Book review

X.6 November + December 2003
Page: 57
Digital Citation

Information architecture

Kathy Gill

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  • When content streams 24 hours a day from multiple channels, the rules of navigation change. Designers need to rethink how they can make the journey more meaningful.
    ¬óRichard Saul Wurman, Information Anxiety 2

Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web is one author's effort to illustrate how the designer's work practices and products affect how meaningful information can be.

Writing in a light, breezy tone, Wodtke first debunks several Web design "rules," such as prohibitions against scrolling, using more than seven links on a page, or designing with small type. This reinforces her introductory comments, which explain that her book isn't about "simple rules." Instead, it is about concepts, tools, and practice.

Wodtke provides eight principles or rules of thumb, such as "design for wayfinding" and "be consistent and consider standards." This is practical, common-sense stuff. "Beware of easy-to-get, easy-to-remember answers," she writes. Amen.

For the experienced Web designer or information architect, there are few new concepts in the book. However, an astute reader should find new explanations of "old" concepts, providing perhaps an elegant explanation that can be "borrowed" or "stolen" at the next design project stalemate.

For the novice information architect or Web developer, there is much to learn here, starting with the simple truth that effective Web sites are developed by cross-functional teams. Information architecture is just one component of that process. Her description of the interface as "soft country" was particularly compelling.

One of the best chapters focuses on organization. Wodtke offers a new set of questions that effective Web navigation should answer: "Am I in the right place?" "Do they have what I'm looking for?" and "Do they have anything better?"

She also provides an excellent overview of Alan Cooper's personas as a design tool, as well as a step-by-step guide to developing personas that are valid and usable. Card sorts, scenarios, task analysis, meta-data-they're all there, although they may not be where you'd expect to find them.

Other additions to the designer's toolbox include sections on developing site maps, wireframes, interactive storyboards, and functional specifications. "Drawing for thinking" outlines site path diagramming and topic mapping, two useful pencil-and-paper approaches that should be used early in the design process.

Wodtke wraps up the book with a case study of a Web site redesign, which steps through her process from concept to wireframe. This is an appropriate stopping point for a book focused on information design.

There are, however, occasional lapses in the quality of the recommendations. For example, she recommends using ALT tags for their tool tip capability (she doesn't call it that, but that's what she describes). This functionality is the proper sphere of the title tag, and "ALT as tool tip" is a Windows-specific implementation. In addition, some of the management advice (be nice to your boss) seems overly simplistic and obvious to anyone with much work experience. Also, it would have been useful if each chapter had closed with a summary.

These, however, are niggles in an otherwise well-written introduction to the art of Web design, with an emphasis on the role of information architecture. This book is an ideal addition to the library of those new to the field or those who mentor others, and a must for the graphic artist who dabbles in information design.

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About the Author
Kathy Gill is senior lecturer, digital media, at the University of Washington's Communication School. She has more than 20 years' experience in industry, government, and nonprofit communications, including almost 10 years' experience in digital media. Her consulting work includes writing an online column for, one of the top 10 visited Web content sites on the Internet. Her Web design consultant work includes sites for the Burke Museum, The Gallatin Group, and Plumcreek Timber, and she has worked with Boeing, AT&T Wireless, SAFECO, and Microsoft on intranet projects.

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©2003 ACM  1072-5220/03/1100  $5.00

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