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Enterprise Information Architecture:
Strategies for the Real World

(interactions magazine November/December 2003)


Lou Rosenfeld was recently in London presenting his one-day seminar on Enterprise Information Architecture. I have been doing a lot of work with intranets lately so thought it would be useful to attend.

No one dealing with web site development in a large organization would have any trouble identifying with some of the issues Lou raised:

  • competing demands from many quarters;
  • tension between centralized and distributed web solutions;
  • information organized by business function, leading to content “silos”;
  • user confusion.

Against this raft of problems, Enterprise Information Architecture offers several sets of strategies:

  • top-down;
  • bottom-up;
  • enterprise search.

Not surprisingly, top-down strategies are mostly to do with the taxonomy of a site, transforming it from organization-oriented to user-oriented. This is not going to happen overnight, so a number of different short-term strategies are suggested:

  • superficial changes to the taxonomy to make it more topic or product oriented;
  • transforming site maps from “org chart” to topical;
  • specialized site index;
  • guides and topic pages.

Mostly these are attempts to make a site appear to address real users’ needs while trying to disguise the Medusa-like structure underneath. For many sites, especially those with products or services to sell, these will be good short-term solutions. However, there are some usability issues that should be aired. Site maps and indices will possibly give more political mileage within the organization than any real improvement in usability. Jakob Nielsen discussed site maps in an Alertbox in January 2002 (link below). At that time, only about a quarter of the users in his study tried to use a site map when stuck (and all of the sites selected for testing had one). When looking at the web as a whole, only about half of sites had a site map and when asked to name a site that did, users were correct just under half the time.

I have conducted a more recent study of my own to see what changes there have been in the intervening two years. Of six randomly-selected sites (Dell, Cisco, Ford, GM, HP and IBM), only half had site maps – not much change there, then. So while it may be a good idea to persuade a department to move their yawn-inducing material from the home page to a prominent place in the site map, chances are that users will never see it – which may be fine as long as the department concerned never finds out.

Specialized site indices and guides may fare better at actually improving site usability. In some cases, the limitations of the primary navigation may mean that a specialized index becomes a valuable user resource. That thought crosses my mind every time I try to find a product on Adobe’s site. Although excellent in many other respects, I find the choice of product categories baffling – Illustrator is a Web Publishing product while Photoshop is a Digital Imaging product. And Adobe’s new audio package, Audition, comes under Digital Video! An alphabetical product index is what I really want, but unfortunately, the page that looks the most promising – the All link under Products – uses all the infuriating categories I just mentioned.

Specialized indices, guides and topic pages allow better “cross-silo” access. Information that may have been hidden away deep within a departmental site, is put into its proper context and made readily available. Topic pages allow links to be presented in a variety of arrangements according to users’ goals, while guides are slightly more elaborate. They have the added advantage of allowing a judicious amount of explanatory text to be added where the terminology of an index or topic page may be inadequate.

The bottom-up approaches are less to do with presenting a site’s current pages under a new light and more to do with structure. The main activities are

  • content modeling;
  • metadata development;

Content modeling involves finding useful relationships between different types of data that might currently be hidden in different silos. The example Lou used was of a music site with a variety of CD-related information within the e-commerce silo linking to group and event data currently held by different departments in other silos. While this strategy may or may not improve the actual usability of the site, it does give much better scope for providing services that are truly useful compared to the static alternatives offered by printed media. The development of metadata – fields describing the content in ways that make such links and related searches possible – plays an important role in the bottom-up approaches. So too do the issues of semantic consistency and relationships. Semantic consistency is provided through controlled vocabularies, meaning that concepts are described in one and only one way within a site’s content. Semantic relationships allow the controlled vocabulary to be mapped onto a variety of user-oriented terms. For example, the controlled vocabulary term “personal digital assistant” might be mapped by users entering search terms of “handheld”, “PDA”, “PocketPC”, etc.

Search is an important topic in its own right. Unlike site maps, search is present on the vast majority of sites and the first tool out of the box for many users. However, there are a number of issues that conspire to make search less useful than it might be:

  • too few results;
  • too many results;
  • irrelevant results.

Some of these problems will be addressed by good metadata and controlled vocabularies, but sometimes more is needed:

  • helpful feedback regarding combinations of search terms;
  • control over areas searched or context of terms;
  • spell checking.

The impact of this last issue cannot be underestimated and of course search engines such as Google are setting the standard in this area. When users come to your site, they will expect to have spelling errors either corrected or drawn to their attention. More important still in many cases is the issue of spell checking on internal employee directories. Many, many proper names are simply not spelt the way they sound. Forcing users to make multiple guesses or to revert to the printed alphabetical is just not a good use of technology. Especially when it means standing in reception trying to guess the correct spelling of the person you are trying to visit as happened to me recently.

I have not covered everything in the full day’s seminar but I hope I have given something of the flavor of Lou’s approach to EIA. It seems to me to be very pragmatic in dealing with real problems found in many large organizations. I would not suggest it as a replacement to user-centered design and usability techniques, but as a team they should work well together.

References

Rosenfeld, Louis and Morville, Peter. 2e, 2002. Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, O'Reilly: Sebastopol, CA. [Amazon.com]   [Amazon.co.uk]

Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox “Site Map Usability”: http://www.useit.com/alertbox/20020106.html

The Author

William Hudson is principal consultant for Syntagm Ltd, based near Oxford in the UK. His experience ranges from firmware to desktop applications, but he started by writing interactive software in the early 1970's. For the past ten years his focus has been user interface design, object-oriented design and HCI.

Other free articles on user-centred design: www.syntagm.co.uk/design/articles.htm

© 2001-2005 ACM. This is the author's version of the work. It is posted here by permission of ACM for your personal use. Not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in interactions, {Volume 10, Issue 6, November-December 2003} http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/947226.947241

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