When organizing information for the web, it is important to understand your users and how they will access your content. The first goal of a great designer is to offer a high level of usability. In order to do this, we start with the four information seeking behaviors outlined by Peter Morville in his book Information Architecture for the World Wide Web: Designing Large Scale Websites.
By first understanding the commonalities shared among all web users and then by classifying them, we can begin to analyze and plan methods of information organization and access to information that will serve each type of user. This deliberate approach to planning for a website ensures the highest level of usability possible. Below, each of the four information seeking behaviors are outlined and listed with some of their respective methodologies.
1. Known- Item Seekers
These types of users are the most straightforward of users. They
• Know what they want
• Know how to articulate what they want
• Know how to begin finding what they want
These users will rely on subject based identifiers to find information. Tools they often rely upon are:
Search. They expect to find the information they seek by typing keywords and phrases they already know.
Sitemaps. Sitemaps can come in a few different forms. First, a comprehensive sitemap allows the user to see all the pages in the website in one large index. This type of user may best rely on an A to Z sorting of the sitemap to find what they need.
Links, Buttons and Navigation. Again, the user will look for words and phrases that are familiar. They may also rely on any links, buttons or navigation items that offer those subject or key phrase identifiers.
This user is best served by being able to find information quickly and with as few “clicks” as possible.
2. Exploratory Seekers
Exploratory seekers have an idea of what they need to know. They may know there is information of a certain type that they need, but they might not know how to articulate it properly. These users will rely on methods that allow them to explore the information at hand. The following are some methodologies that serve them well:
Navigation. These users will explore with navigation by digging into the information at each level and looking for something that looks useful. Fly-out and tiered hierarchy navigation styles work well at this level of information seeking.
Categorized Resource Sections. By providing one go-to place for large amounts of information, the Exploratory user can quickly discover the right verbiage that will allow better articulation and advancement through the material available.
This user type is served well by elements that allow research and exploration to advance them to the Known-Item level of seeking.
3. Don’t Know What They Don’t Know
In this age of information, this user type has become extremely common. This demographic of seeker is both a low-level experienced user and a very high-level experienced user. The lower level experienced user may be one who does not seek information on the web until it is a last resort, while the high-level experienced user has made a common practice of utilizing the web to gain new knowledge and learn new industries.
Either way, these users will benefit from the same types of tools. The challenge is providing structure and guidance for the user that allows them to find the most important and often-sought pieces of information on the website.
Here are some methods:
FAQ. Also known as Frequently Asked Questions, this gives structure to the explorer by offering a list of the most sought answers or information in a particular subject.
Role-Based Identifiers – These users can often identify “who they are” in a set of roles. For example, a person seeking information on a medical procedure may either be a patient or a health practitioner. The types of information for each role will be very different. By first filtering users based on their relationship to the information, you can offer proper guidance to finding the answers they need.
The solutions allow people the satisfaction of finding an answer quickly and then being able to dig deeper.
These are the simplest user types. They have already been to your website, and they are re-finding information that they have accessed once before. What is important to include for these people are methods that allow them to quickly find their way back to information. For example, social bookmarking on sites like Digg and StumbeUpon are common methodologies for these users. However, these methodologies may need to change over time. The platforms themselves fade in and out of popularity, so it is important to provide tools that are most widely used.
In addition, the scalability and protected organization of your website is important to consider. Your website must be able to scale easily without losing usability or information flow maintained for other seekers. If this is not practiced, you will resort to adding and deleting pages at random. When the structure of your website changes frequently in this manner, users who have bookmarked pages cannot find their way back using the described methods.