Originally published December 2002
Examples of Wireframes, Site Maps, Story boards, Use Cases, Paper Prototypes
In my work as a web designer and IA I have come across many inconsistencies in the way Information Architects and other Web professionals refer to Web information architecture deliverables and diagrams. In speaking with various Web design groups I have heard multiple terms for the same deliverables. Web information architecture is a relatively new field which has yet to develop a consistent and universal set of deliverables, and terminology to refer to those deliverables. I also haven’t come across a central repository of IA deliverable and diagram documentation. This document is an attempt to fill that void.
What is Information Architecture?
Information architecture is the foundation open which websites are built. You can think of it as the blue prints for a website. It defines a website’s structure, hierarchy, and navigation.
What are deliverables? What are the most effective deliverables? The answer depends on the situation, audience, budget, time constraints, skill set of your team, and various other factors. Learning how to create these deliverables is the easy part. Gaining an understanding of when to use them, and in what format, is the tricky part.
The following are the most widely used IA deliverables. However, there are additional deliverables which some consider to be the responsibility of the IA, while others would assign them to perhaps a PM or designer. The most widely used name for the deliverable is listed with additional synonyms also displayed. Some Web information architecture examples and samples are linked to.
Web Information Architecture Examples
1. Content Inventory (aka Content Survey, Audit)
A content inventory is intended to provide a consolidated snapshot of all the major sections, pages, and content on a Web site. This would include text, graphics, and multimedia. Some even go as far as to break content down into individual pieces or paragraphs of content. Sometimes a content inventory is performed on content that is not yet part of a Web site. This would be helpful for an organization that is collecting content to be placed on a new Web site. Card sorting would be helpful for organizing content in this situation.
Here a a couple examples of Web content invent roy variations.
- Survey - A high level review of a site’s main sections and pages. It enables you to develop an understanding of the general site scope and major chunks of content.
- Detailed Audit - this is a comprehensive inventory of every page on a site. This inventory will list every page’s filename, title, URL, and possibly its file type and a description. It’s also helpful to assign a unique page ID that will correspond to the pages location on the Site Map.
- Content Map – This simply entails laying out the site content in a graphical format. I haven’t seen this used widely, and I’m not sure how much use it would serve. If you’re performing a content inventory on a current site, then an effective site map might nullify the need for a content map.
Sample content inventory (pdf)
2. User Profile (aka Personas)
A user profile or persona is a realistic (but likely fictional) example of a target audience member. The profile commonly takes the form of a one page piece that lists the user’s name, occupation, education, demographic characteristics, computer/web experience, and site goals or likely tasks. A stock photography picture is usually used to give a face to the profile.
These profiles can be extremely useful in keeping the web team focused on the user’s needs. These may not be necessary for usability experts, designers, or information architects, all of whom should have a firm grasp of user-centric design. But they can be beneficial for project managers, programmers, and clients. When making decisions it’s helpful to be able to say “John B. really would have trouble with this,” or “Adding this link here would really make life easier for Sharon.” User profiles also help to reinforce the importance of an Information Architect. It is a deliverable that documents the establishment of target audiences, a process that might have taken a considerable amount of effort and research.
3. Use Case (aka User Scenario, Task Analysis, User Flow)
Use cases are narratives that describe how a user might use a system or site. A use case illustrates a sequence of events that an actor (external agent) might go through in order to accomplish their goal. A use case is similar to a process flow.
- Essential Use Case – Narratives that remain relatively independent of a specific technology or implementation.
- Real Use Case – Narratives that incorporate the current technology and/or site design. This is basically the same thing as a Process Flow.
Sample use case (pdf)
4. Sitemap (aka Site Map, Site Hierarchy Map, Site Diagram, Blueprint, Web Map)
Site maps are one of the most critical and widely used web information architecture tools (along with wireframes). They show the overall structure and hierarchy of a Web site. They can be used as the first step in laying out the web information architecture of a site, and will provide the framework upon which to base site navigation. When I set out to understand the IA of a current site, or design an IA for a new site, I start by sketching out a ruff site map. Site maps can be constructed in a wide variety of formats, but the general structure and principles remain relatively consistent.
Sample Site Map (pdf)
6. Wireframes (aka Wire Frame, Page Architecture, Low Fidelity Mock-Up, Page Schematic)
Information Architecture Wireframes (combined with Site Maps) are the bread and butter tools of information architects. They are useful for conveying the general page structure and content requirements for individual pages.
Wireframes need to achieve a happy medium between being too precise and too loose. What I mean by this is that a wireframe that is too precise or detailed may leave little creative room for the designer. A wireframe that is too loosely defined can easily be misinterpreted by designers and developers. The format used should be dependent upon the audience.
Using detailed wireframes will frequently flush out new requirements and questions that nobody has thought about yet. They also help to keep a paper trail of functional and design decisions that are made. I sometimes use wireframes to get people thinking and generate requirements. Wireframes will sometimes end up evolving into the default requirements document for a Web site.
7. Paper Prototype (aka Low Fidelity Prototype)
Paper prototyping involves using screen shots and/or hand sketched page diagrams to quickly elicit user feedback and identify interface IA problems. Using a paper prototype involves conducting a usability test using a low fidelity prototype. These prototypes can be created electronically using programs such as MS Word, Excel, Visio, or various WYSIWYG editors. However, in many cases paper prototypes are nothing more than loosely hand-sketched designs. The quicker these paper prototypes can be created, the greater the benefit. Paper prototypes shouldn’t incorporate specific design elements such as color, style, fonts, detailed graphics, etc.
You may be hesitant to present something that might resemble a 6th graders art project to a client. However, with a bit of education the client will be appreciative of the time and money you are saving them.
8. Story Board (aka Storyboard)
It’s debatable whether a storyboards are anything different than a set of wireframes, but they can tend to illustrate more of a process than a wireframe does. However in many cases IAs add usage and process notes to wireframes. I have also see storyboards (or something resembling them) referred to as Blueprint, Schematic, Grey Model, Interaction, Interaction Wireframe, IA Requirements Document, Design Document
Story boards typically combine information from process flows, site maps, and other IA deliverables. They can be used to illustrate a single screen or a whole system or site. They usually offer screen shots or some type of graphical representation of the screens, combined with a narrative description. Storyboards help to document the functionality of the site and describe how users will potential use the interface. These deliverables can be used by programmers, project managers, upper management, and clients to ensure that everyone is on the same page. Storyboards often turn into the initial requirements documents that programmers begin coding from. These deliverables provide an excellent chance to get client buy in and sign-off on the proposed function laity and IA of a site. Story boards can be similar to a detailed wireframe, and there is a lot of crossover between the two.
9. Style Guide
Style guides are used to document baseline design requirements for a site. They usually define font classes and a wide range of various design conventions to be followed. This deliverable would generally be considered the responsibility of a designer, but in some instances the Information Architect may be covering multiple roles (as is the case with me). HTML Wire frames are a good solution to solve multiple needs; deliverables for clients or management, and functional templates to start programming from.
Sample Style Guide (pdf)
Using Web Information Architecture Diagrams
In part 2 we take a look at the factors that influence using information architecture deliverables. Which provides more information on using Wireframes, Site Maps, Story boards, Use Cases, Paper Prototypes, User Profiles, and Site Maps and other web information architecture examples.