10 information architecture traps we all fall into: Part 2

Ashlea McKay


Designing an information architecture (IA) is a process like any other and as we discussed in Part 1 of this series, things don’t always go to plan. To conclude this series, let’s take a look at the next 5 common IA traps we’ve all fallen into, how they happen and how to avoid them.

6. Not implementing your research

So you’ve done a card sort and a tree test or two and absolutely none of those insights have wriggled their way into your design iterations? Sounds hard to believe but it absolutely does happen and the reasons are often politically driven. Your research findings might have been dismissed by ignorant parties as yet another case of those ‘stupid users not knowing what they’re doing’ or perhaps someone with decision making powers doesn’t believe in/understand the value of user research. We know that we are not our users and we know that we have a responsibility to them to take the time to understand first-hand how they think and feel. Doing all this research only to have it sit around gathering dust for months — potentially even years — is really frustrating!  

Free yourself from this trap by reviewing the way you communicate research findings to others. Consider how you’ve been doing it and then have a think about how your audience might best be placed to receive that information. It’s your job to help them understand the story of your research results and you may need to adjust your storytelling process. Maybe they’re really time poor and just don’t have capacity to read a report or maybe they don’t fully understand the value of user research. Think about whether an educational component is needed or if it’s just a matter of adjusting the delivery method. Try running sharing workshops where everyone gets together to discuss the results as a team. Find a way to involve these people in your research — nothing beats seeing it for yourself. It’s also a really good idea to do some benchmark testing on your existing website to give you something to compare future research and design work to. It’s a powerful tool for communicating the value of research because it gives you something to quantify your findings against and show real progress in the form of hard data.   

7. Not including tree testing in your IA design process

Tree testing is a key user research method for assessing the usability of your IA and ensuring that your users are able to find what they’re looking for on your website. Your IA is the backbone of your website and if you don’t test it properly — and often — the whole thing will fall over. You think you don’t have time to do a tree test or it might be that you don’t have any experience with this method. Tree testing an information architecture doesn’t have to be a massive time-consuming job and for first timers, it’s really easy — it’s fun actually! Chances are, you already have everything you need to run your first tree test!

All you have to do is pop your IA into a spreadsheet, copy and paste it into Treejack, write down some common user tasks to test with, follow the prompts and you’re ready for lift off! Participants are fairly easy to find and Treejack creates a URL that you can use to share your study with your users making it easy to Tweet or email and if you get stuck there are recruitment services available. There’s really no excuse for not tree testing an IA — give it a try!

Another common trap here is leaving your tree testing to the very end of your project and treating it as a final step. To be really confident in your IA, you need to run your tree testing before you move into user interface (UI) design work and you need to do it more than once. It doesn’t need to be an overly laborious process that takes several months but it’s best if you run a tree test, iterate your IA and then test your updated structure to be sure. It’s also very important to test that IA in context once you have some ideas around what that UI might look like. You might follow your tree testing with some first-click testing in Chalkmark and elements of your IA should also be included in usability testing activities as your project progresses. All design processes are iterative and IA design is no exception.

8. Dumping/hiding content in the footer

Much like the FAQ section of Part 1, the footer is not a dumping ground for content that you can’t find a home for. Like the rest of your IA, the content that eventually comes to live in your footer should be the result of a well thought out and thoroughly researched design process. The footer is like an extra little patch of real estate on your website; it’s where things like contact details and social media links commonly live. Online shopping sites store supplementary information there around delivery timeframes and customer reward programs, all of which is usually available during checkout as well. The footer is never the home of content critical to user tasks and goals. When building your IA put the footer out of your mind and if you get stuck, instead of dumping that content in the footer, review it. Ask yourself: Where might this content belong? What is my research telling me? And if you’re still not sure, do a closed card sort or find a home for it (nope, not in the footer) that makes logical sense and then include a task for it in your next round of tree testing.

9. Forcing the content to follow the IA

Square peg meet round hole. Does it fit? Nope. Same goes for your content if you try and jam it into an IA rather than letting the content drive how you structure your website. The IA follows the content, not the other way around. This trap can arise when we skip a few steps or have trouble convincing others to ditch a beloved IA idea or at least be open to seeing how it tests. You can avoid this ill fitting trap by using your content as the starting point for your IA design process. Start with a comprehensive audit of your content. Update outdated content, ditch the duplicates and look for opportunities to condense and merge content together — less is better! Check your headings and labels and rework anything too jargon heavy. Once your content is in order, do an open card sort to not only find out how your users expect your content to be grouped but also what they would expect your categories to be named. Finally, use your card sort learnings about your content to create your information architecture and you will have the beginnings of an IA that you know your content will fit into because that’s where it all started!

10. Designing your structure the way your boss told you to

This is a tricky one! We’ve all been there. The research tells us where the problems are, best practice agrees and common sense is totally onboard but the boss isn’t and the whole thing goes completely pear shaped. This can happen when the boss doesn’t understand UX and IA, it can also happen when your boss’ boss has told them to deliver something a certain way and they’re feeling the heat or there may be some other agenda at play.

Whether the reasons for this are driven by politics, ignorance or something else entirely, there are a few things you can try to help you escape this trap. They may need your help to learn and understand the importance of a well designed IA. Bringing them along for some user research can really help and if they’ve got a boss of their own that needs convincing, the findings from that research can serve as evidence that they can use to do that. You’ll be furthering their skillsets and giving them what they need to look good in front of their boss! With this common IA trap, despite your best efforts there’s always a chance that you might not be able to avoid this one or it may take some time. Ultimately, play the long game and don’t beat yourself up if they won’t budge.   

Got any common IA traps that you’ve fallen into, or some other IA advice to share? Write up a comment below!

Ashlea McKay
  • Ashlea McKay
  • Ashlea McKay is a Senior User Experience (UX) writer, researcher and keynote speaker with a background in industrial design. Ashlea is also Autistic and has held state and national level volunteer leadership positions in the Diversity & Inclusion space. Ashlea is the Chief Columnist and Co-Founder of UX advice column, UX Agony Aunt which can be viewed on the Optimal Workshop blog. A well respected UX thought leader, she is passionate about mentoring and is heavily involved in the global UX community. Ashlea is currently writing a book about her experiences and ideas as an Autistic UX professional. Based in Canberra Australia, Ashlea is an art and craft obsessed cat lady with a love of vintage fashion who missed her calling as a hairdresser.

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