The Politics of Doing IA for HighEd #heweb11

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Todd Ehlers@flickr

IA is really all about controlling the things that surround your .edu

IA exists in the boundaries between web design and web development.

  • what to name a link
  • what links you have on your homepage
  • you make IA decisions all the time.
  • take this tacit experience and make it explicit
  • it will help minimize conflict

Recommended reading: IA book by Morville and Rosenfeld – how to structure and organize information on large websites.

We aren’t often dealing with a monetized model – that isn’t what drives our decisions. Our academically inclined individuals are driving our content decisions.

What is IA?

  • organization, labeling and navigation
  • structural design to facilitate task completion and intuitive access to content
  • structure and classify websites to help people find info
  • bringing principles of design and architecture to digital landscape

IA is the convergence of Users + Content + Context

  • Users – audience, tasks, needs, nor,action seeking behavior, experience
  • Content – document or data types, content objects, existing structure
  • Context – institutional goals, funding, politics, culture, technology, resources, and constraints

While we would all like to think about throwing the entire web presence sea and starting over – its never going to happen. Many of us are working at universities that have been around for hundreds of years. You can’t change everything! Just realize that and move forward.

IA Principles

  • organization
  • labeling
  • navigation (think about how users feels she they have to make a choice)
  • search (so thankful we have a google search appliance at VU – it allows us to customize the search experience for our users!)
  • controlled vocabulary

Managing the IA of a higher Ed website is like planning and maintaining the perfect kitchen for everyone to use. You can find everything … It’s exactly where you think it should be.  But this has to make sense to EVERYONE – not just you. It has to be intuitive… For all users.

Things that we use all the time – put on the counter (in the main navigation).  That fondue pot we only use occasionally? Those might go in the lower cabinets (subpage or sub navigation).

Audience based navigation –  expected to have it, but it doesn’t really work well. Users have to be able to self-identify in order to use it.

Bargaining chips – when people want to be in your main navigation – do you have other options to give them — since that isn’t going to happen.

Controlled Vocabulary

  • a defined subset of natural language
  • metadata and thesauri
  • equivalent, related or sibling terms
  • holds systems together

We have to get a handle on what terms are and what they mean – CAMPUSWIDE. It is detrimental to students when terms mean different things from department to department.

IA Process

  • research (user testing, focus groups, personas – billy and Betty both need info)
  • strategy (dream best possible scenario, ideal web space, ideal homepage)
  • design
  • implement
  • administer

In each step:

  • think
  • articulate
  • communicate ( write it down, share it with people)
  • test

What about politics?
None of this could possibly be political, right?!?

  • your internal organizational structure should NOT be reflected on your website (see Jakob Nielsen for more on that)
  • even the concept of a college within a school, can be confusing for students
  • Bursars office – students have no idea what that word means
  • mathematics v math
  • research – can’t link to nonexistent content
  • libraries – getting administrative approval about larger political issues is KEY


  • understand existing political climate
  • have a web policy that explicitly states which person or process determines IA
  • Be transparent about your IA process:

Stop. look. Listen.

  • recognize when political conflicts are headed your way
  • take a neutral position and engage everyone involved
  • don’t be afraid to try it both ways, and measure the difference
  • do more research

Information architecture is not about YOU.

It’s too late for that.

  • when conflicts arise, and you’re in the middle of them, find resolution quickly.
  • if necessary, reframe the larger issue and take the decision to the next level.
  • whatever the outcome, measure it.

View the Presentation Slides.