During my-now not so short-trajectory in the art of web development, I have worked with different planning and production models of websites, learning from the visions of different profiles involved: programmers, editors, brand managers, etc.
But, I have also come across very extreme cases of deficiency in planning: designers that, not only propose the navigation model, but also that define and write the content; wireframes and mockup designs based on trends, without considering the brand information and products; or projects that invest too much time on text and don’t leave enough hours to work on design.
The truth is that each agency and digital office establishes its process based on its specialty: the designers concentrate on offering the best visual proposal, the content strategists will always advocate writing and collecting material before designing, and the programmers will depart from the available platforms to define what can be done in the project.
This is how the question, “which came first, the egg or the hen?” came about. What step should we take first in the development of a website?
The answer lies in a discipline that is nothing new but revalued thanks to the digital boom: the information architecture. We are talking about the preliminary stage of drawing any scheme of the site and writing any page title.
According to The Information Architecture Institute, the IA is the science of organizing and labeling information environments (such as websites, mobile applications, videogames, etc.) to reinforce usability and localization of information. It is to say, a planning phase in which it defines what elements, with what hierarchy and in which order they should be incorporated into the site.
For Peter Morville, one of my favorite role models, the purpose of the information architecture is to “help the users understand where they are, what information they found, what to expect from this information and what else is around.”
It can be about a graphic designer or a communication scientist (because we study ‘communication sciences’ right?) who has this role; the important thing is that they have the criteria to discern which elements require integration to the project, beyond the appearance and functionality that it may take in the future.
For this, these are the stages and tasks that should be covered in their work:
- Data collection: on the part of the client, which messages they wish to communicate, what products to handle, all the characteristics of the business and, on the part of the users, which navigation habits they have, and what information they are most interested in, etc.
- Value analysis: define the importance of each piece of information according to the brand’s objectives and the needs of the users, in what order they should be shown, which sequence they should follow, and how they should be connected to each other.
- Development of the site map: this is the most popular step of the process, a scheme where information is grouped by categories (which can be transformed into sections of the site, galleries, etc.) and the flow of navigation defined in the previous stage is proposed.
- Definition of elements: in addition to categories, the IA must define which elements are required to present information, whether a form should be structured in steps, if the product catalog should include images or videos, whether they need to be downloadable, etc.
In my opinion, once this stage is finished, the information architect should work in conjunction with the editors and copywriters to produce the written content and, afterwards, with the designers give appearance to this slew of information. But the truth is that, with the direction and materials of an information architect it doesn’t matter who takes the project, the fulfillment of the goals of the website are secured.
Andrea Herrera is a Digital Strategist (latent information architect and closet writer) in Mijo! Brands, a leading digital agency with offices in Mexico City and Puerto Vallarta. Visit us at www.mijobrands.com or contact us.