A simple website may only include 8 top level pages, 50 secondary and perhaps only 300 tertiary labelled (taxonomy) navigation elements, that’s only 358 entities. However, Information Architecture tends to be associated with the structure and classification of websites, intranets and software that accesses in excess of 100,000+ separate entities to be classified. I have worked on several huge taxonomies for Government, Publishers, Colleges, Universities, Insurance Companies and Banks involved in trading that involve between 1,000,000 and 25,000,000+ entities.
An Information Architect embarking on a new project will investigate if there is a standardised ontology for the project domain and conduct a content audit.
An ontology is a formal naming and definition of the types, properties, and interrelationships of the entities that really or fundamentally exist for a particular domain.
For example, if the project is a United Kingdom, Government project then there is a standard ontology and a classification of entities within a taxonomy.
If a standard exists the task is relatively simple but highly time-consuming as it then involves matching the in use ontology with the standardise one. If no standard exists a standard needs to be created. Creating a standard ontology is done through domain research. How do other’s of the same domain describe things, at this point it is worth considering ownership of language in the form of brands, trademarks, patients and de facto standards as a source of information, terms and potential restrictions.
Once the entities have been defined with their attributes and all the potential interrelationships then this is combined with or overwrites the content audit to define the new system taxonomy.
However, there may be multiple audiences looking at the same content from different perspectives. For example in educational publishing the audiences could be;
Each one of these groups will have a very specific context of use when looking for content, the descriptions they use and understand to find it and their underlying purpose in doing so. In this case, they will each require a separate structure around an entity and may require their own version of the ontology.
Additionally there are criteria that operated as informational facets (now commonly associated with faceted search) which act as secondary entities;
- Bulk price
- Unit price
- Country standards
- Regional standards
- Education level
- Education target
- Education skills
- Education method
- Exam board
- Exam year
- Pupil/student age
- Content subject
- Content brand
- Content group
- Content purpose
- Language Tone of Voice
- Media type
- Media format
The above entities enable the audiences to find the content assets that meet their specific needs. It is very important at this stage not to confuse entities with hierarchies. Hierarchies are the structuring of entities in a direct or indirect relationship that are above or below (immediate superior or subordinate) this also includes cross related relationships. As previously mentioned there may already be standard hierarchies in the domain in question that should be observed.
But how do you find these entities in any domain?
Taking the above example the standard hierarchy in publishing is ISBN a review of several entities within a single ISBN item will reveal many of entities above. To get the rest research is required (it cannot be done any other way);
- Find out who the audience is and what is their objective?
- Find out what are the rules, laws and governance?
- Find out who buys, distributes, delivers, services, resells and what their relationship is to the originator?
- Find out specifically who the audience is currently, competitor and target audience?
Define ‘What is the smallest component of viable (useful) information?’ and use that to model the information system. I have worked with several huge education providers and universities and the questions I ask is, ‘What is a course?’;
- A course has a title
- A course has duration, with a start and an end
- A course has a subject
- A course has a level
- A course has prerequisites
- A course has an outcome, which leads to options
- A course has a delivery mechanism
I also ask, ‘Who is a student?’, ‘Who is a tutor?’, ‘What is an outcome?’ even ‘What is a college?’, if a course has a regular location then this creates a secondary set of entities.
- A location has an address, telephone number, email address
- A location has facilities
- A location has transportation links
- A location has a community
- A location has accommodation
And it goes on and on, this is Information Architecture 101.
This is a repost from an article first published in 2007.
About the Author
Karl Smith is Computer Scientist or as he describes himself a Creative Scientist. He has a BA in Design from the 1980’s and an MSc in Interactive Technologies for E-commerce from the 2000’s. His MSc was technically focused with a large portion given over to Transformation and Very Large Databases, data warehouses, Data Mining, online analytical Processing (OLAP), web browsers and search engines, optimisation, recovery and backup, database connectivity technologies. Including writing SQL.
Karl Smith is an acknowledged leader in the field of Human Centred Design, User Experience and Usability and has been honoured with a Fellowship by the British Computer Society. He is also the Founder of several organisations including The Human Centered Design Society.