Learn about information architecture

What is information architecture

Information architecture (IA) is the system and structure you use to organize and label content on your website, app or product. It determines the paths people take to find the information they need, and where they might get lost, and it’s the foundation on top of which you provide the design. This means that while users will never see this underlying structure on it’s own, they will feel the effects of the decisions you make here.

IA isn’t actually any one thing, it’s made up of multiple smaller parts including:

  • Navigation: How people make their way through information
  • Labels: How information is represented
  • Search: How people look for information

The overall goal of an IA should be to help people find the information they’re looking for – whether that’s on a website or mobile app, or in physical spaces like libraries and stores.

Understandably, there’s a lot that goes into developing an IA. Here, we’ll give a high-level overview of the process of developing an IA and how you can test and evaluate one.

What makes a good information architecture?

There are a few best practices to keep in mind when thinking about your IA – principles you should always try and adhere to.

  • Understand your users – Before developing anything for your users, learn what it is that they need from your website or product.
    Don’t rely on the homepage – Don’t fall into the trap of loading up your homepage with information to make up for a poor IA. Why? Think about those users who may never actually see your homepage, for example, those entering your website through search or a direct link.
  • Search isn’t the answer – Similarly, search isn’t a substitute for an IA. Most people will still try and navigate your website by themselves before turning to search.
  • Label content clearly – One of the sins of poor IA design is unclear labels. When you’re creating a link to the ‘Contact Us’ page, don’t label it ‘Chat to us’.
  • Make your IA flexible and adaptable – Websites and digital products change over time. Your IA should do the same. Make sure you design it so that you can add and remove elements as the needs of your users and organization change.
  • Keep your pages simple – Pages should be clear and easy to understand. If you do need a lot of content on a single page, consider if it’s easier to break it up across subpages instead.

The role of an information architect

What an information architect does and what information architecture (IA) is are two distinct things.

An information architect will oversee things like website navigation and user experience, while IA (the term) relates to the system and structure of websites and applications. Information architects will also work with other departments to ensure information is presented to users clearly.

In many cases, organizations won’t actually have a dedicated information architect. Instead, the duties and tasks typically associated with the role will be carried out by designers, content strategists, developers and product managers.

How to develop an information architecture

Developing an IA is an extremely complex and involved process. The key to a successful IA is understanding your users, the information they seek, and the ways in which they go about finding it. With this in mind, it’s easy to see why the IAs of so many websites and even physical places end up reflecting internal organizational thinking instead of that of the users.

But how do organizations fall into this trap in the first place? In most cases, it’s simply because there’s little effort made to go out and actually learn from users.

Here are some of the top IA mistakes:

  • Poor content groupings – Placing content into silos that make sense to people within the organization, but not to users. Also, assuming that certain pieces of content should only live in one place.
  • Missing content – Certain categories don’t contain expected landing pages, leaving users struggling to find content they’re looking for.
  • Mismanaged subsites – Poorly integrating subsites or microsites into a primary website.
  • Incorrectly using search – One of the biggest IA mistakes is thinking that search will address navigation shortcomings.

This quote by Paul Boag will likely sound familiar to many who have been through the process of a website redesign: “So many things can go wrong when creating a site’s information architecture. Often it turns into a political battleground between rival departments each seeking to have their area of responsibility highlighted at the highest level of the site”.

So how do you actually develop an IA? Here’s a very high-level overview of the steps involved:

  • Identify your top tasks – What do your users want to know? Whether it’s through internal conversations with stakeholders, website analytics or speaking with users, find out what your users want to know and the tasks they’re trying to complete when using your website or app.
  • Take stock of your content – There’s an intrinsic link between IA and content. Think of it this way: your IA is like the branches of a tree, with your content being the leaves. This means that before you even begin the scope the task of redesigning your IA, you need to take stock of all of your content. Commonly, this is done through a content audit.
  • Group and label your content – Figure out how the content on your should be grouped and labeled. To ensure sure your system makes sense to your users, consider using card sorting, a user testing technique that helps you find out how people group information into different categories.
  • Work out your navigation – With your content grouped into categories that make sense, it’s time to figure out how users will get to it. This is where a sitemap comes into play. A sitemap is basically a diagram which shows you all of your content labels and groups, and can be used to inform your navigation design.

One of the golden rules with IA development is that you should test early – and often. As we mentioned above, card sorting in the first stages of your IA project will help you keep the focus on your users when working out your content groupings. You can then use another user testing technique, tree testing, to understand how people navigate through your website structure before you ever start designing or writing code.

How to evaluate your information architecture

For existing IAs, evaluation is a critical step in the process of improvement. It can help to think about it in terms of a website redesign. For example, are there any pages that your users struggle to find? If you never benchmark your existing IA, how will figure out if the new one is any better?

When evaluating an IA, ensure you understand the top tasks your users perform and the content that sits within it.

How to identify your top tasks

Identifying your top tasks means stripping away all of the extra detail and getting to the root of what really matters to your users. There are several ways to identify these tasks.

  • Canvas the different teams within your organization (sales, customer support) to get their input on the most common tasks users perform. You may find you have a list that numbers in the hundreds
  • Speak to your stakeholders (anyone who has a major stake in the IA) to narrow this list into a shorter one
  • Take these tasks to your users and get their input through a vote
  • Arrange your list in order of most important to least important.

How to take stock of your content

Next, you need to identify every piece of content that sits within your IA. One of the most popular ways to take stock of your content is through a content audit. In short, a content audit involves creating a list of every article, page, video and landing page and assessing it. How long is it? Do users actually use it? Could it be updated or otherwise improved?

You can read about how we audited the content on our blog here.

Tree testing and information architecture

Tree testing is a usability technique for evaluating the findability of topics in a website. It’s also known as ‘reverse card sorting’ or ‘card-based classification’. Tree testing is done on a simplified text version of your site structure – without the influence of navigation aids and visual design.

Tree testing and information architecture

Tree testing tells you how easily people can find information on your website, and exactly where people get lost. Your website visitors rely on your IA – how you label and organize your content – to get things done. Tree testing can answer questions like:

  • Do my labels make sense to people?
  • Is my content grouped logically to people?
  • Can people find the information they want easily and quickly? If not, what’s stopping them?

Card Sorting and information architecture

Card sorting is a well-established research technique for discovering how people understand and categorize information. You can use card sorting results to group and label your website information in a way that makes the most sense to your audience.

Card sorting is useful when you want to:

  • Design a new website or section of a website, or improve an existing website
  • Find out how your customers expect to see your information grouped on your website
  • Discover and compare how people understand different concepts or ideas
  • Get people to rank or arrange items based on set criteria.

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