Data that Describes Data

Posted by AMac on January 28, 2009

I recently attended a workshop series called UX Intensive, hosted by Adaptive Path. For four days, I and about 100 other web enthusiasts examined four key elements that contribute to a successful website design: Design Strategy, Design Research, Information Architecture, and Interaction Design. I've put together a list of four insights to better web design, one for each day of the week.

Information Architecture

Day three was all about information architecture, that is, how to label and organize your website content in order to maximize usability. How do we structure a site so that Barney can easily find what he's looking for?

Answering this question isn't easy. As you can imagine, there are millions of websites out there, each with its own content and way of organizing information. This goes to show that there is no perfect system, no golden rule to ensure that every user finds their way, every time.

However there is a common thread among sites that are very easy to navigate. Organizing your content with effective metadata will lay the foundation for a very user-friendly website.

Metadata, simply put, is data that describes data. The best way I can think to explain metadata is to first imagine a world without it.

Get this. You walk into the grocery store to find that there are no shelves, no aisles, no signs, no labels. Everything for sale is in a big pile in the middle of the floor. People are picking through the mound of goods to find what's on their list. Wild isn't it?

Snap back to reality. At the grocery store, you can find what you're looking for because of metadata. Metadata describes content, labels and organizes it. I'm in a store labeled H-E-B, I find the aisle labeled condiments and then my favorite condiment labeled mustard. I turn it over and just as I suspected, mustard is made from mustard seeds.

Labeling your content with thoughtful metadata is useful for a number of reasons.

Navigation Made Easy

The user can quickly and easily find any piece of content simply by navigating menus created, in part, by metadata. Think about the enormous amount of content on, millions of products, right?  But I can find what I want in 4 clicks. My opponent would say, "Andrew, find that product." Grocery, mustard, brown mustard, Bambino Spicy Brown Mustard. Booya! Brought to you by metadata.


Good metadata can do wonders for your site in terms of search engine results. When somebody Googles "mustard," you want your mustard to be the first result right? Meta descriptions, a type of metadata, are the key to being number one. Read Mark's post on meta descriptions for more about better SEO.

Site Search

Users see your site's search bar as a safety net when browsing navigation doesn't work. Effective metadata can yield very effective search results in these cases. Users will find what they're looking for if you've done your part behind the scenes.

Time out. It is important to note here that search bars add a layer of complexity to metadata because they introduce an element we can't control, the user. Let's say Barney comes to a site all about baseball and wants to find information about Babe Ruth, except in the search bar he types,"The Colossus of Clout." "The Colossus of Clout?" you ask. Yes, The Colossus of Clout. The search results won't return content pertaining to Babe Ruth unless you tell the system that The Colossus of Clout is Babe Ruth.

From the beginning you'll want to work with what is called a Controlled Vocabulary or CV. Decide on a preferred term for like content and use this term consistently throughout the site. In this case, you'd set Babe Ruth as your preferred term and then set up a synonym ring for all the possible variants of that term.

Image removed.

Then when Barney's brother comes to the same site and searches for "The Titan of Terror," he'll surely find all you have to offer on Babe Ruth.

Wrap it Up

As you can see, setting up good metadata can be a complex endeavor but taking the time to do it right in the beginning will certainly pay off in the end, perhaps quite literally. Imagine a customer that gets fed up with navigating your site and goes to spend money elsewhere. I assure you it happens all the time. Don't let it happen to you. Do the work up front so the user doesn't have to.

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