There’s Glass Between Us:

Subtle Signals in Information Architecture

If eyes are the window to a person’s soul, it is because they betray intent — not just what we are saying and doing, but why. Unless a person is seasoned in the art of deception (like a magician or a sports commissioner), chances are the meaning behind their words and actions can be discerned by looking deeply, uncomfortably into their eyes.

John Wayne wears his hat high, because he is the honest and righteous cowboy whose intent is plain: He will always do the right thing (except in The Searchers, when he doesn’t). Clint Eastwood, on the other hand, wears his hat low, just low enough to veil his eyes, because he lives in a complicated world in which the line between good and evil is obscured by the need to survive.

We are trained to identify these signals, and also to express them.

Information architecture, at its worst, is a self-portrait of an organization.

Now, websites aren’t people. Not yet, anyway (fingers crossed). But they do represent people, and the methods that they use to relate information to us are rooted (usually, hopefully) in human communication patterns.

So we might take a figurative leap and ask where we might find the eyes of a website. Where, under the shell of code, copy and design can we find a website’s tell— a vulnerability that reveals its intent and betrays the veracity or sincerity of its message?

I use the analogy of eyes also to identify a website that is responsive to its users. One that is smart enough (meaning its administrators are smart enough) to respond to stimuli of users’ implicit signals like browser, device, and registration status — and also their explicit signals, which have more to do with their attempts to establish human-to-human communication. (And believe me, they are trying — the same way you instinctively hit ‘0’ every time you reach an automated phone menu.)

To look a website in the eye, to judge the sincerity of its character, I’d say: start with the information architecture.

Here’s my case: information architecture, at its worst, is a self-portrait of an organization. It is a hierarchy of structured content that tells us what matters to decision makers, and how those people perceive themselves in relation to the people who use their websites.

We evaluate humans in much the same way as we do websites: by judging their priorities. The self-starter values exploration rather than certainty. The workaholic values their job over their family. Marie Antoinette suggests that peasants might enjoy cake. These are superficial and reductive (and historically erroneous), but they are the same value judgments we make, consciously or not, of the websites we visit.

For instance, if an organization’s information architecture looks a lot like its org chart, it might be fair to say that the organization thinks of itself before its users. The same applies to sitemaps that are just reflections of product hierarchies organized without consideration of the solutions they provide.

The above is especially true if those product names are not descriptive of the actual product or the solutions they provide, but rather just the brand name appended with meaningless words like Engage, Elite, and (worse yet) Pro.

If a website presents its users with an open sandbox to search for their own solution or information without presenting context upfront, it might suggest that the organization doesn’t know what it does, or how it can help, though its heart might be in the right place.

Allocation of resources within an organization is, like information architecture, just another way of expressing priorities.

The top navigation of my alma mater is a great example of how information architecture exposes systemic issues within an organization.

The kitchen sink approach

Every page on the website, it seems, has found a nifty spot as yet another of many subnavigation items. The homepage lacks a call-to-action, forcing users to sift through a disorganized amalgam of resources, departments, services, and listings — many of which are incredibly helpful once a user can actually find them.

My experience as a student at said university was similar to the experience of browsing the website. Excellent, devoted professors. Plenty of student services to provide support to our large and diverse student body.

But none of it was accessible.

Students didn’t know what resources were available to them. They didn’t know how to use the library’s complex check-out system while the building was under construction, so many just didn’t bother. They didn’t know how to find one of the many free tutoring centers on campus — one of which employed me, so they didn’t show up to sessions. I tried for about a year to figure out whether I could do a dual-concentration within my major. Nobody knew how to help me.

So should I be surprised that the school’s website doesn’t attempt to provide an information architecture built around its users’ needs?

A top navigation like this is the product of compromise — of not wanting to define a mission, purpose, or direction for the website for fear of what it might not include, and of whom that might piss off.

Yet this type of experience is as much a product of the school’s lack of resources as it is a product of their disinterest in helping students. I did go to a state school, after all.

Though allocation of resources within an organization is, like information architecture, just another way of expressing priorities to the people we are trying to serve.

We make up a room with everything nicely organized so that users can find what they need when they come to stay with us.

Let’s talk for a second about metadata. If you want to infer things like thoughtfulness, consideration, empathy even — look no further than a site’s metadata. We know, thanks to people in our industry who are intelligent and thoughtful and think hard about these sort of things, that our content is only as good as the metadata that helps people and machines find and use it.

Metadata is one of the ways that we implicitly and explicitly relate our values to the people who use our websites. We tell them what matters to us and why. We make up a room with everything nicely organized so that users can find what they need when they come to stay with us.

But structuring a site based on user needs, rather than internal organizational structure, requires more than just thinking outside of the box. It requires its own set of unique processes that challenge held notions of how a business interacts with its users, reframing approaches to focus on how the people who use a company’s website interact with the people inside the business.

But that requires confounding and re-threading established patterns of communication through user-focused information architecture. And that takes some doing, since for most businesses, the user is a strange beast never actually seen but for its footprints pattering gently across an analytics dashboard.

Like the snow leopard, we study our users mostly by the clues they leave behind.

Keep Reading

Building a User-Focused Information Architecture
A presentation created by me and UX Strategist Greg Harron outlining step-by-step instructions for using card sorting and tree testing to build an IA based on user needs.