What is Information Architecture?

Whenever you visit a website, the team behind it has thought carefully about what information to show you, where, and how to navigate place to place.

 

If you think of your favorite website – are your thoughts along the lines of “Wow, this is so easy to use!” or “thank goodness I could find that information quickly”. Then, you know careful thought and work went into that website’s information architecture.

 

If you care about getting all the features used on your site or product, and all the information read  – you’re going to want to spend some time on the IA.

 

Still confused? What is information architecture? We’re here to break down this topic and get you going, so you can apply this practically on your own work. Let’s begin!

Table of Contents

What is Information Architecture?

In a quick, brief nutshell – Information Architecture is the field of organizing and formatting website (and product) content to make it contextually understandable while also being efficient to search.

 

Even more generally, IA is in the business of solving complex problems, and representing them in a logical and easy to read way.

 

As the Information Architecture Institute puts it,

 

“A good IA helps people to understand their surroundings and find what they’re looking for – in the real world as well as online.”

Information Architecture Institute

 

It can also vary in depth. A marketing website that is very wide (but not very deep) may be more straightforward to manage.

However, ecommerce websites with loads of products, or an enterprise application will require more thought spent into how a user might navigate and find information.

Is Information Architecture the same thing as UX?

No – not quite. IA is certainly a large part of the UX umbrella, but does not share all of the same methodologies, exercises, and deliverables.

However It does go hand-in-hand with many UX Design methodologies, so you may find overlap when searching about navigation, or content organization. 

IA is more focused on the raw content, its organization, and how to find it. Research and client provided material will fill in the data aspect. But before you can even think about what the page might look like and what kind of components to use, you need to first lay out the content’s relationship to each other. This is IA, and it’s ideally before you get to the UI.

The Value of Information Architecture

Without an explicit plan and foundation for your website, building new features on top of it may result in disorganization, rework, and overall no connection between features and workflow.

Questions to think about before you get started:

  1. How will I approach my data organization so that it is scalable? (Able to grow over time)
  2. How will users reach my site – and from what entry point?
  3. Who are the target users of my site? And, is my data organized for them (and not for me)?
  4. What value will improving the information architecture be for both my business and my client?
With that said, here are some ways Information Architecture brings value to a business and the product itself.
 

Helping users accomplish their tasks better

The most user-oriented accomplishment!

Of all things we want to make better, helping users get from A to B faster, more efficiently, and logically.

Now – business goals might not always align with this (for example – marketing may want to funnel users very specifically down a workflow) which is why compromising and balance is a never ending battle.

Even with products, you might not want a user to bulldoze through a feature. For example, creating multiple warning popups before they do something incredibly destructive.

At the end of the day, as long as your users feel they are completing a task without major hiccups, errors, or time lost, that is a win.

Help users find relevant, quality content or data

We don’t only want to make content more logically oriented. We also want it to be more valuable to the user.

The process of finding content shouldn’t only be fast, but the user needs to end up somewhere that makes sense.

It can be straightforward (Click here to search!) but if it doesn’t return data that the user is looking for, they will only become increasingly frustrated, blaming the site or the thinking your tool is broken.

The right data should be placed in the right context, for the right user.

Generating more leads (attracting new users!)

For marketing purposes, generating new leads is a common and crucial want for businesses.

Your business wants more people to be interested and sign up for your newsletter / sign up for beta / download your product.

In these situations organizing your content so that it’s easy for your user to sign up is crucial. Make sure these fields are exposed, accessible, and on many (relevant) pages. But don’t bombard the user – you don’t want to leave a bad impression.

Save (or make) your business some money

If content is organized poorly, users aren’t going to stick around.

They certainly won’t want to buy your product, pay for that subscription, or engage with any ads on your site.

Your site doesn’t have to be beautiful – but it can’t be a garbled mess of incoherent language and illogical navigation.

Improving the information architecture of your site so that users can get to what they want faster is only going to improve your chances of making more money.

Make sure you set up tests for yourself so that you can measure this, or hypothesize it if you’re trying to get sign off.

Conduct A/B tests with your current product and an example of the improved organization.

Any kind of quantitative measurement will help prove that better navigation and structure means happier, more willing users.

Rank better in SEO (Search Engine Optimization)

If you’re hosting a website that is intended to gain higher volumes of traffic – you’ll want to be interested in how your pages are ranking for SEO.

SEO is the king of the internet at the moment. Better SEO ranking means you’ll appear at the top of search results across internet search sites.

While SEO is a huge topic, for now it is something you should consider when organizing content on your web pages.

Even more importantly, SEO will really care about the language you use. Certain words and phrases are more popular and search more often – so if you care about SEO, you’ll want to align with these terms.

Business and Information Architecture

Like much of the UX Design process, it’s more important than ever to prove your value to your business or client.

Of course, you may make things easier or more beautiful for them – but how do you quantify those metrics?

Executives may not care a whole lot how ‘nice’ it is that your data is grouped more beautifully. They will care more if this improvement can provide more profit, drive more traffic, or create more leads. This is how they know it’s a worthy ROI (Return on Investment) for them.

As a UX designer or information architect, you might have to keep this in mind. Some decisions might not make sense logically, but will be required or pleaded for by executives (can we promote this page in the navigation? We NEED to drive more traffic here. I don’t care if it’s out of place!)

Here are some areas you can think about if you need to prove to your clients or bosses why information architecture is important to do

  1. Benefits Employees
  2. Drives more Traffic
  3. Creates more Leads
  4. Saves money
  5. SEO Ranking

Processes of Information Architecture

User Research

It’s no surprise that thorough, specific user research will help inform the information architecture that you’ll be creating. If you want an in-depth place to start, we talk a lot about what UX Design is.

You’ll be wanting to conduct studies on both stakeholders and end-users.

For stakeholders, it’s imperative to capture and record all the kinds of data that needs to be represented in your site or product. Every necessary page, data groupings, and workflows they will need.

End Users tell a different story. They’re going to inform you how they like to conduct their work – the flows and steps it will take to complete their task. From there, you can utilize that data to make it as efficient, logical, and consistent as possible.

Talking to users is an art in itself. Knowing some basic psychology principles can help you go far. 

One of the most efficient ways to gather information from these user groups will be to conduct user interviews. Whether online or in-person, having a first-hand conversation is extremely valuable.

Information and Data Grouping

A pivotal exercise is card-sorting. This allows you to see how the clientele view their own data – so that you’re not working in the vacuum of your own team, and you can help enhance the current classification or organization of their information.

User research is a lengthy but important process – it will inform nearly everything you need, and its truly the meat of the work behind the information architecture.

Important information to get out of your user research:

  1. Target demographic. Who uses your product or site, and for what reasons? This should influence how your data is organized.
  2. If you’re improving an existing product, how much time does it take your users to complete a task today? How can you make information easier to find or complete for them?
  3. What kind of data makes sense to highlight according to users, and what isn’t as necessary anymore?

Naming conventions

Although often forgotten, how you describe your data and the exact language you use matters a lot.

If you are given pre-set data from a client (who isn’t ready to budge on language change) then you might be lucky – or will have to make some compromises.

However if you’re working from scratch and doing your own data research – you may have more room to define and categorize in a way that makes the most sense for your team or client.

Language formality will depend on context, and even might require outside help from a knowledge area expert.

Whatever the case, having solid definitions and category names will help your user navigate to content easier.

Organization and Structure

Once you’ve pulled together the information that needs to be represented, you can take a look at how it all comes together.

Let’s take a look at Patagonia’s site. This is an example of how data might be grouped for an e-commerce website.

This is where useful deliverables such as site-mapping comes in.

Patagonia’s very top-level navigation consists only of:

  1. Shop
  2. Activism
  3. Sports
  4. Stories

The secondary items are:

  1. Search
  2. Cart
  3. Extra Menu

These are the categories they’ve deemed to be both the most accessible and also the highest classification of the rest of the content that lives on their site. Everything else they have fits under these categories.

In this image, I have the shop tab highlighted. There is an abundance of content in the 2nd and 3rd tiers down, organized thoughtfully.

It’s unlikely that you’d see “Shorts” under a category like “Packs & Gear”. 

This is why naming conventions are so important. With the right labels and tags, we can further create sub-categories that make sense.

Database Diagrams

While you may never have to create one of these yourself – it’s important to know what kind of workflows are out there for your team.

Database Diagrams specifically call out any kind of backend database (or tools, software) a project may use, and how they connect.

This might be more relevant to Product designers, but UX designers working on marketing websites might find value in it!

Essentially, understanding the backend that holds up the frontend is a crucial part of Information Architecture. If you’re involved in this process, your developers would be the one’s creating this document to show what data is in what table, and if there are separate databases, how they connect and what information is transferred.

Tools like dbdiagram are good tools for developers to visualize this data.

Site Mapping

Site mapping is laying out the full pages on your site, and how they link together.

Often, you start with the landing page – the very first page anyone arrives at. 

Some questions you can ask:

  1. What are going to be the top-level pages on my site? (navigation)
  2. How many items do I want in the navigation?
  3. How many (and what) pages will be under each navigation page?
  4. Will I have secondary options (searching, secondary menu, profile pages)

Once you have identified every single page that you will need, you can begin piecing them together.

Whatever tool you choose to use is fine, but if you need options you can check out Whimsical, Lucidcharts, zenflowchart, omnigraffle, or gloomaps to name a few.

Here, I’ve used Patagonia as an example. I’ve stripped away the lowest tiers to show you the simple structure of their site map.

Navigation

Navigation is a key component of IA design. Since IA is concerned with the organization and page hierarchy of a site or product, navigation is crucial to get users from A to B. But, you can really only design the navigation once you’ve solidified the organization and structure of a site. From there, you can make the best decisions about what kind of navigation will be useful for the type of data you want to represent.

We’ve already been discussing naming conventions, site map, and even database diagrams. Navigation is another component that is extremely related, and overlaps with our previous exercises.

However, the difference is that how the user navigates is a critical component (the top level pages of our site) and it needs further time to be investigated.

Menu navigation is the most obvious, but what are the many ways users track from page to page?

  1. Menu Navigation
    You can think of this as the top-level pages on your site or product.
  2. Secondary Navigation
    This information sites one level below your main menu navigation.
  3. Hyperlinks
    Links that take a user to and from your site, or to other pages within your site.

Search

Patagonia

in this image, you can see they give you some options to search by. Otherwise, it’s a free form search until you land on the results page.

Search is an elaborate topic that is better described in its own full-blown article.

For now, you likely know that search is a critical component to modern day sites and products.

With incredibly powerful and accurate search tools existing in our day and age (Google, bing, yahoo, you name it) people are accustomed to getting their information fast, all while using few key words and even misspelling!

Now, you don’t have to be Google to have a useful and efficient search tool.

Some facets to consider:

  1. Search boxes
    Where will you make search available? At all times? In the menu? or will certain pages have their own, specific search?

  2. Search Terms
    What can the user search by? Will they be given free text input, or will they have to select from a curated list of options?

  3. Filters
    How much finetuning will you allow the user to do? Can they narrow down to extremely specific results, or do you want to coax them to explore a general section?

  4. Result priorities
    What data will show first, by default? What data is prioritized to show up despite a user’s search term?

Closing Thoughts

There is a lot that goes into Information Design, but don’t let it intimidate you. All of the facets we covered are simply tools that you can use to your advantage. 

Apply them where they make sense, and reap the benefit of a more thought-through product with a strong foundation.

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