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  • Information Architecture for Your Learning Catalog

In the last article we talked about how users find information in your learning catalog.  In this article, we’ll talk about what you can do to make your learning more findable. We’ll explore the underpinnings of findability in your learning catalog so that you can evaluate changes with a simple framework.  In our next article we’ll cover a specific technique, card sorting, as a mechanism for generating catalog structures.

Information Architecture Basics

Before we can get to how to make courses more navigable and therefore more findable, we’ve got to take a moment to explain a few fundamental tenants of information architecture: wayfinding and recoverability.

Wayfinding is how we find our way.  It comes from the study of cities where humans find their way by landmarks and other exocentric means.  In information architecture, it’s the visual clues as to where you are.  It is most frequently a breadcrumb metaphor that allows the user to always see what spot they are in the hierarchy, and in some cases, the sibling (or alternative paths) that they could have chosen.  Without some mechanism for wayfinding, it is too easy for people to become lost.

Consider that you’re visiting Paris for the first time.  You’re walking through the different districts into which the city is divided.  As a foreigner, as I am, you’ll always tend to get your bearings by looking for the Eiffel tower.  In Washington DC, you might use the Washington Monument, but you might use the capital building as well.  However, the point here is that humans are wired with an exocentric navigation system that relies on visual clues (unlike bees and ants that are hard wired with a more egocentric internal navigation).  Because of this, you must provide visual references for your users to know where they are.

Recoverability is the ability to realize that a person has made a wrong turn and how they get back to where they made that wrong turn.  If you’ve ever been frustrated to have taken a wrong turn only to find yourself on a one-way street with no direct way to turn back, you’ve experienced poor recoverability.  In the information context, it means providing a way for users to step back. Again, the breadcrumb is our faithful companion here, allowing us to back up and start again.  However, our other more persistent hero is the back button of the browser, which should be able to take us back so we can make another choice.

Abstract and Concrete

Of course websites are not cities.  Learning catalogs are not districts.  As much as we try to mirror the physical world, and thereby connect with how students process information, it won’t be exact.  In some areas of your learning catalog, such as security and ethics, it may be very difficult to determine at a glance which course teaches which key concepts.  Abstracts can help, but when you’re browsing the catalog, reading the abstract can be a big ask and yet in many cases it’s necessary.

Here’s the real problem: Humans visualize a real object for each branch in a hierarchy.  It’s called prototyping.  If you have an option in your catalog for manufacturing they visualize a factory with steam pouring out of the top.  If you’ve got an option for security, they’ve got a security guard standing in place of the option.

That’s fine if your catalog doesn’t need to break down information security from physical security.  Physical security might be viewed as a padlock, but how do you visualize information security?  Perhaps you put a picture of a brick wall with fire on it to represent a firewall?  That’s fine for courses related to browsing on the Internet, but what about information security training that represents care of a laptop and a smartphone, or what information to disclose via telephone or email?

I’m not suggesting that you should literally put an icon next to each branch in your learning catalog; however, if you realize that your users are trying to do this instinctively, it is worth considering.


It’s important to note that if you do choose to put pictures next to your items, that there are some images that more precisely prototype an item than others.  We all visualize the Monopoly house as “Home” despite the fact that nearly no one has a house that looks like this.  We visualize a factory with smoke stacks releasing steam and yet few factories have this.  We should be choosing imagery based on how people visualize the item, and not necessarily the item itself.

It’s worth mentioning that you should not include images of conflicting meaning.  Some attributes of an image will outweigh others.  For instance, researchers created a pink truck and found that boys wouldn’t play with it.  In other words, pinkness overrides truckness.  Similarly a diary with bullet holes is still a diary and boys won’t use it.  (I’m curious what would happen if researchers had called it a journal.)


Robert Bogue is the author of 22 books on technology, a Microsoft Certified Trainer, and internationally renowned speaker.  He consults with organizations to implement SharePoint, software vendors to integrate their software to SharePoint, and offers SharePoint training materials to organizations.  You can find out more about his materials from or follow his blog at

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