In IA Thought, Information Architecture

One of the biggest challenges when designing a website is trying to translate the broad objectives into how actual work is done there. We get the objectives from business requirements, and we try to improve performance targets. Yet many sites continue to confuse and frustrate users—even though the goals are clearly understood by both the site’s designers and the people using it.

So why do some sites work better than others, even if the objectives are clear? What makes a site “sweet”?

Some would argue that this is a problem with complexity, and that “making the complex clear” is the way to solve it. But ultimately, both “complexity” and “clarity” are aspirational outcomes, not techniques.

We can work towards the objective of making the complex clear, where complex means “the crazy world we live in” and clear means “understandable in context without extra ornamentation.”

So what techniques can we use to get there? Well, a key one is to characterize how users grapple with and understand information as a core element of the design. In other words, decide what you can expect cognitively of users when they use your interface.

Think about this as the Information Processing Space.

The Information Processing Space

The aspects of the Information Processing Space can be placed along two continuums:

Information density – Amount of information that users need to process.
Concision – Number of elements used or needed to complete a task.

You can lay these two axes out to make four quadrants, and then map interactive systems to them. Some interesting patterns emerge:

  • Low-density, concise pages are the typical entry point into most websites.
  • Low-density, expanded sites (like Wikipedia) contain the lion’s share of actual content on the web.
  • Most websites avoid interfaces with high information density, but “expert” systems (like a dashboard) and commonly visited sites quickly cluster there.

Now here’s the fun part: try mapping familiar websites in terms of how they engage the audience. In other words, check the assumptions they make about the information processing needs of the visitors.


Not all sites fall neatly into a quadrant. For example, Twitter and Facebook have deeply flexible interfaces that allow both concise and expanded information processing.

Finding Your Own Sweet Spot

This exercise can be a useful way to think about your audience and what they are doing during their journey. But more importantly, it provides insight into a few important questions.

First, based on what your users are trying to do, are you building the site to hit the right spot on axis? For example, typical e-commerce results pages (like Amazon) should probably not be low-density and expanded. This is a reflection of the fact that most e-commerce sites have poor search engines and poor tagging, resulting in people getting giant lists of products that are not a good fit.

Expanded, Low Density, bewildering.

Secondly, are you applying best practices for that particular quadrant/bisection? Using this information density / concision grid will help you determine what kinds of information processing your users expect. In our next blog post we’ll introduce a vocabulary for thinking about how to design that information and guide site development so that you can apply these patterns to your own site.

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