Review: A Practical Guide To Information Architecture

Barnaby Walters

Barnaby Walters reviews Donna Spencers book Practical Guide to Information Architecture and concludes that information architecture is arguably more important than the content itself.

The Physical/Virtual Product

Before plunging into the “real” review I want to mention the physical and virtual formats the book is provided in. Five Simple Steps sent me a review copy of the paperback, plus a the virtual bundle of the book as an .epub, .mobi (Amazon Kindle) and .pdf.

The physical book is gorgeous. It’s impeccably printed on lovely paper. The page layout is clear and uncluttered. The 5-sections-with–5-chapters IA makes it really straightforward to re-find things (after all, it would be a poor IA book that has a bad IA itself!).

It goes without saying that the physical format provides the best reading experience, but I was surprised by just how much difference there was between physical and virtual. The text is really quite tricky to digest in virtual form, especially when it’s wrapped by the client. Things like screenshots, block quotes and footnotes can get mangled and displayed in odd/awkward ways. The nature of “Practical Guide to IA” as a reference book makes it much less suited to current virtual formats than, say, a novel.

But I must not be distracted into an esoteric debate about electronic publishing – it is a factor out of the control of Five Simple Steps, and they should be praised for offering their books in such a wide variety of formats.

Practical All the Way Through

The book lives up to it’s ‘Practical’ title right from the beginning by defining exactly what an IA is and what deliverables an IA person might produce. For each stage in the IA design process (research, analysis, design, nav/page design) Donna illustrates not only what you must consider for each process and what it might involve, but also how to communicate what you’ve created with other on the team (and, at one point, why you may not want to communicate it).

In addition to the UXAustralia website used as a consistent case study throughout the book, Donna brings in related stories and case studies from other IA professionals to enrich and compliment the main text.

It’s all about the tone, maaan

Donna starts out by saying “For the next 300 pages I will be your friend”… and she means it. Early on, any fears you might have if unfamiliar with IA are squished when Donna outlines how people who usually work in different areas can adapt their skills to content organisation.

Despite the corporate nature of many of the case studies, the book is written on that comfortable borderline between formal and informal, almost as if we’re listening to Donna give a talk. The result is not a “funny” read, as such – there are no laugh-out-loud jokes, thankfully – but one which reads comfortably and easily.

Universal Usefulness

It’s important to note that, although PGIA is primarily about IA on the web, its scope is not limited to either subject area. As well as the alternate areas Donna highlights in which IA is relevant, there are many points about project-manage-ey things like working with teams, company culture, goals, and business objectives. These should be of interest to any web generalist, especially the inexperienced.

Some Downers

At the end of every chapter there is a summary and a link to a list of articles for further reading. I was disappointed to find that more often than not the lists were empty. If I had been reviewing the book directly after publishing this would only have been a minor glitch as I would assume that Donna intended on filling the lists as she found more material. Seeing them empty after two years makes them seem a bit neglected.

Earlier, I remarked on the immaculate production of PGIA. Surely a book so well put together would have been thoroughly proof-read?

Apparently not.

I tend to skim-read, so I read PGIA three times before reviewing it, and in doing so came across a surprisingly high number (around 15) of typos and grammatical oddities. It’s not as though these are a big problem, but for someone who’s detail-oriented, they can really jarr and interrupt the reading experience.

In Conclusion

Good Stuff:

  • Practical nature
  • Informal tone
  • Plenty of stories and case studies
  • Emphasis on communication and user research

Bad Stuff:

  • Typos and grammatical oddities
  • Virtual formats are difficult to digest
  • further reading is broken

I suspect anyone who’s not already an IA wizard (or witch? Gotta be PC) will find at least some part of PGIA useful. As with anything of this nature, if you’re inexperienced it’ll give you a solid foundation to build from, if you’re experienced it might remind you of some things you forgot or overlooked.

I would especially recommend PGIA to other young or inexperienced web designers. Every project I’ve worked in my freelance career would have been more successful had I read Donna’s book before starting out.

Paul Boag once said “Content may be king, but Design is Prime Minister”. Despite it’s status as a dubious analogy, I’ve always tended to agree… until now. Donna Spencer has converted me. Information Architecture is arguably even more important than content itself – and if you cannot find the content you’re looking for, no amount of design is going to appease you.

Buy the book now