Good Structures Should Pave Ways

What I've called "structure" comes under many names, the most familiar

of which are probably "hierarchy" or "information architecture".

Whichever word you use, structure encapsulates the relationships

between the components of a site that people use to find their way to

the information they seek.

Structure is simple to define but devilishly tricky to create at times.

A successful site structure must create what psychologists refer to as

a "schema": a mental model that visitors can use to understand where

you've hidden the content I discussed in previous columns.

To create a successful structure, you must understand your audience

well enough to know what kinds of schemata they can benefit from.

Structures fall into four broadly familiar categories, each of which is

based on a schema so familiar that readers can use it without much

thought to find what they're looking for: ordered (alphabetical or

numerical), functional, hierarchical and Web.

Ordered structures use our knowledge of some inherent order to help us

know where to look. Alphabetical structures are the most familiar, and

use the well-known order of the English alphabet to find information

that can be defined by its position in the alphabet; dictionaries and

encyclopaedias are the obvious examples of such structures. Numerical

structures rely on the familiar sequence of numbers; products grouped

by price and historical data arranged in timelines are obvious

examples. Many other "orders" exist, including physical (e.g. a

geographical map, a blueprint of a house), logical (e.g. you can't

print your document until you've turned on the printer), and

organizational (e.g. the well-defined ranks in a military organization).

Functional structures rely on the human ability to group things based

on similarities in their function or purpose. One familiar example

might be the Web site of a company that sells several products, and

devotes a separate part of the site to each product. Companies that

sell computer-related materials on the Web, for example, typically

divide their site into at least three different functional groupings:

hardware, software, and consumables.

An equally logical functional structure might be to gather all the

products for printers (the printers, paper and ribbons, and printing

software) in one area and gather storage products (disk drives,

diskettes, and disk utility software) in another. Which approach makes

the most sense depends on how your audience will approach the site.

Hierarchical structures depend on our ability to recognize how broad

groups can be subdivided into narrower categories, each of which can in

turn be subdivided into other categories, with the items grouped under

these categories becoming more similar the further down the hierarchy

you go. Organization charts represent a good example of a hierarchical

structure, though as I noted above, they can also be ordered if the

hierarchy is clearly defined. Hierarchies differ from ordered

structures in that their order is arbitrary, based on degrees of

similarity rather than a universally acknowledged sequence; for

example, technical communicators fall under product development in some

companies, under sales and marketing in others, and stand as their own

department in others.

Web structures are the source of the name for the World Wide Web

itself: highly interconnected, with a bewildering variety of links

between related topics. In Web structures, as in the Web itself, paths

potentially exist between any two related topics. The problem with such

structures is that their unparalleled flexibility comes at the cost of

unpredictability: nobody knows all possible paths, nor even the best

path to a specific piece of information.

In practice, most sites combine all four structures, with the most

appropriate structure chosen for each component of the site. To link

these structures, you can rely on familiar, time-tested schemata: a

table of contents (such as a site map) to provide a high-level view of

what structures exist on your site, and an index that provides a low-

level view of individual topics for those who aren't interested in the

big picture.

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