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9.5. Architecture Style Guides

As we mentioned earlier, a web site keeps growing and changing. As an information architect, you must guide its development or risk architectural drift. It's frustrating to see your carefully designed organization, navigation, labeling, and indexing systems become mangled as site maintainers add content without heeding the architectural implications. While it may be impossible to completely prevent this disfigurement, an architecture style guide can steer content maintainers in the right direction.

An architecture style guide is a document that explains how the site is organized, why it is organized that way, and how the architecture should be extended as the site grows. The guide should begin with documentation of the mission and vision for the site. It's important to understand the original goals of the site. Continue with information about the intended audiences. Who was the site designed for? What assumptions were made about their information needs? Then, follow up with a description of the content policy. What types of content will and won't be included and why? This documentation of lessons learned and decisions made during the research phase is very important. These underlying philosophies drove the design of the architecture. Any future modifications to the architecture should be determined by this early work. Also, if the goals change or the assumptions prove incorrect, corresponding architectural modifications may be required.

Next, you should present both the high-level and detailed information architecture blueprints. Since you won't always be there to explain them, it may be necessary to explain the blueprints with narrative text. You also need to create guidelines for adding content to ensure the continued integrity of the organization, labeling, navigation, and indexing systems. Keep in mind that this can be a challenge. When should a new level in the hierarchy be added? Under what conditions can new indexing terms be introduced? How should local navigation systems be extended as the web site grows? By thinking ahead and documenting decisions, you can provide much needed guidance to the site maintainers.

Ideally, a graphic design style guide and perhaps a suite of HTML templates will complement your architecture style guide. In combination, and assuming the site maintainers don't ignore them, these style guides and templates can ensure that the integrity of the information architecture and graphic identity of the web site is maintained.

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