Understanding and refining choreography for your information architecture

9 min read Optimal Workshop

What is information architecture (IA) without its complementary elements? On this blog we’ve already discussed the information architecture elements of taxonomy and ontology, and now it’s time to take a look at choreography. While taxonomy refers to how information is grouped, classified and labeled and ontology refers to the meaning behind our words, choreography describes the rules for how all those parts should interact.

Choreography is essentially the nuts and bolts that bring organization, structure and meaning together to form one well-oiled machine that supports, enables and delights users on their path to task completion within a specific context.

An often overlooked element of information architecture, nailing your choreography is essential to the delivery of a seamless user experience because it is present in everything your users will do on your website.

Understanding choreography and IA

Coming back to our house analogy from my taxonomy blog, choreography would be present throughout the entire house determining how everything works together. It’s in the positioning of the door handles and hinges to enable easy access and use of rooms and so you don’t swing an open door into a shower screen or into the knees of a toilet user (who should have locked the door anyway). Choreography appears in open plan living environments seamlessly flowing from one space to the next. The way that the laundry is usually a room that includes an external door allowing an easy workflow from storing the dirty clothes, to washing them to hanging them outside on the line to dry. These are all examples of choreography.

In the context of a website, choreography is present in a number of different website elements. These might include: the rules for how a menu might respond or behave under specific circumstances, the way the user interface adapts to suit different devices, the hierarchical relationship between content and much more.

Choreography examples

To help you understand how choreography might appear in a website IA context, I’ve scoured the internet and have found 3 interesting examples I’d like to share with you.

Mental Floss

Mental Floss is an online publication designed for curious minds — sounds awesome! But the thing I find most interesting is the choreography that is present in the surfacing behavior of the top navigation menu. There are two different ways to access its content: you can either click on the big orange menu button in the top right hand corner and you’ll get everything in one hit — including the footer links (see two images below) — or you can scroll down or up the page and it will automatically drop down and become sticky giving you just the level 1 IA headings and that sticky orange menu button (see third image below).

A screenshot of the homepage of Mental Floss. The headline says "The typo that helped end World War II"

Mental Floss as it appears when I first open the home page.

When I click on the big orange button

Menal_Floss_scrollNow look what happens when I scroll a bit…. Ta da 

If you go with the scrolling option, you’re not going to miss out because Mental Floss appears to have been designed to be explored — might have something to do with that curiosity thing! All the links that live under the big menu button are distributed throughout the long scrolling page, so when you’re exploring the content, you also get everything! If you get really stuck, that sticky orange menu button is always there to help. If I scroll I get one thing and if I click I get something else, but no matter how I choose to consume the content I get access to everything without having to think about it. This website’s choreography supports both exploratory and direct navigation styles and brings all the parts together.

IKEA US Inspiration page

Part blog, part catalogue, part how-to hub, the Inspiration page on IKEA’s US website is a fascinating IA example because it exists outside the patterns used on the rest of the website. It’s like an IA within an IA. While the rest of the website has a wide rigid structure typical of large IAs, the Inspiration page (also titled ‘IKEA Ideas’) is more organic and is organized by content tags and is navigated by filtering (see below).

The IKEA Ideas homepage and tag cloud.

The tag cloud-like thing displays the content tags in alphabetical order. Each piece can be assigned up to four tags and users can filter by clicking or just peruse the whole lot by scrolling. Upon clicking a content tag, the piece selection below is automatically updated to only include pieces with the selected tag.

Choreography on this part of IKEA’s US website is present in the relationship and behavior of the content tags and how that affects the information on the page.

Do nothing for 2 minutes

Do nothing for 2 minutes has a completely flat IA and its choreography is present in the way it responds to user behavior and the way it presents visual and audio content. The website opens to a single page (see below image) showing an image of a beautiful sunset at the beach accompanied by the soothing sound of waves gently crashing and a group of seagulls fighting over a pickle someone tossed them from a McDonald’s cheeseburger (maybe that was me). It gives me a very clear instruction to “do nothing for 2 minutes” and presents a timer that immediately starts counting down.

A relaxing scene on the ‘Do nothing for 2 minutes homepage’

In the centre of the screen in that sunlight created highlight are the the words “Just relax and listen to the waves. Don’t touch your mouse or keyboard.” It’s a bit hard to read and I didn’t instantly notice it but when I don’t follow its guidance, the timer resets and tells me to “try again”(see below image).

When I fail to do nothing, the timer resets

When I comply with its instructions, the clock ticks down and when there are just 40 seconds to go something magical happens — the wave sounds stop. It’s not jarring or surprising, in fact it actually felt like I dropped to a deeper state of relaxation. Like an experienced lead dance partner, this website’s choreography pushes and pulls the follower where it wants them to go. The rule here is: if I touch my mouse or keyboard, the clock resets, and if I follow the instructions, I get to access an additional layer of relaxation when the sound drops off. It forces me to take 2 whole minutes of out my day in a strict but supportive way.

When I reach the end of the 2 minutes, I’m congratulated and shown an advertisement for a book to help me further explore this technique. I usually hate seeing things like that but I don’t mind in this case because it doesn’t come across as pushy and it’s already given me something.

Refining the choreography of your IA

When you break it down, choreography is about behaviors and relationships between all the pieces of the IA. It’s about which parts go together, what they do and how that fits in with everything else. Think content pairings in a card sort and the hierarchical position of content within the IA’s tree structure — why do those cards go together and why does label Y appear directly before label X? These choices are deliberate; it’s not just a case of “Oh let’s just put them wherever,” or “I’m going to whack a certain label at the very top because my boss told me because that’s where he thinks it should go.” Choreography exists throughout your entire IA and like everything else, all refinements must be determined by user research.

When running a card sort, pay close attention to:

  • card pairings
  • cards that are consistently not paired
  • the hierarchy of cards within each group (card order)
  • the conversation between your participants (moderated card sorts only) for insights into the logic behind the pairings and hierarchical positioning

Cards that are paired — or not — as well as their hierarchical placement can not only provide insight into your users’ taxonomical expectations but can also help you identify relationships (or lack thereof) between content and elements. Say you were running a card sort on an intranet and two cards labeled ‘Annual Leave’ and ‘Public Holidays’ were consistently being grouped together under ‘Human Resources’. What’s their expected relationship and interaction beyond the subject matter connection? Does one appear before the other? Is one linked to the other one’s page? Or are they together on one page and if so how do they interact? (if at all). For moderated card sorts, listen closely to the conversation for insight into this and be sure to ask your participants about anything you’re not sure of.

If your IA is a bit further along in its development or you’d like to evaluate an existing IA, tree testing can help you understand the choreography that will best support your users. Keep an eye on:

  • the location of the first click
  • the pathways followed

The pathways followed by participants in a tree test will help you determine the right sequence of interactions required by a user to reach their goal — the ultimate step by step flow to task completion. What order do the labels need to be in? And what lives underneath them? And again, in what order?

Think of it like a path through the woods to a lake. Your IA’s choreography should enable your users to be seamlessly guided along a smooth pathway made of big stone steps. They shouldn’t be running into trees or bushwhacking to create their own pathways.

When looking at a tree test, consider how many of your participants did not follow the pathway/s you defined as correct. Where did they go instead? What does the right path look like to your users? Also look at where the all important first click landed. If users start out on the correct first click, they are almost 3 times as likely to reach their goal. If your participants started out on a different first click, you’ll need to explore why that is. It could indicate ambiguity in the labels, it could also be a sign of an expectations mismatch, a hierarchical issue or it could be something else entirely! The tree test will help you identify where the issues are, but you’ll need to go and have a conversation with your users to understand why it’s happening.

Unless more than say 80% of your participants achieved direct success in reaching their goal (meaning they never strayed from the big stone path that you defined) you’ll need to check these things anyway to resolve findability and usability issues. Choreography related insights are an extra thing you can pull from what you’re already doing. And of course always remember that any choreography related data has to be considered in conjunction with whether or not the labels are even correct. Choreography is just one piece of the puzzle; it sets the rules for how all the parts interact and isn’t going to be much help if the parts aren’t even right in the first place!

Choreography in information architecture might be one of the most overlooked elements but it’s not hard to give it the time and consideration it deserves and your users will thank you for it!