Week 3: Readings and Comments

by Zach Tomaszewski

for LIS 699-2, Fall 2001, supervised by Dr. Luz Quiroga

Information Architecture for the World Wide Web is going well. The first chapter covered the fact that, while HTML and basic web page creation is relatively easy, designing a useful, functional site is much more difficult.

In chapter two, the book defines the job of an information architect as determining what kind of site should be made, and why. To do this, IAs need to determine the mission of the site, the content and functionality it will need, how users will use it, and how it will grow or change over time. They need to be able to think like an outsider, such as a customer who doesn't know the corporate jargon; yet they also need to be insiders in order to know how the company actually works. Disciplines they should be familiar with are graphic design, library or information science, journalism, usability, marketing, and computer science. The best option is to have people on your web team representing these different areas. Whatever the IA's discipline, they should focus primarily, as their title implies, on the architecture and organization of the site.

Chapter three gets into organizing information. Though we constantly categorize objects and thoughts in our daily lives, it is still a difficult job to do consistently on a web site. Reasons for this are ambiguity, heterogeneity, differences in perspective, and internal company politics. The book then covers the two main types of organizational schemes: exact and ambiguous. While exact schemes, such as alphabetical indices, are easier to create, they are really good only for known item searching. Ambiguous schemes, such as subject areas, are generally more useful for general IR but involve more conceptual grey areas. Closely related to the scheme is the actual organizational structure used by the site: hierarchical (the most common), database (good for homogeneous data; can be easily reformatted), and hypertext/web (the most creative and versatile, but also the most confusing).

Chapter four gets into navigational systems. First of all there are basic aids present in browsers that should not be overridden. Also there should be a consistent site image, something that provides basic "You Are Here" information. Navigation within a site can be hierarchical (as in a table of contents/site map), global (the few links that are always available), local (sub-site navigation), and embedded or ad hoc (links within the content or text). The book also discusses the advantages and disadvantages of nav bars, pull-down menus, frames, and remote navigational elements (like tables of content). In conclusion, it points out that there is no one answer, and that the navigation must arise from the site's overall structure and purpose.

I'm enjoying this book. Like most O'Reilly books, it is well structured and easy to read. It describes available options quite nicely, exploring the advantages and disadvantages of each.

The Fine Line is pretty light reading so far. Considering a third of the book is notes and bibliography, I suppose it's not surprising that topics aren't covered in great depth. The author, Eviatar Zerubavel, covers well how prolific categorizing is in our lives. Categories can have profound effects on our actions and our views of the world. There are rituals involved in crossing mental boundaries, such as moving from one year to the next, crossing the equator, or converting to a new religion. He also discusses how ambiguity--when something does not fit clearly one category or another--is the source of much consternation and frustration. People seem to proscribe such ambiguous actions or objects, or try to force them into one category or another.

This book does make a nice contrast to Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. Most of Zerubavel's example categories are quite diametric, that is, they are evenly and clearly split into realms of "this" and "not-this." Where there is ambiguity, he implies that people attempt to fit the problem cases into one realm or the other and so maintain the "fine line" between the two realms.

Overall, I find the "prototype" version of categories to be more accurate. I don't believe that most categories are formed as a diametric division into "this" and "that," or "us" and "them." Instead, they seemed to be formed by objects or experiences with common features. As such, the complementary category is frequently defined solely by its being complementary. So there is a category of "leaves" and "not-leaves," but the "not-leaves" is largely a useless category and is defined solely in terms of the "leaves" category.

Of course, there are some categories that fit the diametric model a little better. I suspect that the more abstract the category or objects, the more diametric it is and the more well-defined its borders. Thus, common day objects are very hard to classify and have very fuzzy category boundaries. Abstractions such as animal classifications, social groups, and calendar dates are more well defined. Mathematics and logic are extremely well defined. I have to think more on what exactly I mean by "abstraction" here, and investigate whether this really is a trend.

One thing I have noticed is that with any category, it is possible to produce exceptions by becoming either more specific or more concrete/"real world." It seems a matter of probing the definition. Perhaps that is just my Skeptical leanings. But it does seems that most rule-based ethical systems have their exceptions. The moral rules say I should never lie, but what if it would prevent a murder? Even something as abstract, logical, and certain as 2 + 2 = 4 can be probed a little with real world examples. 2 handfuls of sand + 2 handfuls of sand = 1 pile of sand. 2 amoebae + 2 amoebae = (after a time) a whole bunch of amoebae. Other examples include atoms in a fusion reaction, lightwaves, and gametes. Is this another example of certainty being related to the level of abstraction or to the definitions?

Certainly these problems are going to be interesting when it comes to real world application, such as devising organizational structure or navigational hierarchies.

Post-discussion Issues:

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