, publishing, maintaining, storing, and accessing your content objects. In some cases your guidelines will be well documented including policies, procedures, standards, and style sheets. In other cases, you'll create a template or model that you'll refer to as you develop materials. The level of management really depends on the complexity of the project. If many people will be designing materials for the website, you may want standard procedure so that everyone organizes content in the same way. If you're the only one who will be working with the site, the content management tools will be personal reminders.

Although the content management guidelines may seem silly, they are essential for consistency. For example, will you capitalize the first letter in a bullet list? What size will you make your photographs?

style sheet is one of the most important content management tools. You'll have the Cascading Styles Sheets (CSS) that are part of your HTML coding, but you may also want a document that contains general formatting and style guidelines.

site map is a text and/or graphical representation of the website hierarchy. People often maintain two site maps: outline and diagram. Keep an outline containing the files and links that have been created. Many people design this as a web page and use it for quick access to pages as they are being built. This may become part of the table of contents, home page, or index page for the site. Also, maintain a visual diagram that contains proposed file names, notes, and other planning materials. This will also help you visualize the relationship among documents.

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Create a map for one of the following libraries:

Las Vegas/Clark County Library District
Multnomah County Library

 

Project Plan

Whether you're designing a website on your own or as part of a team, it's essential to have a formal project plan.

Written Plan

Below are some of the elements often found in a project plan:

Visual Plan

Start with a simple, doable plan. Go through the information architecture section of the the website and make a list of the information approaches to include on the site. Then, make an outline of the elements based on the list. Each main item on your outline will be a different page or section in your web site. Sketch a rough diagram of the site to help you visualize the "big picture:. Use sticky notes to allow you to change things around. Or try some concept map software.

Flowcharts and storyboards can also be used to describe how web pages relate to one another. Each box of a flowchart represents a separate page and the lines between show which pages logically relate to one another. A storyboard in an ordered series of sketches that show what each page in a web presentation should look like. It also shows hyperlinks on each page



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


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