How to communicate information architecture to others

Ashlea McKay

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Information architecture (IA) is the backbone of a great design. If you don’t invest time and effort into getting it right for your users, your design is not going to go anywhere and it will fall over. I have no doubt that I am preaching to the choir here. You know it, I know it, it’s easy. The hard part is, how do we communicate IA to those who just aren’t quite there yet? People who are new to it, or don’t understand why it’s so valuable. I’ve compiled some great ways to: explain what IA is, demonstrate its value, share your research findings and communicate your recommendations to build an IA that has your design doing cartwheels.

How to explain information architecture

Remember the first time you heard the term “Information architecture”? I do. I thought of skyscrapers with tall, glossy, dark blue glass windows and lots of concrete. I remember smiling and nodding and saying “yep, I know what that means” while internally making a mental note to Google the crap out of it the first chance I got. I did that and what I found confused me even more. It wasn’t until my then-new boss explained it to me as a story, that I really got it. That story is called ‘The Department Store’. Storytelling is a very powerful communication medium and this one is absolutely brilliant for explaining IA to people who have never heard of it before. It worked on my parents who up until then had no idea what I was doing for a living. Here is the story she told me:

“I’d like you to imagine a large department store. It has two main parts: the selling floor where the customers browse and shop, and the staff-only warehouse space out the back for the stock.

On the selling floor, as customers enter the department store, they are greeted with the bright lights and the delightful scent of the fragrance department. As they continue along a bright, white, tiled path, they encounter women’s handbags, women’s shoes and then the vast expanse of women’s clothing that has been thoughtfully divided up into categories that make sense to the customer. Men’s clothing is located down on the lower ground floor close to the exit to the underground car park so they can get what they need and get out quickly. Valentine’s Day is just around the corner and the pathway is lined with feature tables packed with gift ideas.     

Meanwhile, out the back in the warehouse, things look a little different but is designed to support the selling floor. Heavy things like fridges and washing machines are stored close to the loading bay to provide easy access for delivery drivers. The compactors containing all the different styles and sizes of shoes are kept close to the section of the selling floor that displays the shoes and the Valentine’s Day chocolates are right near the main door of the warehouse because we expect to sell a lot of those and our staff will need to access them quickly and often.

The selling floor is the user interface and the warehouse is the information architecture.” 

Demonstrating the value of IA and getting people onboard

Getting the bones of the design right from the very beginning before diving into the user interface (UI) design will save an enormous amount of time, effort and money in the long run. It’s not pretty but from a usability perspective, a well considered IA is essential to ensuring your users can actually find information on your website. What’s also essential, is being able to successfully communicate this to your clients and stakeholders to get them on board in the first place. That support will often mean the difference between getting the time you need to invest in IA development or not.

An easy way to do this would be to run a quick benchmarking study on the current state of your IA in Treejack. It doesn’t have to be big or expensive. Just test the top 10 tasks users are attempting on your website with 30 users and walk your stakeholders through the results. Not only will you be able to demonstrate the value of IA, but you just might get your foot in the door if you’re also having trouble communicating the value of UX! #winning 

If there is no current state, you could instead present a quick case study on a website that has done IA it really well and one that hasn’t. Make it visual and walk them through the reasons why it’s not as good as it could be and how it could be improved. Let them have a play with both and experience it for themselves. (If you can’t find a good example, show them this article on using Treejack to test the American Airlines website).

Sharing your research

The Optimal Workshop suite of tools has been my number one go-to when testing an IA for several years now. We know Treejack and OptimalSort are awesome tools for understanding and validating an IA, but over the years I’ve also found them to be incredibly useful for communicating the results to people who may not fully understand what an IA is. 

When the results are in Treejack, I like to round everyone up into a meeting room with a projector and display my screen up on the wall as big as it can go. Then, starting at the dashboard, I walk everyone through the results task by task. I start with the high level overview for each task and then drill down into each pietree diagram showing the pathways my participants followed. I can show my stakeholders a very deep level of detail that includes: where participants went, where they turned around and went back, where they stopped, where they skipped, where they ended up and my favorite — how many times ‘Home’ was clicked. This makes for a very powerful story that is backed up with hard quantitative data that enables decision making. 

For OptimalSort I do the exact same thing, only instead of task overviews and pietrees, I have a whole heap of different diagrams that tell the story of the card sort from all angles. I like to start with the Participant-centric Analysis (PCA) tab because I can point at the column on the left as our best bet IA based on this research. Then I like to drill down deeper by talking my stakeholders through the results as they appear in the: Similarity Matrix, Dendrograms and Standardization Grid.

These walkthroughs are also a great visual storytelling way of teaching stakeholders about IA and helping them understand what it is.

Communicating your recommendations

Once you’ve got support to do some research, have done that research and walked your stakeholders through your findings, it’s time to communicate what your new IA needs to look like. Like any other form of communication, it really depends on what you need to say and your audience. 

Depending on your project and your working style, it could be as simple as building the new IA out on a wall in Post-its or drawing it on a whiteboard wall where everyone can see it and ask questions and give their feedback. This can be really useful for communicating to people outside the team and is great for getting people together for a discussion.

If that’s not your style (or that of your stakeholders!) you could communicate the new IA as a sitemap. A sitemap will provide an at-a-glance view of where everything lives and how it is grouped. If, like Dan Klyn, you happen to find yourself needing to communicate an IA that doesn’t quite fit into a sitemap or the wall diagram model, you could draw inspiration from those skyscrapers I mentioned earlier and elevate your thinking by considering a different perspective (see what I did there?! hahah). Dan’s team was asked to communicate an IA as a sitemap but they found this particular IA to be quite fluid and dependent entirely upon a user’s context within the system. His article for UX Booth shares that case study as well as some other approaches you may like to try. It’s well worth a read!

Do you have your own way of explaining what IA is to other people? How do you communicate IA research? What works for you? Comment below — we’d love to hear it!

Ashlea McKay
  • Ashlea McKay
  • Ashlea McKay is a user experience designer (UX), researcher and writer with a background in industrial design. Her experience spans both the public and private sectors and she is an internationally respected industry thought leader and conference speaker. Ashlea loves conducting user research because she learns something new every day and enjoys understanding what makes users tick. Ashlea is also passionate about mentoring and is heavily involved in the UX community at large. She regularly writes articles for well-known UX publications and is the co-founder and voice behind UX advice column, UX Agony Aunt. In her spare time, Ashlea enjoys colouring in and adding to her extensive LEGO collection.

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