The Best IA Tool You Never Heard Of

A Web site is a very complex animal. Multilayered and interconnected, linking out to all corners of the Web, targeted to various audiences, products, and services. Web sites can easily become tangled masses of virtual spaghetti without proper attention.

That’s where an information architect’s expertise comes in. Versed in a multitude of disciplines, from information theory to social science to technology, these folks are the ones who figure out where things go, what links to what, and what the experience of a site should be to its various users. Far from a trivial task. I’d argue information architecture (IA) is more important to the success of a site than design or programming. The two are (obviously!) vital. But if your customers can’t find your products and information or can’t access your services, you’re better off not having a site in the first place.

A site’s organization is similar to the way humans mentally retain information. We group relevant information into categories, form associations between them, and use this information to shape the way we view the world. A good site is no different: It holds everything about a company customers might want, links together the relevant stuff for visitors to read, and provides an experience that conveys a message. Online, site experience is your brand experience. If it sucks, all the fancy graphics and flashy technology in the world won’t bring back disgruntled customers.

Sadly, tools for conceptually laying out sites have remained fairly rudimentary. Sure, you’ve got programs such as Visio, Inspiration, and the very fine OmniGraffle to work with. And yes, all have been extended over the years to incorporate many Web-friendly features as a nod to information architects who use them. But they still seem a bit stilted, more suited to org-chart makers and programmers than creative folks who want to be able to take what’s in their head, play with it a little, then lay it out on the page to guide a development effort.

A good IA tool should work like your brain. Is there one?

Yes. It’s called Tinderbox.

“Tinderbox?” Yup, and I bet you never heard of it. It’s made by Eastgate Systems, a small but incredibly innovative company that produced the first real commercial hypertext authoring system, Storyspace, years before the Web came along. Since then, it’s continued to develop new versions of Storyspace, publish groundbreaking hypertext literature, and crank out a few nifty spin-off programs (such as the very cool Web Squirrel). It was here before so many Johnny-come-lately dot-coms came and went, bucking trends and putting out really smart stuff.

The second reason you may not have heard of Tinderbox is because its not marketed as an IA tool. Eastgate has chosen to call it “The Personal Content Management Assistant.” Pity.

Tinderbox does an incredible job as a note-taking, brainstorming, information-gathering tool, working much like your brain does to allow you to capture, link, and organize ideas in a flash. It really shines as an IA tool. It allows you to quickly prototype maps of information, establishing links between ideas (or pages or nodes), sites, or other files. Tinderbox is the perfect replacement for those “sticky note” sessions so many information architects are used to. Just start brainstorming, get all the elements that need to be on your site in one place, view them in one of five different views, arrange, link –and you’re ready to go. Tinderbox even exports as HTML, so it’s possible to create entire prototype sites from your Tinderbox sessions.

This just scratches the surface. Tinderbox has a huge range of information-arrangement options called “agents” to add intelligence to prototypes, wonderful help, and great documentation. It even stores data in XML, making it a snap to interface with other data tools, if necessary. At $145, it’s a steal.

If you don’t use Tinderbox for IA work, it’s still a fantastic tool for interoffice brainstorming, meeting note-taking, or just sitting down to think by yourself. But don’t just take my word for it. If you’re using Mac OS or Mac OS X, you can download a demo and try it for yourself.

Am I a little excited about Tinderbox? Yup, you’d better believe it. Although it’s difficult to describe what it’s like to work with, once you try it you’ll probably wonder how you got your thoughts down without it. Is it perfect? No, but nothing I’ve seen in the IA tools realm is (check here and here for links to more).

I’d still like a 3-D view to really be able to see all the links. I’d like the ability to import existing sites and have them mapped in 3-D. I want simple integration between my IA and development tools, such as Dreamweaver. I’d like to be able to embed voiceovers so I can send diagrams to clients as standalone presentations. I’d like… OK, a lot. Maybe I should fire up Tinderbox and start jotting down some of these ideas…

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