A handy list of 8 Free tools for good information architecture and usability
For web sites, information architecture is the way content is organized and categorized on the site. It is the backbone of navigation, taxonomy (labeling) and user experience. A common way to think of it is to consider the information architecture as ‘buckets of information’ that make up the sections of the web site. Concepts that are grouped together can go in the same ‘bucket.’
Example, an information architecture, or ‘buckets of information’ for a web site about cars and things might be:
- Chevy, Ford, Mercedes
- Teacups, Shoes
Information architecture problems in web sites are fairly common:
I bring this up because I was recently interviewed by Forrester for their upcoming study on usability trends and tools. I was asked, ‘What problems do you see over and over again?’
The answer I gave is that no two web sites have the exact same set of problems. However, if I had to define a single issue that is pretty common it’s that many web sites have holes in the IA, or just plain poor information architectures, which cause visitors difficulty when navigating.
Information Architecture and eCommerce web sites:
Think about information architecture and usability as it relates to an eCommerce site:
If your web site information architecture is good, but your usability (task-flow) is bad, your web site visitors will be able to find what they are looking for but will eventually have to muddle through the buy-flow tasks, resulting in mediocre conversion.
If however your web site information architecture is bad, but your usability is good, most of your web site visitors won’t be able to find what they are looking for, and the usability won’t matter because they will leave before getting to the buy-flow, resulting in poor conversion.
Analyze and fix information architecture problems:
To improve eCommerce web sites it’s critical to evaluate, find and fix any holes or related problems with the information architecture. Doing so ensures the maximum number of web site visitors can find what they are looking for, and will help improve conversion and web site ROI.
So here then are 8 free Information Architecture tools that can be used to evaluate and optimize a web site. Using these tools to create random lists of content items, then having representative web site visitors group them into similar categories is the best way to identify if your content fits the mental map of your users, and if not, where and how to change it.
8 Free information architecture tools:
1. A Paper and Pencil:
It’s amazing how powerful a simple piece of paper and pen or pencil can be for use with information architecture studies. Paper and pencil is simple to use, fast and effective, completely mobile and requires no batteries, lighting conditions or signal strength.
Listing out content items, then asking others to draw circles around similar groupings is a great way to facilitate information architecture analysis and optimization. I also include in this list your standard chalkboards, easels and conference room whiteboards along with the old standby, 3X5 index cards.
2. Free Online Whiteboards:
Another amazingly simple yet powerful IA tool is free online whiteboards. There are numerous versions of online whiteboards, but all generally do the same thing, they allow you to visually present content items, and allow others to group them into categories. You create the lists of content items, and then invite participants to collaborate by drawing circles around similar groupings. These are great tools for obtaining user feedback on your information architecture.
Some free online whiteboards you can use include:
The vast majority of businesses and individuals have Microsoft Excel as part of their software package, so in that sense it’s a free tool. And because it’s almost universal, and almost universally used, Excel is a great tool for information architecture studies and optimization. Creating lists of content items and asking participants to grab cells of content and group them is a very fast, and free, method to check or create an information architecture.
Because it can handle hundreds (or thousands) of cells, excel is very handy for larger web sites with numerous content items.
Just like Excel, PowerPoint is almost universal in availability. PowerPoint includes the OrgChart feature which allows you to create listings of content items that can be grouped via connected lines, or boxes around the content items.
The only consideration with PowerPoint is that if you have a larger number of content items to list, you may run out of space on the page. One trick I’ve used is to create a custom page size that is much larger than a standard piece of paper. However, printing such a larger size page can be problematic, so consider one of the other methods if you have lots of items to list and can’t fit them on a standard-sized page.
5. Your own Website Search results
It’s amazing what a wealth of information architecture data is available in the search results listings of a web site – you DO have search on your web site, right? Most web site log analysis tools enable you to see the terms your web site visitors are searching for on your site. You receive directly from your web site visitors a listing (ranked in order of number of times each term is searched for) for content that is either missing from your web site, or too hard to find.
These search terms listings are a great way to find the holes in your information architecture and plug them up with helpful and usable content.
6. Google Adwords Suggestion Tool
If you are creating an information architecture and need some help thinking about what terms to include, or what terms may go with other terms, consider Google’s free Adwords Suggestion Tool. This tool is primarily used by Search Engine Marketers to find related terms to post Adwords advertising on.
However it’s also a handy free tool to help information architects derive variations or sub-sets of content items from main items. It includes “Additional keywords to consider” which is sorted by relevance, making for quick work when trying to create related concepts of content.
When using the Adwords Suggestion tool, make sure to keep the “Use synonyms” check box checked (it’s the default state) because that enables the tool to consider variations of the terms you enter.
7. StickySorter by Microsoft Office Labs
Another handy free tool for sorting lists of content into groups is Micrsoft Office Labs free StickySorter tool. It uses a computer version of sticky notes to enable people to group and move concepts around, which is a handy way to explore new versions of an information architecture.
Unlike some of the online tools mentioned, you have to download StickySorter to use it, and it requires Windows XP or Vista. But the powerful features of exporting large amounts of data via .csv files makes quick work of organizing larger amounts of content into appropriate categories using familiar visual representations of stickynotes.
8. xSort by Enough Pepper (Mac only freeware)
For you Mac fans, xSort enables creating and grouping various content listings using a computer version of the tried-and-true 3×5 index cards on a table theme. Handy for use when conducting card-sorts, it’s easy enough to use for almost all your participants and will help identify from the user’s perspective the proper grouping of content items.
Conclusion: 8 free tools for better information architecture and usability
So there’s the list of 8 free information architecture tools you can use to help improve the IA, and thus the usability and conversion of your web site. Of course there are other tools out there, including a host of great tools that cost very little. If I’ve left off your favorite just add a brief comment below, that way you can share your tool and we can all grow a little smarter together!
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