Information architecture is much more than navigation

4 min read Optimal Workshop

Information architecture is so much more than finding your way around a website or app. IA should be considered the foundation of a great user experience. The planning and consideration that goes into how information is organized labeled, and named. Once this foundation is laid, the user interface is what sits above and allows users to access the information. Navigation is one way that designers can point users in the right direction. But without correct labeling and naming (or even searching) navigation can only get us part of the way.

Let’s go into detail about what information architecture and the role navigation really plays. 

What is information architecture for a website?

Probably the easiest example of navigation is on a website. We are familiar with websites and how navigation can make or break a user experience. A website’s information architecture (IA) can be considered to be made of two main components:

  • Identification and the definition of the site content and functionality.
  • Underlying organization, labeling, and structure that will define the relationship between the site’s content and functionality.

When a user lands on your website they won’t see the information architecture, rather, they will be interacting with the user interface (UI). While the IA itself is not visible while using the user interface it most certainly impacts the user’s experience (UX). 

The IA should be planned and the content structure visualized through diagrams, spreadsheets, and with wireframes, prototypes, or comprehensive layouts. Designing with the IA in mind web designers can create a better user experience. The user will not see the structure of the website but they will quickly discover the way the content has been divided up and then connected visually. And how well the information architecture matches these expectations will influence their UX.

When this interaction is not a great experience, users may leave feeling that your website content or functionality is not what they needed. They may end up feeling disappointed with the experience due to poor organization, naming, or structure.

What’s the difference between IA and navigation?

Ensuring that the information architecture is thought through, considered from the end users’ perspective, tested, and planned is essential to building a great website from the ground up. Great navigation is what cues users to move on to the next step in their journey and ultimately will determine their experience. 

Navigation is but one part of the story and tools to help users find their way through a website, app, or other product. 

Information architecture can be broken down into three main areas to consider when building a great user experience:

  • Navigation: How people make their way through information (website content)
  • Labels: How information is named and represented.
  • Search: How people will look for information (keywords, categories)

When put like this it does seem pretty straightforward. Information architecture isn’t just how your information is navigated (on a website or app) but how it is labeled, the taxonomy, and the searchability help users find what they need from the information architecture.

How do the IA and navigation work together best?

An information architecture that has been planned, considered, researched, and structured with understanding and the intention of the needs of users and the owners will be robust and at its very best intuitive.

With an information architecture that has been organized well the navigation doesn’t need to work as hard. With correct labeling and organization of the content, navigation acts as a visual guide on your product to help users find their way to what they want. Imagine well-named road signs that are expected and easily seen. It makes finding what (where) you want much easier, even on a dark night.

Coupled with robust IA navigation will provide intuitive pathways for users to complete tasks. For instance, if you want your users to find where your contact information is, making certain that there is a navigation tab at the top of your website labeled ‘contact us’ which then has what might be expected (address, phone number, map, and even an email contact form) will make sense for users and the owners of the website.

Wrap Up

Whilst navigation is a key component to users finding their way through your content information architecture is so much more than navigation. IA is the foundation of a great product, naming, labeling, organizing, and planning your information in a logical and expected way. Navigation is the sign that directs people to the content they want. And from there to the task or product they are looking for. If there is navigation without thought through information architecture, they may look in the wrong place, becoming lost and abandoning their task altogether.