Foreword to Information Architecture (2nd edition)
by Dr. Jakob Nielsen, Nielsen Norman Group
On the Web, if a site is difficult to use, most people will leave. On an intranet, if employees perform their tasks more slowly due to difficult design, the company bears the cost of the reduced productivity. In fact, I estimate that low intranet usability costs the world economy $100 billion per year in lost employee productivity. Maybe not the most important problem facing the planet, but not a trifling, irrelevant issue either.
Usability is an important, though not the only, determinant for the success of a website or an intranet. Information architecture is an important, though not the only, determinant for the usability of a design. There are other issues as well, yes, but ignore information architecture at your peril.
Critics may say that users don't care about information architecture: they don't want to learn how a website is structured. Users just want to get in, get their task done, and get out. Users focus on tasks, not on structure.
I think that it's exactly because users don't care about the structure of a website that it is so important to get the information architecture right in the design. If only users would bother studying our websites in great detail, they could surely learn an obscure or illogical structure and utilize it to improve their task performance. Humans are flexible creatures and can adapt to hostile environments if they choose to do so.
Since we know that users won't spend time learning our information architecture, we have to spend resources to design the best information architecture we can. The more answers are located in the place you look for them, the easier the design will feel to users and the more successful the project. More sales (for an e-commerce sites), better reputation for good service (for a marketing site), less productivity loss (for an intranet). The pay-off from good information architecture is immense.
Allow users to focus on their tasks, and have your information architects be the ones to spend time worrying about the structure of the website or intranet. A good division of labor.
I am a great believer in having professional information architects design the structure of professional information projects such as corporate websites and intranets. But I also think there will be an increasing role for personal information architecture in the future. It will soon be time to teach a simplified version of the discipline to high school students and possibly even bringing it into elementary schools as well.
The modern world is one of information overload; we are constantly bombarded by an inflow of messages and we ought to read hundreds of times more information than we have time for. Keeping yourself from drowning in this morass of information will require personal information architecture skills for problems like structuring email folders and computer files as well as the ability to manage advanced search features.
In the long run, personal information architecture may turn out to be even more important than corporate information architecture. For now, though, read this book and get your website and intranet in shape to support your customers and employees. Good information architecture makes users less alienated and suppressed by technology. It thus simultaneously increases human satisfaction and your company's profits. Very few jobs allow you to do both at the same time, so enjoy.
Fremont, California, June 2002