Have you ever been faced with so much information on a page that you didn’t know where to look? That’s a sign of bad information architecture.
Information architecture, or ‘IA,’ is the structure and organisation of information on a website. It might sound simple, but IA is more than simply presenting content in a clear and concise way—it’s about creating a logical navigation structure that helps users find what they’re looking for without getting confused or frustrated.
From who’s responsible to the tools and methods used in its practice—let’s take a deeper look at information architecture and the role it plays in a digital product’s overall user experience.
- What is information architecture?
- Why is information architecture important in UX design?
- Information architecture principles
- Who’s responsible for information architecture—and when does it happen?
- Round up
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What is information architecture?
Information architecture (IA) is the process of guiding users through the site by organising and arranging all the relevant content in a clear, intuitive way. It also ensures consistency throughout a product’s design by standardising labelling conventions such as menu names, link titles, and button labels across all pages.
IA consists of two main components:
- Structure, which involves organising content into categories, hierarchies, and relationships; and
- Labelling, which uses words to represent and classify these categories, hierarchies, and relationships.
Together, these components create an efficient navigation system so users can easily find what they need without getting lost or overwhelmed by too much information.
Think of it like an architect building a house. Before the house gets built, they’ll map exactly what goes where—considering what the tenant will expect at every turn and carefully placing elements in a way that helps them navigate the space with ease. In the end, they’ll have created an inviting and efficient setup that makes the most of the space available.
That’s what information architecture does for websites and apps. From what appears on each page, to how users move between pages, everything must align with one purpose: to help the user quickly and easily find what they need.
Why is information architecture important in UX design?
At its core, UX design aims to create a digital product or service that makes users’ lives easier. Information architecture is vital in helping companies achieve this goal by providing structure, consistency, and an easy-to-navigate interface. Put simply, information architecture makes good UX possible.
In an increasingly digital world, where many users suffer from ‘information overload’ and dwindling attention spans, helping users find what they need quickly is a guaranteed UX win. Without it, users can become impatient or disorientated—and companies risk losing them to competitors who’ve made IA a priority.
Perhaps the most compelling reason to invest in IA is that it helps to increase conversion. By organising the information in a clear, intuitive way, IA reduces cognitive load—which means users can complete certain tasks, like making a purchase or signing up for a newsletter, much faster (and are much less likely to abandon their session out of frustration).
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Information architecture principles
So far, we’ve explored the purpose and importance of information architecture—and few have championed the role of IA in UX design like Dan Brown: A UX designer, information architect, and consultant from The United States.
In 2010, Dan outlined eight guiding principles of information architecture, which have since become universal reference points for the structure of digital information.
Let’s take a look at these in more detail.
The Principle of Objects
Content should be viewed as a living, breathing thing with a lifecycle, behaviours, and attributes. Before structuring the content, architects need to carefully consider the characteristics of each object—and how they complement each other.
The Principle of Choices
Users should never feel overwhelmed by too many choices when navigating an interface. Instead, there should be a limited number of options available at any given time. This allows users to focus on the task at hand without feeling confused.
The Principle of Disclosure
Only reveal relevant information as needed. Users can become overwhelmed if too much information is presented to them all at once, so it’s important to show them what they need to complete their task (and let them make their own decision about how to move forward).
The Principle of Exemplars
Instead of descriptions, designers should use examples (or ‘exemplars’) to illustrate how certain elements work together. For example, icons or images help users navigate an interface by creating an easy-to-grasp visual language.
The Principle of Front Doors
Not all users will land on the home page first. Regardless of what page users ‘enter’ the site from, they should always be able to find what they’re looking for quickly and easily.
The Principle of Multiple Classification
People navigate an interface differently, and it’s the architects’ responsibility to provide multiple classification systems tailored to different needs; like a menu bar and search bar.
The Principle of Navigation
Navigation should be clear, consistent, and intuitive so that users can quickly get from one page or section to another. Hyperlinks and breadcrumbs are good ways to guide users through the site without being too restrictive.
The Principle of Growth
Designers should consider how the design will evolve. Over time, more information will be added to the interface—so it should have built-in flexibility to accommodate additional content without becoming too cluttered.
Who’s responsible for information architecture—and what does the process look like?
Now we’ve got a handle on what information architecture is and its guiding principles, let’s move on to the age-old question: Who actually does IA? And when does it happen?
Larger companies with a high UX maturity level will usually have a dedicated information architect in-house, who’s primarily responsible for creating the structure of digital products.
However, not all teams have an information architect. In smaller companies, the responsibility of IA will fall to UX designers, who’ll work collaboratively with UI designers and product managers to create an IA strategy that meets user needs and hits business goals.
Information architecture usually takes place in the early stages of a product design process, once the overall UX strategy is set and the user researchers have lots of juicy data to share.
Before committing anything to code, information architects and/or UX designers will flesh out the structure of each page using methods like:
- Low-fidelity wireframing
- Card sorting
- User journey mapping
- Site mapping
- User flows
But an information architect’s job doesn’t stop there. In fact, IA plays a role at every stage of the product design process.
Once the structure is agreed upon, and the UI designer steps in to embellish the interface with style and branding, information architects will analyse the prototype—paying close attention to how the aesthetic elements (i.e., colour and font choices) enhance or interact with the technical elements (i.e., navigation cues) to create a cohesive user experience.
After the website or application’s gone live, information architects will constantly test the site’s IA based on evolving user habits. They’ll use analytics tools such as Google Analytics or HotJar to track user behaviour on their website or application, and continually optimise the site to maximise conversion and minimise pain points. In addition, they’ll rely heavily on customer feedback loops to better understand how users interpret the information so they can adjust the structure accordingly.
In our ‘golden age of information,’ information architecture is essential to any good UX strategy. Not only does it keep users on your site for longer, it also helps to build trust—while staying true to the core UX principles of accessibility and ease of use.
Like so much of UX, IA is virtually invisible to users when it’s good—and only sticks out like a sore thumb when it’s implemented incorrectly (or absent altogether). To avoid giving users a headache, good IA takes time, thought, and testing—but while it might be dubbed the ‘science of order,’ it’s certainly not rocket science. By simply keeping the eight principles of IA in mind, you’ll end up with a digital product that meets business goals while keeping up with evolving user needs and expectations.
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