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Aug 17, 2004: Information Architecture Heuristics

Just finished a brief heuristic evaluation of a client site, basing part of my feedback on a set of questions that I find quite useful for just about every IA-related project. Every information architect should always have a set of favorite questions in their back pocket; they really do come in handy.

I categorize mine into groups that correspond to the five areas that a user is most likely to interact with a site’s information architecture:

  1. Main page
  2. Search interface
  3. Search results
  4. Site-wide navigation
  5. Contextual navigation

This approach works for me because it underemphasizes the main page, which all too often garners way too much attention at the expense of the other areas. There are plenty of other ways to group IA heuristics: top-down versus bottom-up; search versus browse; content versus users versus context; by users' information needs (e.g., known-item versus research versus open-ended); and so on. Pick what works best for you.

Ok, on to the questions (and some brief comments):

Main Page

  • Does it support multiple ways to reach content? (By "ways," I mean search, site-wide navigation, site index, site map, etc.)
  • Does it highlight the best ways to reach content? (Supporting the few most useful ways of getting users to content is obviously more important and cost-effective than providing them with all possible ways.)
  • Does it orient the user to what this site is about and content is available? (Important if there are many newbies visiting the site.)
  • Does it serve users who have been here before and know what they’re looking for?

Search Interface

  • Is it easy to find and consistently placed?
  • Is it easy to use? (The simple "box" and a search button are usually sufficient and generally all a user will put up with during his first stab at searching.)
  • Does it support revision/refinement? (Searching is an iterative process; hopefully your site acknowledges this. "Revise your search" is probably a more accurate and better way to think of the thing called "Advanced search".)
  • Are query builders used effectively? (Query builders include spell-checking, stemming, concept searching, and thesaural searching.)

Search Results

  • Are useful results available at the top of the list? (Wouldn't that be nice? Hard to test though.)
  • Is it clear what the query was? (Most search engines will repeat the original query.)
  • Is it clear what was searched? (Especially important if your site employs search zones.)
  • Is it clear how many results were retrieved?
  • Are useful components displayed per result? (These should help users understand enough about a result to distinguish it from others.)
  • Are the results grouped in a useful way? (Usually results aren't grouped at all, but clustered results are becoming more and more common.)

Site-wide Navigation

  • Is it possible to move through the site without experiencing click fatigue? (Try out a few common scenarios.)
  • Are breadth and depth balanced?
  • Are labels clear and meaningful? (Metadata 101 stuff here.)

Contextual Navigation

  • Is it clear where I am, both in terms of which site and where I am in the site? (For more on this topic, see Keith Instone's Navigation Stress Test.)
  • Are there a few navigation options that lead me where I’d want to go next? (Related links are rare, but incredibly useful when implemented well.)
  • Are they clearly labeled? (More Metadata 101.)

Clearly, there are dozens of other questions that could be added to this very basic list (feel free to suggest some here). And probably many better alternatives to this grouping scheme. But if you're starting out, you might find my list helpful.

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Comment: Matthew Clapp (Aug 17, 2004)

Thanks for sharing. This is a great outline. There are very few people on the web that write with the knowledge and passion that you do. It's really obvious when someone loves what they do.

Comment: Nick Finck (Aug 18, 2004)

Excellent article Lou. I'm going to bring this to work tomorrow to see if we can put it into our process... I know of a few high-profile projects that could benefit from the answers (or lack of answers) for such a list of questions.

Comment: Christian Watson (Aug 18, 2004)

Agreed. This is a great list to expand upon and then apply to all projects as part of the design process.

Comment: Eric Scheid (Aug 18, 2004)

Looks great.

I don't see a problem with including the content/users/context as just another three groups of questions, rather than as an alternative rubric.

Some more questions:

"is the content clear in identifying & communicating itself? (summary/abstract/introduction, titles, subtitles, call outs, etc)"

"how easy is it to reference/link to the information? (good clean URLs, page anchors, purple numbers, etc)"

"how possible is it to integrate/migrate the content in/to other sites? (rss/atom feeds, DC meta-data, semantic html coding, etc)

Comment: Nick Finck (Aug 18, 2004)

Maybe something to add here, perhaps some sub-questions under either search or search results could be:

Does the search cover just the current site or all of corporate?
Can the search be narrowed to include only the site the user is currently on?
Can the search be broadened to include all of the corporate sites?

...some insight into what I have been dealing with lately.

Comment: Mike Jaixen (Aug 19, 2004)

I am definitely going to bookmark this list! Under "Contextual Navigation", I would add "Are there any other sections of the site that should be added to the contextual navigation"? Frequently, there is related information in another section, but no links across because of the "org-chart".

Comment: Lou (Aug 19, 2004)

Mike, amen. Danged enterprise problems...

Keep'em coming folks; thanks!

Funny thing: before I posted this entry, I Googled "information architecture heuristics" and "IA heuristics" and found pretty much nothing. Checked the IAwiki too without much luck. I can swear I encountered something relevant on the web at some point, but it must have been an hallucination.

Comment: Ami Walsh (Aug 26, 2004)

Thanks for the helpful information Lou!

Comment: Martin (Aug 26, 2004)

Really great info. If only our prospects took the time to consider these points then business would be even greater.
Site search is pretty much useless if it doesnt return structured and grouped results. At least from the visitors POV.
Hopefully i can have the salesstaff convince prospects to read your column and understand this :-)

Good work Lou!

Comment: tombraman (Aug 26, 2004)

Great list -- thanks! One thing I might add: A review from the web administrator's perspective. Questions might include: are files/directories named and organized in a meaningful and efficient manner? is metadata simple to understand and easy to maintain? are admin interfaces and tools, including workflow, easy to learn and use? etc. If the designer/developer gets lost, the users will most likely follow.

Comment: Bill L (Sep 1, 2004)

>> Does it support revision/refinement?
>> (Searching is an iterative process;
>> hopefully your site acknowledges
>> this. "Revise your search" is probably a
>> more accurate and better way to think
>> of the thing called "Advanced search".)

Thanks for the great article and list. I understand you did not specifically say to label the advanced search as "Revise your search", but I thought I'd share some comments based on some experience with searches, advanced searches and search results from a recent project:

I think "Revise your search" or "Refine your search" is appropriate on the subsequent search screens - that is AFTER the user has performed an initial search. With either label however, one could still argue that "revise" and "refine" do not necessarily convey that you can have advanced search options...it could be interpreted as merely asking the user to re-type a different search term. To fully convey that there are additional (advanced) search options, I think a label like "Additional Search Options" fully conveys this. Of course, this is wordy, so maybe something like "More Search Options" or simply "More Options" right next to the Search button will suffice. This reasoning especially applies on the initial search screen, before the user has done any searches. "Advanced Search" has other connotations of course (potentially questioning the user's intelligence for instance) but it is so ubiquitous that it's probably safe to use.

Comment: Lou (Sep 1, 2004)

Bill, great points. Clearly there's no ideal labeling option for what I'd like to call "Revise your Search". And while I generally feel that it's safe to go with a convention, I just feel that "Advanced Search" is an awful, horrible, deceitful, pernicious, confusing and even insulting convention if there ever was one. I'm not sure what we can do about it though, as it is so established; maybe a petition drive? ;-)

I agree that refine/revise should go *after* the first search iteration has taken place. I'm not as sure that we need to expose "advanced" search options any earlier though, at least in most cases.

Comment: Lou (Sep 2, 2004)

Hi all; I just posted search-specific heuristics here:



Comment: Rich Wiggins (Sep 2, 2004)

Did you mention best bets, often overlooked by those responsible for enterprise search, but sine qua non?

Comment: Laura Zucchetti (Sep 9, 2004)

This is a great article and website. I'll be coming back here all the time. This is so useful with for me at the moment because I am at the beginning of a web redesign project and I will included this in my project for sure.

Thank you.
Keep the goodness coming.

Comment: Usability Guy (Mar 14, 2005)

I am not an information architect, but I am trying to learn a bit about the subject. And after reading this article, I wonder: In contextual navigation, should there not be multiple paths to the same information? I mean, organizing alphabetically, geographically, by timeline, by subject, etc would certainanly make information more available?

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