When you are structuring the information architecture for the content and functionality you are providing to your users, you need to think of how those users think of the domain. How do they think of the information? What preconceived models do that have in their heads?
Indi Young wrote a great book about this very topic. Titled (appropriately enough) Mental Models, the book goes into some detail on ways you can get a sense of how users think of things and what intellectual constructs they have created that your design should reflect. While I will not attempt to replicate her content or detail here, I did want to share some thoughts on how you can align with how people think of things.
I was working on a project recently for a large home improvement retailer, and we discussed the different models that customers “bring to the table” When it comes to what people look for when they visit a website for such a company, what are they looking for? Are they trying to solve a problem, or are they browsing? We came up with four candidate models for the site:
Product-focused. Things, objects, items… what do people go to an e-commerce site to do? Look for things to buy. Following through on this model meant that the information should be presented in a structure that aligns with the products the company offers.
Project-focused. Do people come to the table with a project in mind? Do you structure the content products around the possible projects, and provide easy access to products and tools used to accomplish those projects?
Location-centric. Where do people live? In a home or a rented property. Why not present the information in a way that aligns with the rooms people spend their time? Kitchen, bathroom, pantry, laundry… place content and product information in the context of a familiar “place” that people know.
Service-oriented. What services does the company provide users? How can you frame the information in a way that presents the services and the associated products effectively?
These are just examples of how you can apply different models to build out an information architecture. You may find that more than one model makes sense based on the content you are presenting… a “hybrid” approach. Use this framing concept to kick-start your design conversations and focus your efforts to create the appropriate information architect for your users.