What you know about information architecture, might not be true

Paul Boag

We all think we understand information architecture. Yet, it is a specialist area and the things we think we know may not be correct.

You don’t hear the term information architecture much anymore. There is a lot of talk about understanding the users needs and delivering appropriate content. But, little about how the user finds that content.

This is because it is a subject that is thoroughly covered. There are some great books on the subject and so bloggers don’t feel they have much to add.

The problem is that when a subject has been so well covered, it moves into the realm of common knowledge. We all think we understand information architecture. Yet, it is a specialist area and the things we think we know may not be correct.

The problem with common knowledge is that it gets corrupted overtime. Misinformation creeps in and certain myths grow up. We see this all the time, such as the idea content needs to be above the fold because users don’t scroll.

Unfortunately information architecture has become ripe with these myths. That is why I want to take a few moments to dispel some of them.

I want to start with the perception that site structures are meant to be logical.

Your site structure should be logical

When I work on site structures I often drive the client and even my colleagues mad. You see, I don’t always make my site structures logical. People convince themselves that information architecture is about organising content in a logical way. It is not.

The problem is that people aren’t logical. We pretend to be. But we make decisions based on cultural bias, upbringing, preconceptions and many other factors.

Take for example your local supermarket. When you visit it where do you look for tomatoes? You look in the veg section don’t you.

But why don’t supermarkets put tomatoes with the fruits. After all it is a fruit. That would be the logical thing to do. They don’t do that because people expect to see it with the vegetables, because of their preconceptions.

Why are tomatoes placed alongside vegtables when they are a fruit? How we organise the world isn't always logical.
Why are tomatoes placed alongside vegtables when they are a fruit? How we organise the world isn’t always logical.

We need to let go of the idea that our site structures have to be logical to our minds. Instead they need to match the mental model of our users, whether it is logical or not.

The user should be able to reach content in three clicks

Talking of logical — another myth that sounds logical is the belief that users need to be able to reach content in three clicks. Unfortunately it may sound logical, but it is not true.

The myth came from the early days of the web when users were on dial-up connections. The slow speeds left users frustrated when they had to navigate through many pages. This was mistakenly interpreted as a frustration with the number of clicks.

In fact there is no evidence to support this hypothesis and much to suggest the number of clicks doesn’t matter. What matters instead is the feeling of progress towards the intended goal. If the user feels they are progressing, they are happy to proceed well beyond the magic three clicks.

You should only have 7 (plus or minus 2) options

Another magic number myth is the idea that you should never have more than seven options (plus or minus two) in navigation.

This myth originated from a psychology paper written by George Miller. George Miller argued that people cannot hold more than seven (plus or minus two) in their short term memory. This argument is wrong for two reasons.

First, there is other research that claims we struggle to hold more than four things in our short term memory. This is why credit cards group numbers into sets of four.

Our short term memory is worse than we think. That is why banks break up the card number into sets of four.
Our short term memory is worse than we think. That is why banks break up the card number into sets of four.

Second, a web page does not need the user to hold options in short term memory because the information appears visually.

The problem is people like these kinds of rules. Rules you can follow that avoids having to do pesky things like usability testing. But in truth this is the only way to be sure what works.

Talking of things people would prefer to avoid, let’s talk about prioritising.

Avoiding prioritisation is impossible

I am amazed at how much many organisations hate to prioritise. Whether you are talking about prioritising business objectives or audiences, they seem to hate it.

This is because prioritisation is divisive. It means saying that one department is more important than another or one user group has more value. This can be such a problem in some organisations that they bend over backwards not to prioritise.

The result is a website that attempts to please everybody and ends up pleasing nobody. They create alphabetical navigation in an attempt to avoid offence. Elements on the homepage are all equally weighted so there is no danger of favouritism.

What these organisations do not grasp is that avoiding prioritisation is impossible. You can order a list alphabetically but items at the start of the list are still favoured. You can weight page elements equally, but users will still start scanning pages at the top left.

Try as you might, you cannot avoid prioritisation, so you might as well prioritise what is important.

It doesn’t matter if a user doesn’t understand a term if its not applicable to them

A university I once had the pleasure to work with demonstrates by final myth. We had concerns about the term Alumni as a top level section. We felt that some people would not understand it.

At first the University argued that if people didn’t understand the term they were not fit to attend their institution. But they changed their mind when we pointed out that non native english speakers would struggle with the term. After all international students generate considerable revenue in tuition fees.

But then they fell back on an argument I hear a lot. “People will just ignore the term if they don’t understand it. They will presume it is not relevant to them”.

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Unfortunately this is not true. If they look at a list of options and none of those options are the obvious next step, they will turn to a section they do not understand. They think that perhaps that contains the answer as none of the other sections look like a likely candidate.

No shortage of myths

What is the saying? A little knowledge can be dangerous. That is true in information architecture but also for user experience design as a whole. We need to be careful what theories and rules we believe. Instead we need to research the hearsay and prove it for ourself using usability testing.