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Whenever a user lands on a website or an app, they’re greeted with an information interface — a.k.a., information that’s been intentionally structured in a specific way. The organization and display of these details are known as information architecture (IA).
Many business owners don’t know what good IA is. When done well, it creates a positive user experience (UX) and is invisible. In contrast, poor IA can leave users confused, annoyed and scampering to hit the back button.
To ensure your website, application or product has the best chance of success, it needs to be based on solid IA principles.
This guide below will catch you up to speed on what information architecture is, how it relates to user experience design and the 8 guiding principles you’ll want to embrace.
IA acts like a blueprint for your website. It shows how the content across your site is structured, grouped and arranged. There’s no limit to how the IA will be designed, just that it includes all the relevant information about site infrastructure and hierarchy.
It gives an overall view of a project and can help define the structure of content, how it displays, along with how content and pages support one another.
Indeed, IA is one of the foundational components to creating a human-centered design. The core focus of your IA will be organizing your content so your users can accomplish their goals faster. It will include the actions they can take through different pages, along with different entry points into your site and how that changes the flow of information.
Information architecture isn’t the same as UX, but there is a significant overlap. Think of the information architecture as one of many spokes in the entire wheel of UX.
The process of IA is an aspect of the early UX design stages. Usually, you’ll create an IA document that informs the subsequent design steps.
Here’s a basic process:
To start at the basics, you’ll want to define 2 things: the reason the project exists and the result that would mean success for the project. The main reasons for a project to exist are as follows:
Usually, a well-structured website will end up helping with all three.
Who’s going to be using your website? If you’re redesigning an existing site, you probably have a good understanding of that. But it can be helpful to go through this process again.
The questions you’ll want to answer are:
You can employ UX practices here such as creating user personas, conducting interviews, doing market research and drafting best- and worst-case user scenarios.
If your website already has content, then it’s time to do a content inventory. Decide what you’re going to keep and what you’re going to get rid of. This will take some time, especially if you have a large website, but it’s a worthwhile undertaking.
If you have a brand-new website, then you can start from scratch by defining your site’s pages, media and content assets.
Here’s a quick approach for designing the IA for your website:
Start to prioritize and group your site content. This will help you form initial categories and see what content will be the primary focus of your website.
Your content groupings can help you form your initial categories and what your navigation might look like.
Your navigation will be used to dive deeper into creating a sitemap. This is a diagram that will resemble a flowchart of the information paths a user can take, along with how content relates and is grouped.
The final sitemap you produce will probably influence and change the initial navigation menu you had in mind.
You can start testing your sitemap in the early stages (before any design work starts), to make sure your site is structured logically. Here are a few different testing methods:
IA plays a key role in a user’s experience of a website. Most websites involve the complex delivery of information, while a UX designer is involved in the display and delivery of that information.
UX designing without building the IA is like building a house without a blueprint.
IA helps to create useful content structures and intuitive navigation, so users can easily find what they’re looking for. Even if a website is highly complex and contains thousands of pages.
The IA process comes well before the design process. Beyond just theory and lists of potential pages, IA will generate in-depth sitemaps, navigation plans and content groups. All of this will be organized and laid out logically.
Later, this is translated into IA-UX mockups and eventually prototypes. This leads to further user testing, feedback and a refinement of the initial IA design.
When IA is done right, it helps to improve the value of your website to the user. Bad IA leads to poor user experiences and unread content.
Here are the 2 main ways IA impacts your website:
Your website isn’t the only one in your user’s life. We live in an information age. If your website doesn’t provide the user with the information they want, at the time they want it, they’ll leave your site. Indeed, UX is key.
Your content won't make an impact if it takes your user too long to find it, or if the navigation process is too complicated.
With great website information architecture, your users will find what they’re looking for faster, complete more actions on your website and leave with a positive feeling. This leads to happy users, which means more returning visitors and a greater chance of word of mouth marketing — all through better design.
When your website is a business asset you can’t afford to make your visitors and potential customers' lives more difficult. The information architecture of a website plays an important role in helping your site build your business.
Here are some of the pitfalls of poor IA:
With good IA you can avoid these business pitfalls.
Certain principles guide information architecture. Some of these principles are more intuitive, while others will need to be actively applied.
The goal of these 8 principles is to give information architects and UX designers the tools and strategies to solve information architecture problems, understand the types of information architecture and create more user-friendly websites and apps.
These principles were created by Dan Brown, a veteran in the fields of digital product discovery, IA, interaction design and many other related disciplines.
This means viewing your content as a living breathing thing, not a static object. All content has a life cycle and behavior patterns that must be understood.
By looking at your content through this light it becomes more flexible and it’s much easier to see how it relates to other forms of content across your site.
By working with your content lifecycle you’ll see how some pages are valuable at certain times, while other times won’t be used. Think of online stores that sell clothing based on the seasons.
Too many options are worse than too little. Every page in your site or application should serve a distinct purpose, otherwise, it shouldn’t be developed.
The more choices your users have to make, the less likely they’ll end up deciding at all.
Think about relevancy. Ask yourself: Is this page relevant to my user? If the answer is no, then the page shouldn’t be created.
The goal of this principle is to keep your user making intuitive and logical decisions. You need to choose pages that keep the user in this flow, instead of being bogged down with too many decisions to make.
The goal of all your menus is to make them as short as possible. You can create additional navigation choices within, but only provide them with relevant options based upon the page they’re on.
This is based on the idea that people can only process a certain amount of information at a given time. You want to limit the feeling of information overload as much as possible.
Think about your content structure as a nested Russian doll. It’s OK to have a lot of information, but this information should only be revealed to users at the appropriate time.
The best rule of thumb is to give users enough content, so they can decide what to do next, whether that means going to a new page entirely or having additional content reveal itself on the same page.
The structure of the content should also help the user anticipate what's to come, and reveal just enough information to make the decision-making process easy.
This deals with the psychology of how we group things as humans. We can take larger concepts and categorize different examples beneath them. This creates a more intuitive navigation structure.
If your website has a big list of categories at the top, then each category needs an example of what can be found when they click through.
Another element of this is the use of visual cues and how they can be more powerful navigational elements than text alone. By providing directional visuals, you can improve the user experience and help a visitor make faster navigation decisions.
The best information architecture example of this is how Amazon.com displays images of products in a specific category when the user hovers over that category.
The home page of your website is the front door to your site. But it isn’t the only entrance. Users will be visiting your website from a variety of different entrances, so each of these needs to function similar to the home page. Most people will visit your site from a page that isn’t the home page.
The question that fuels this is: What content would my user need to know they’re in the right place? You’ll want to orient your visitor, so they know where they are on your website, in terms of the greater whole.
The user also should be able to effectively navigate the site as if they were entering from the home page.
People will access information on your website in different ways. Some will rely upon the search bar. Others will browse page by page and category by category to find what they’re looking for.
Your site should cater to multiple different patterns of user interaction and information discovery. The content and structure need to support multiple different user behavior patterns, journeys and scenarios.
The thing to be careful about here is to cater to multiple user preferences, while still not overwhelming your entire group of users with choices.
Your navigation needs to be consistent across the site. Your menus should always be in the same location and be easily understood by the user. Your navigation menus also shouldn't contain every piece of content across your website.
Your menus need an underlying organization and strategy to be effective. Since most websites will employ a variety of navigation menus, they need to be easily understood by the user as being different.
Your menu also should contain consistent items. If your main menu is purely for navigation, then don’t include links or mixed media that appear when clicked.
In IA, your site’s information needs to be organized by its correct categories. Your user should know exactly where to find the information they’re looking for at all times.
Websites grow. Nearly all sites will continually create, publish and update content. This might involve wholly new pieces of content or the restructuring and redesign of existing assets.
This results in a more complex website that could lead to navigation issues if not thought about beforehand.
Instead of thinking about content management as a rigid structure, it needs to have more fluidity. The website as a whole, it’s current structure and built-in search tools should be able to evolve and still offer the same user experience.
Your IA needs to be built for sustainable growth, regardless of the future directions of the site’s content.
UX designers as well as those in adjacent fields would benefit from getting familiar with IA and the associated skills.
This understanding will greatly influence the quality of websites, how easy they are to navigate, the function of search systems and how satisfied your users are.
Here’s a 6-step process that UX designers can follow to integrate IA into the design process:
Successful IA will create a simple and positive user experience. The end result is an easy to use website that your customers and visitors keep coming back to time and time again.