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and Perceived Information Architecture (PIA)
Article by John
This article discusses two
key ideas. First, it briefly outlines four ways to represent the same
information. Second, it provides a high level overview of Perceived
As you can see below, I created
a diagram that represents four different ways to represent the same
information. The first mode of representation is a hierarchy.
Actually, it doesn't need to be a hierarchy, it just looks like a hierarchy.
But, that is how we treat it. We need not flow top to bottom, yet it affords
a top to bottom flow.
The second mode is a simple
diagram of nested sets. Of course, the nested diagram is represents
exactly the same information as the hierarchy.
The third mode is a generic
set representation of the information. Using numbers and parentheses,
this is very compact way to represent the information.
The final mode is an English
description of information.
These four modes of representation are interesting because they are at the
same time very similar and very different from each other. They all
basically represent exactly the same information. However, the first mode
affords flow, the second mode is visual and inclusive, the
third mode is extremely compact, and the final mode is driven by language.
Representation and Perceived Information Architecture
Depending on what you want to
capture, your mode of representation will probably change. When you are
doing usability research is it very important to think beyond just capturing
user comments. It is also important to think beyond other typical metrics,
such as errors and reaction time. There is so much more you can capture!
In our consulting, we have
taken this idea to new levels. In particular, we have developed a very
interesting technique that helps us get at how users think about the
information architecture of a web site. After conducting a full usability
test, with many scenarios, we work with users to develop a Perceived
Information Architecture (PIA).
We basically have users draw
out a map of the site as they perceive it on large sheets of paper. We
literally get users to create a diagram of the information architecture. We
passively work with them, but they are in control. They use any language
they want, any colors, and any concepts. They can use layers, circles,
numbers, or anything else. We let them represent the information any way
they want. In a semi-structured way, we help them express the architecture
of the site from their point of view.
To our knowledge, this is a new
and innovative technique. It is aimed at capturing the perceived
information architecture of a web site. We can compare these representations
to the actual information architecture, as the designers developed. We can
look for static points, areas of failure, black holes, burning concepts,
flow, and much more.
We developed this new method
because other methods of testing did not provide us with the right
representations. Users were unable to articulate their perceptions of
the structure and flow of the web sites. Also, we found that card sorting
was not effective at the end of the usability testing because users were
getting polluted by the existing concepts on the sites being tested. They
were having a hard time getting beyond the concepts we used on the cards.
Using our new Perceived Information Architecture method, we have found that
users are not nearly as inhibited. Indeed, users love drawing their
impressions of the structure of the sites. The ownership of the
representation liberates users.
At WebWord, we think it is
important to think beyond the current ideas in usability. You don't
always need to use the same old testing methods. I'd also like to point out
that I think we have a lot to learn from other folks. For example, usability
could use a serious injection of marketing. By that I mean usability should
investigate how marketing is done, and usability should learn how to market
One of the main points of this
article was to get you to think about how to do things differently in
usability. If you have unique problems, you should be able to create new
Here is a simple algorithm.
First, understand the problem. You need to map it out. You need to have a
representation of the problem. Then, start generating possible solutions and
representations of solutions. Finally, map those representations to each
other. When there is a match, you are probably on to something really great.
Send them to me: email@example.com