Information architecture (IA) is the approach you take to structure and navigation on your website. The IA model that you choose will have an impact on how you design your site. For some websites, this is as simple as choosing to put all your content on a single homepage. For a social network’s IA, a more sophisticated approach is needed.
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The flat IA model is where you have more than one page, and each page is granted equal importance. You can go from one page to another page in a single click. This method can also be called monocline grouping. See below.
This type of hierarchy is too rudimentary for a social networking website. If you have a simple social network where each user is given their own profile page, your website could have millions of links on each and every page. While a flat structure may be suitable for a simple brochure website, it is not suitable for a social network.
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The index structure is the web equivalent of a directory. The homepage acts as the index, navigating you to the right page within the directory. See below.
This model could work well for a social network with a small number of users. However, information architects must consider scalability. A pure index hierarchy is not built to scale. For a phone directory with a few hundred entries, this could work. For a social network with 10,000 users, it would be a disaster.
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The strict hierarchy looks like an organizational chart in most large companies. People report to their boss, and their boss reports to their boss. Management links to lower level employees via their managers. In the web architecture example, you access a lower level page via its parent. See below.
This structure is more suitable for social networks than the previously discussed models. To consider its application, let’s imagine a social network that facilitates communication among a golf club’s members. There could be a separate parent category for male and female golfers. You could drill down from home > male golfers > Name Surname to find the person you are looking for.
What happens if you want to expand the categories beyond male and female golfers and add another category for “competition winners”? In that case, competition winners would need to be a member of a gender category and a member of the “competition winners” category. This would not be possible with a strict hierarchy, since each file has only one parent. For this reason, a strict hierarchy will usually lead to usability problems on more complex social networks.
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Most social networks, other than the most primitive, must opt for a multi-dimensional hierarchy to achieve their usability and navigation goals. See below.
The multi-dimensional hierarchy embraces the nuance that a strict hierarchy ignores. In the golf club example, golf members have relationships with one another. A golfer can be a “male” and a “competition winner” and have friends who are “male and “female”. You can move from one golfer’s profile to another directly, if they are friends. Profiles possess multiple properties and can be filed in more than one place. This adds flexibility to navigation and allows users to follow more than one path to achieve the same objective.
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Search has become fundamental to understanding the architecture of many of today’s leading websites. Google, clearly, would be unusable without search functionality. Twitter does not rely on search to be functional, but it adds a whole new dimension to their social network. Without search, users would exist in pockets of followers connected only by disparate connections. Search adds a discovery mechanism to content and people.
On some social networks, search acts as a means of short-circuiting the hierarchical structure. In others, search makes hierarchical structures superfluous.
Search usually works in one of two ways in a social network. It allows you to search within a particular parent or it allows you to search across parent to find profiles. And, sometimes you can do both.