Follow-up: Designing Hierarchical IAs

A summary of the interesting answers to the question I asked last week: When designing, do you create hierarchical information architectures? The comments led to many more questions…

A few days ago I asked a simple question of information architects. The question was this: “When designing, do you create hierarchical information architectures?”. I promised to summarize the results, and since they were very interesting that’s what I’ve done here.

Fortunately, the comments had a lot of intriguing ideas. I only wish the authors had written more! So, here are they are, in no particular order:

  • browsing allows for serendipity
  • direct search allows for accuracy and speed
  • site maps tend to appear hierarchical
  • some hierarchies lose users, no matter what tools are offered
  • problems comes when you try to force a hierarchy where one shouldn’t exist
  • site maps help designers understand how the site will work
  • tree structures limit possible combinations that are useful to explore during the design
  • the home page is visually different than other pages of a site
  • humans perceive the world hierarchically

Interestingly, there were many shades of thinking concerning hierarchies. For example, Gordon suggested that problems arise when we try to force a hierarchy where one shouldn’t exist, while Donna suggests that hierarchies are inherent in us and just make sense. Most folks, it appears, hinted that hierarchies are not the pinnacle of design: most at least consider other options when building their sites.

My goal, as I stated, was to figure out why so many sites are built hierarchically. This question was borne out of my recent inquiry into folksonomies, and the idea that navigation systems can emerge from artifacts of behavior, rather than being created beforehand.

I think this was a success, insofar that we now have more questions than the one that I started with. That’s progress, right? So, these are the questions that I thought of while mulling over the comments, please add your own.

  • What kinds of hierarchy are there?
  • Assuming that hierarchies don’t always work, is there a process by which we can decide whether or not to use them?
  • What doesn’t work about hierarchies? What do people have trouble with when using them?
  • What are the strengths of hierarchies?
  • What is the value of serendipity?
  • How many alternatives are there to hierarchies? What are they?
  • Are there other benefits of hierarchies besides user benefits? (e.g. team benefits or organizational benefits?)
  • What different ways can we build hierarchies? Is one way better than another?
  • What problems do bottoms-up architectures help solve? What problems do they introduce?
  • Do humans really think in hierarchical terms? (this seemed to me to be the most contentious statement of them all)

Finally, thanks to everyone who commented before. I think we’re getting somewhere (different than where we were). We’ve got a lot more questions, at any rate!

Published: March 29th, 2005

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