Designing information architecture for mobile apps

5 min read Optimal Workshop

Designing for a mobile app is quite different to designing for websites. The content may be similar (even the same) but the intent for users is likely to be different, as are the environments and occasions they use them. When designing for mobile the information architecture (IA) uses a different set of rules. The key consideration needs to be around ease of use on a smaller screen for a user that is possibly on the move and very likely distracted. They have limited time, limited attention and need a quick result.

Your app could be the first point of contact. It might be the only way your user interacts with you on a regular basis. It needs to be super simple, clean, and quick to interact with. A well thought out, thoroughly researched, and organized information architecture plays a big part in helping to deliver an easy and enjoyable user experience.

What is information architecture?

According to Abby Covert, a leader in the field of information architecture, IA is ‘the way we arrange the parts to make sense of the whole.’ Information architecture (IA)is found in every digital product, from websites, apps to an intranet and can even be applied to the physical world in places like libraries and supermarkets.For the purposes of this blog we will focus on the importance of information architecture for mobile apps. Researching and designing an app’s IA with just the right amount of information is key. And providing a way of navigating that content in a way that is quick and intuitive is key to a good user experience.

How is designing for mobile different?

The first thing to understand about mobile app information architecture is that it’s different – and not just with regards to size. The sheer physicality and specifications of mobile devices mean we need to consider different design requirements. Because mobile devices are light and portable, users are in constant contact with them and they are by far the most convenient way to access information. With mobile apps it can be even more important to consider the user journey, to keep that journey as short as possible, and anticipate the user’s needs. Consideration should be given to:

  1. Physicality and specifications
  2. Constant accessibility
  3. How people behave and feel

1. Physicality and specifications

Most mobile device interfaces are accessed through touch screens. Users rely on learnt gestures – in addition to a simple interface – to interact. Because of their smaller dimensions, users often expect the content structures to be simpler and smaller. Also, because of limited bandwidth and connectivity, mobile devices require app designs to be optimized for loading time, with reduced data demands.

2. Constant accessibility  

Because we have constant access to our mobile devices, we tend to use them a lot more. They come with us on the bus, walking the dog, or even watching TV. We often use them while ‘doing’ something else. This means we often use the device under difficult viewing conditions, or among a variety of distractions.

3. How we behave and feel

We have different attitudes, behaviors and priorities while using mobile devices. Many of us often have our mobile device within arms reach at all times. We have become attached to these devices and feel ‘lost’ when we don’t have them nearby. Some people even consider them an extension of their being!

How do you factor information architecture into your mobile app design?

We need to think of mobile devices as having their own particular information architecture structure to work within their unique requirements and environments. While the structure of a responsive website may follow the same IA, native apps often employ navigational structures that are tab-based. There’s no one or ‘right’ way to architect a mobile site or application. Rather it’s dependent on factors like the size of the content you need to organize or what the intended user journey is that informs the choice of  information architecture structure. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular IA structures for mobile apps:


A standard website structure with an index page and a series of sub pages. If you are designing a responsive website you may be restricted to this structure, however introducing additional structural patterns could allow you to tailor the user experience for mobile.

Hub and spoke

Gives you a central index from which users will navigate from. It’s the default pattern on Apple’s iPhone, with a home screen and the various apps users download. Users can’t navigate between spokes but must return to the hub (home screen), instead.

Nested doll

Leads users in a linear fashion to more detailed content. It’s a simplified interface which quickly leads on to the next step. It can be most useful when users are in distracting conditions because  it’s a quick and easy method of navigation.

Tabbed view

Regular app users will be familiar with this structure. It’s a collection of sections tied together by a toolbar menu. This allows the user to quickly scan and understand the functionality of the app as soon as it’s opened. Easy to navigate throughout the app.

Filtered view

Allows the user to navigate within a set of data by selecting filter options to create a view that suits them. Can be more difficult to view on mobile if there is too much content, as it can be difficult to display.

Example: Filtered view

Wrap up

When designing for mobile devices it is important to always keep in mind the user journey and how (and when) users  are likely to be interacting with your app. What is their primary objective? What is your organization’s objective? How do you move them through their tasks to enable them to complete them quickly, simply and easily? Working within the size restrictions and limitations of mobile devices and users needs and desires with a thoroughly thought out IA structure will always win on the day.