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A Beginner’s Guide to Information Architecture

Antonia Hackenberger
What is Information Architecture, why is it important and how to do it right? Here's everything you need to know, explained by UX/UI Designer Antonia Hackenberger.
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If you came across the term Information Architecture (in short often called “IA”), you’re probably either looking for a way to improve your digital product or website, or you are working in UX. In this article you will learn what IA is, why it is useful and how it can be done. Let’s dig in!

What is Information Architecture?

Information Architecture is the art of organizing content in a logical and user-friendly way. IA emerged from the library and cognitive science, disciplines that investigate how the human brain categorizes and structures information.

A library
Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

When building applications or websites, we often wonder about how it is for users to navigate them, how simple it is to get from one page to the next one, or if the user will find this or that feature.

You can think of IA as a conceptual model that is used to plan out your page structure as well as to organize, categorize and label your content pieces. Whether you’re building a website or an application, the usability of your product often comes down to two things: The content and the structure.

An excellent Information Architecture enables users to find what they look for in a fast and simple manner. This does not happen by coincidence: building a great IA typically takes extensive research and user testing. In UX we call this understanding users’ mental models.

A mental model is what a person thinks they know about a system. Understanding mental models make it easier to comprehend how people expect a system to work. Their imagination results from all previous experiences they have acquired by using similar systems. If you’ve been already working in UX you might know this fact by “Jakobs’ Law”: Internet users spend most of their time on other websites. Their experience and expectations are closely related to other pages’ conventions.

An example:

A user expects that the contact information about a business can be found on their website under a menu item named “contact us” because they have seen that on numerous other websites before.

The value of IA

Let’s be honest. Time spent on invisible things other than design and development is costly for any business and seems unnecessary. So why bother?

It’s very simple: if your customers cannot find the information they are looking for on your website, it takes only seconds until they move on and find a better site.

If a digital product is difficult to navigate, users will simply not use it.

Truth is, the competition is just one click away. In addition to customer-facing software, there are also internal digital tools that, if being too difficult to use, get neglected by a company’s employees. This costs the company money. People are overloaded with information and infinite choices on a daily basis. Making their life easier is your chance to stand out and IA as the backbone of every application and website will help you do just that.

The biggest problem in convincing stakeholders to invest in IA is making stakeholders understand the value of something that is invisible to them.

Understanding users’ information needs

Every user has a distinct information need when entering a website or an application, meaning it is your job to deliver the right content at the right time and place to the user. There are jobs to be done that we usually tackle by developing new features. But how do we make sure that those features go well together and will be discovered by the user? What should the structure of the system be like?

Understanding information needs and the way people search for things online is crucial in order to ensure users can achieve their goals fast – which leads me to our next question:

How do people search?

In their excellent book explaining (almost) everything you need to know about IA, Peter Morville and Louis Rosenfeld (Information Architecture for the World Wide Web) write that there are 4 different ways of searching.

  • Known-item seeking – looking for something specific

Let’s say you are looking for a new shirt for your next job interview. You already know it should be white, medium in size and for men. You enter an e-commerce shop looking for a very specific item.

  • Exploratory seeking – looking for inspiration

Sometimes you don’t know what you want. You look for inspiration, for something that sparks your interest, but you are not sure what exactly. You enter an online shop and find a hoodie that you like.

  • Exhaustive research – looking for all information there is

Sometimes you look for everything the world wide web has to offer. It might be because you are experiencing symptoms that you want to pinpoint to a disease, or because you do research for a paper you’re writing. You want to collect as much information as possible.

  • Re-finding – saving specific information to find it again

You found something you like or that interests you and you want to save this information to find it again in the future. You bookmark the page.

Creating the Information Architecture for your website or app

In general, you won’t find one right way to figure out your IA. There are certain strategies, however, that help you research, explore and define that IA. To simplify this guide, I will base the process on creating the IA for a Website. On the base level, there are three areas that make up your Information Architecture:

  • Content
  • Context
  • User

Essentially, creating the IA means combining the needs of the business with the needs of the user, and working with the content at hand to provide value to both.

A graphic showing the connection between context, content and user in IA.
Antonia Hackenberger

1. Understand the business context

Prior to working with the actual content it’s crucial to understand what the business is about, which market it operates in, the business’ competitors landscape, it’s politics, culture, values, and goals. What is the company trying to achieve with the website and how is it creating and adding content internally? What kind of culture exists and what politics might play a role? It’s crucial to think ahead and plan in for scalability of the structure you are building, since any digital project is going to be expanded eventually and therefore its ground laying structure should be just as flexible.

2. Understand the user

Who are the people using the site? Prior to answering this question, you could use UX interviews, surveys and site analytics to gather qualitative and quantitative data about your users. You will need to find out:

  • What their goals are,
  • What information they are seeking and how they are searching (information seeking behavior),
  • If there are any obstacles or frustrations, pain points,
  • What existing expectations do they have.

3. Understand the content

You should get an understanding of what content needs to be presented, what already exists and what needs to be created or updated. Work closely together with the content creators and have a content inventory or make a content audit. You should get a clear picture of the content hierarchy in order to be able to create meaningful relations between content pieces. Which elements and pieces of information are most relevant to the user and should therefore be prioritized?

Actionable steps to take towards your Information Architecture

1. Content inventory

In an effort of creating a good structure, it’s vital to have a look at the content and collect all the pieces in one place. We do this by building a content inventory (this can be a simple excel file) where all content is listed, including specific characteristics about each piece (e.g.: ID, Page Level, location, URL, Page title, date of creation, content type, author, state etc.). This step helps to group related content together and see where content is outdated, or new content needs to be created.

An excel sheet with a content inventory.
Antonia Hackenberger

2. Group, categorize and label your content

Grouping

Now you need to categorize and organize the previously collected content. A sitemap and a basic navigation structure should be the outcome of this process. Start by grouping related items together into categories. Explore also how similar websites are categorized and how competitors do it. Stay cautious though, just because it works for someone else doesn’t mean it is a good structure. Usually, there are many ways of grouping content that can make sense for your target audience. In addition, it’s advisable not to reinvent the wheel – if conventions exist, use them.

Labelling

After the grouping, it’s time to label those categories. Labels should be consistent and should follow the same style. The best labels are using a language that the user is already familiar with.

An example:
An E-commerce Website is using “Women”, “Men”, “Kids”, “Contact” in their Navigation. They could also have the same categories, but name them “Shop Women”, “Shop Men”, “Shop Kids”, “Contact us”.
What they should avoid is combining different styles, like “Shop Women” “For Men” “Kids clothes” “Get in touch”.

Dos and don’ts with labels

Mixing different styles should be avoided, as well as using internal jargon or too complex naming. Keeping your naming style consistent and using common naming conventions is recommended and will help your users grasp the content easily and fast.

3. Explore and test your Categories and Labels

Card Sorting and tree testing are exploratory methods that can help you find the best grouping and labelling strategy for your content. In a card sort, users from your target group are asked to sort single index cards and categorize them into groups.

This method helps you explore people´s mental models and find new ideas on how to structure your content. An open or closed card sort is a quantitative research method that can help you explore possibilities and find the most common patterns in your target audience. Using a digital tool like this for card sorting speeds up the process and analysis.

Tree Testing is similar to card sorting, but reversed. You present participants with an existing structure and test if there are issues with it. It’s a good way to test if the structure you came up with works for your target audience, or if they often get lost and have troubles finding specific content.

Overall you should stay flexible throughout this whole process. Only research and testing will show if you’re going into the right direction and your users will understand your IA.

4. Create a Sitemap and Navigation

Once you’re done exploring and you found a good solution for both your categories and labels, you can create a sitemap that visualizes your Information architecture. It can help you explain the navigation and site structure to your stakeholders and speed up the process of wireframing and prototyping your website.

5. Wireframe your Website and test it with users

After settling for your navigation structure and site hierarchy, the most logical next step is wireframing your website. The sitemap will help you layout the pages and also understand their relations. With wireframes, you are perfectly equipped to go out and test your IA with actual users. Early usability testing helps avoid costs in later stages and just makes sure you are building the right thing!

Conclusion

Summing up, we hope this article helped you gain a better understanding of what Information Architecture is, why we should think about it and how it can be done.

This is just the start and you can found great resources online that give you more in-depth guidance on each of the mentioned methods.

Final piece of advice: don’t be shy and just try it out! With your next website project, for your own application or for a client: thinking deeply about the underlying information architecture will help you improve the user experience massively. And if you need support, our experts are happy to help you out!

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