IA vs User Flow: Understanding the Differences and How to Use Them Together

6 min read Optimal Workshop

Click, click, click, BOOM! There it is. That thing you were looking for. You couldn’t find it on other websites, but you found it here, and it was easy. You feel like a hero. You thank the website and you leave with a sense of achievement.

What if you could replicate that feeling on your website? What if you could make every user journey so satisfying? By combining information architecture and user flow, you can.

But what are they and how are they different? In this article, we’ll explain how they influence website design and how you can (and should) use them together in your project. We’ll also discuss different user flow research techniques, how they inform great information architecture, and how it doesn’t have to be difficult or time consuming.

What is Information Architecture?

Information architecture is the system and structure you use to organize and label content on your website, app or product. It relates closely to user experience design, but it’s slightly different. Think of it as the structure or framework upon which user-facing assets are built.

That being the case, if your information architecture has flaws, your website design will have flaws. It determines how information will be accessible, usable and relevant on your website and should be treated as a critical element of your project. How can we ensure that we have our content organized efficiently to promote seamless interactions?

The answer is research. Without research you’re just guessing. The problem with guessing is that, well, you’re guessing. You tend to organize, categorize and label things the way that you (and maybe your team) would organize things. It’s biassed and subjective. In reality, people process information in all sorts of different ways and good information architecture should reflect that. You’ll often hear us say ‘test early and test often’. This mantra helps to avoid any little niggles during the user experience design process. Card sorting and tree testing are a couple of techniques that you can use to test early.

Card sorting is a research technique that asks users to categorize different pieces of information or content. It’s best used when you have specific, information-related questions. For example, you may want to categorize products in an online store in the most logical way. Or you may have a mountain of blog post categories that need refining. Whatever it is, the benefit of a card sort is that you end up with consensus of how your users expect to see information. Card sorts can even be performed remotely using tools such as OptimalSort.

Tree testing examines how easy it is for your users to find information using a stripped back, text-only representation of your website – almost like a sitemap. Rather than asking users to sort information, they are asked to perform a navigation task, for example, “where would you find today’s best deals?”. Depending on how easy or difficult users find these tasks gives you a great indication of the strengths and weaknesses of your underlying site structure.

As the base structure of your website or app, information architecture has a fundamental influence on how well users access and use your content. It makes sense then that when designing it, you should receive real-world user feedback early on in the piece. Fortunately, there are great online tools like Treejack to quickly and easily test your site structures, categorization and labels.

What is User Flow?

User flow describes the steps involved for a user to complete a certain task. It lays out what needs to happen for a user to get from starting point to a defined finish line. Why is it important? Because we want that journey to be as efficient as it can possibly be. If it’s not, the user will be left frustrated and dissatisfied, no matter how beautiful the website design is.

At the heart of user flow is, you guessed it, the user. A path that seems obvious to designers might be confusing to an end-user. It’s important to distance yourself from the project and put yourself in the user’s shoes. Even better – watch the user. How do they react to a fork in the road? How do they get back on track? Where are they stumbling?

User testing is a great way to observe user flow. But what are you testing? Normally you test based on a user flow diagram. A user flow diagram is generated based on insights from your research from card sorting, tree testing, and questionnaires, for example. It visually outlines the possible paths a user can take to achieve a certain task. The basic structure of a user flow diagram considers the following

  • A critical path
  • Entry points
  • User end goals
  • Success metrics (time to completion, number of clicks)
  • Steps the user will take in between

Once you have created a user flow diagram you can test it with your users. User testing can be remote or in person and uses a variety of techniques depending on the constraints of your projects. You may consider testing something rough and conceptual like a paper prototype before producing more detailed prototypes.

How to Use Information Architecture and User Flow Together

By doing the work upfront to create great information architecture you put yourself in a great position to create great user flow. After all, information architecture is designed based on user research. Performing content audits and creating content inventories help to inform early content decisions, followed by user research techniques such as card sorting and tree testing. This research has a direct influence on user flow, since information and content has been given meaning and structure.

The foundational work in designing information architecture leads to user flow diagrams which, as we discussed, are helpful tools in creating seamless user flow. They bridge the gap between information architecture and final user experience by visualizing pathways of specific tasks. By performing user tests on prototypes, the researcher will inevitably find speed bumps, which may highlight flaws in information architecture.

Information architecture and user flow are integrated. This means there should be a constant feedback loop. Early research and categorisation when building information architecture may not translate to seamless user flow in practice. This could be due to integration factors outside of the digital ecosystem you’re designing.

User flow and information architecture are complementary components of creating exceptional website design. Designers should make a conscious decision to apply both in synchrony.

To Sum it Up

Understanding the relationship between information architecture and user flow is important for any website design. Information architecture provides the organization and structure of content, where user flow applies that structure to how users execute certain tasks in the simplest possible way. The two are intertwined and, when used effectively, provide a framework to ensure seamless, user-friendly website design.

User research and user testing heavily influence the design of both information architecture and user flow. We want users to feel a sense of accomplishment rather than frustration when using a website. Achieving this requires an investment in understanding user needs and goals, and how they consume and categorize information. This is where research techniques such as content audits, tree testing, card sorting and user testing become invaluable.

We’ve always placed high value on solid research, but don’t be put off by it. The research techniques we’ve discussed are highly scalable, and you can be as involved as you want or need to be. Sometimes you don’t even have to be in the same room! The most important thing is to get outside of your team’s bubble and gain real user insight. Check out our information architecture services to ensure you’re on the right path towards powerful, user-centric website design.