Information Design: Providing Structure to Content

Information Design: Providing Structure to Content

When publishing large amounts of content, devote some serious thought to the information design phase of your project.

Information design is the planning, structuring and organizing of content in a way that is efficient for people to locate. Information may be contained in formats such as web sites, blogs, user guides, or training manuals. How a person locates information should be a consideration in the beginning stages of your content development project. Let’s take a look at a few ways in which content is located and stored.

Website Navigation

Locating information should be repeatable rather than by accident. Have you ever searched a site’s content only to lose how you found it? And sometimes you can never locate that piece of information again due to the complexity of the site’s navigation or lack thereof. The information posted to your website is important to your readers and to the navigation that points to that information, how that information is presented, stored, and retrieved. Small static web sites may require the content to be stored in html files with a simple navigation menu. Larger, dynamic sites require a content management system with multi-tier navigation menus and search capabilities. In either scenario, your content must be organized in a way that is easily located by your visitors.

Search Engine Optimization and Site Maps

People locate information on the Internet by entering a search term or phrase in any of the available search engines. If your content is properly optimized, your content stands a greater chance of being placed higher in the results of that search. Optimize your content and consider adding a site map. The site map is a list of all linked content in your web site. Site maps are crawled by search engines (with spiders or bots) to locate and index each page. Those indexed pages are stored in the search engine database and retrieved when your page matches a search criterion.

The site map also provides an organized tree or outline of all the content of your site and increases the visibility of your content. This visual layout enables users of the web site to scan content of interest. If your site does not contain a site map, consider installing one to increase your site’s visibility. You can use online tools such as http://www.xml-sitemaps.com/ or http://www.web-site-map.com/ to generate one manually. If you have a Joomla or WordPress content management system, many plugin tools are available to take on this task for you. And be sure to enter your site maps in Google’s Webmaster Tools.

Content Management System

If your web site contains lots of information, you will need some method to manage that content. A content management system (CMS) provides the management capabilities required to store, locate, edit, and post information. The CMS software keeps track of all content and is organized by sections, categories, articles, pages or posts. For web sites that have or will have numerous blog posts or articles, consider a Joomla or WordPress website platform. These platforms make managing content much easier for you and make locating information easier for visitors.

Documentation

Technical documentation in the form of hardcopy manuals or PDFs, like a web site, requires an organized structure with an engaging format. The reader of the material must be able to locate the information he or she is looking for with as little effort as possible. Developing functional documentation includes an information design that has consistent page layout, typographical conventions, structured content, table of contents, and an index.

Consistent page layout and typographical conventions make locating information easier for the reader. Structured content and properly formatted paragraphs are easier to read as well as easier on the eyes. Headers, footers, headings, tables, lists and other paragraph formats increase the reader’s comprehension of the content. Structured content also improves one’s ability to cross reference material listed in the table of contents or index.

Novice users typically use the table of contents to search for topics of a more general nature or to identify how the manual is structured. The index, by contrast, is a more precise instrument for locating specific content. It typically used by experienced users of the domain. These users know what they are searching for and need only the page reference to locate that specific piece of information. A large manual is worthless if people are unable to find the information in it. So consider developing meaningful section titles and headings for the table of content and put some serious time in developing an index.

Providing structure to documentation can make all the difference in your audience’s ability to read, locate, and comprehend information. Apply these information design practices on your next project and notice the difference in your ability to manage and locate content.