A Beginner’s Guide to Information Architecture

It seems like more than ever, we are interconnected — the internet is on our wrists helping us with our health, paying for coffee with our phones when we forget our wallets, using apps instead of remotes for the tv. It’s great, right? Simplifies our lives…until it doesn’t.

As everything is supposed to be efficient and convenient right out the box, on the site, our collective patience as users continues to get smaller and smaller. As UX consultant Steve Krug says in his book, “Don’t Make Me Think”, a web page has to be intuitively designed, the moment a user has to think about where to go, you’re losing them.

The thing is, we’ve all experienced that when trying to use more convenient tech, and with our patience wearing thin, it’s all the more reason that the so-called “internet of things” (devices, sensors, etc.) to not only be consistent, but to be concise and effective now that being online is everywhere. It is even more urgent now for information to be efficiently catalogued and cross-referenced, to be easier to use. If you’ve ever tried to get two devices from different companies to connect, you know how this goes.

Here’s the issue — it doesn’t matter how nice your site looks, or how well designed it is, if your site doesn’t make any sense, you are not going to keep people, or get them to return.

This is where information architecture comes into play.

What is Information Architecture?

It is the structural design of websites, effectively. If you’ve ever done a search for something on a website, information must be cross-referenced across different categories and pages, that is information architecture. How data is pulled, catalogued, and labelled turns data into information. That information is then turned into usability and navigation for the user to find what they need.

(Adobe XD)

Here’s an example of what this might look like on paper for a shoe website. You have the landing page, then choosing between men’s and women’s shoes, then some branches for shoe categories for the user to choose from, and that unveils the products under that category.

It is important to be able to cross reference the information — if you’re looking for flat shoes, you’ll see all the options that fit as a flat shoe. That could vary a lot based on the type of flat shoe you need (sandals, loafer, sneakers, etc.).

This is the kernel of how IA works — but for a whole website — how effective is the navigation? Do the links work well for the user? How’s the flow of the site? These are all aspects that need to be considered when building the site. This way when it’s time to design, the bones of the site is all laid out.

Information architects spend time walking the fine line between what the stakeholders want for their company site and what the user needs to do on their site — they do research with users to figure out what works best. It’s more than just cataloguing in theory, or seemingly abstract work — the hypothesis is tested by those who will use the site and backed by research data.

Information Architecture → Site Content Strategy

The setup of a site is closely tied with the site copy on a site — which is called content strategy. It includes copywriting but is more about the big picture of making sure the copy is set up for the users. This includes having accessible content for a variety of users, and how to best help everyone use a site. Since site copy is often written by the company employees, content strategy is important as it fits into information architecture — page x links to page y, and is that link in a place where a user can find it? Does it make sense with the flow of this web page when we look at the bigger picture of structure? Does this page help everyone?

Conclusion

As you can see, these questions might seem theoretical compared to the design and development of the site, but if these questions aren’t answered before a designer begins to build their wireframe, new problems will arise as the site goes through production. By having information architecture as a central part of the site building process, it helps reduce the problems later by having a clear and concise website that can be used by a variety of people. It addresses the needs of the stakeholders (making sure their biggest products are easy to find, bringing in repeat customers, etc.), and the user (helping create something easy to use, that solves a problem in their lives, or helps them achieve what they need).

If you are interested in learning more about information architecture, there is a free global conference on February 27th, called World IA Day. There is going to be events across all time zones. Check it out!

Jessi is a UX Designer at DIA Design Guild. She lives in Los Angeles and can be found on twitter @jessishakarian.