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GuidesUser experience (UX)What is information architecture?

What is information architecture?

Last updated

14 March 2023

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Jean Kaluza

Information architecture (IA) is a field that can be difficult to define, but it's a vital part of the UX design process. It focuses on creating a structure to bring together the user, the website’s information, and the context for the information most effectively.

IA helps designers create websites and apps that make it easy for users to find what they're looking for. In short, IA organizes information to create a logical, easy-to-navigate flow.

IA isn't something users can see, but it creates the organizing principles for the design they interact with. Effective IA helps people focus on what they're doing instead of being distracted by trying to navigate the site.

Why is information architecture important?

People use apps and visit websites to find information. IA organizes the flow and organization of this content to make it easy to navigate. With good IA design, developers can create a practical, user-friendly experience. 

The value of information architecture

Designers want to make the user experience of their informational products as simple and stress-free as possible. 

The most riveting content in the world doesn't hold much value if it's too frustrating to find. The user will likely abandon the website or platform, making it much harder to bring them back. 

IA organizes the information to benefit the user and the business.

The value for the user

When a designer creates a site with effective IA, the site’s content takes the attention instead of the user getting irritated when they can’t find what they're looking for. IA is likely to go unnoticed when it's well done.

It helps users have a clear grasp of: 

  • Where they are

  • What information is available

  • Where they can find it

  • What they can expect from the web page

The result is an easy, intuitive experience that users enjoy.  

The value for the business

The last thing a business owner wants is for customers to give up on their product and leave dissatisfied. IA keeps users engaged, moving them fluidly through content. 

Without this critical design element, users are more likely to become bored or frustrated. Most people will simply click away if it takes too much time or effort to get the information they want. That makes it much less likely they'll try that resource again.

Once a customer dismisses a site as inadequate or uninteresting, they’re unlikely to come back.

Principles of information architecture

The concept of IA began in the 1970s, long before websites and apps. When people refer to IA nowadays, they're usually talking about digital content. But originally, it facilitated the design of brick-and-mortar businesses.

Because of its origins, its roots go back to a diverse group of methodologies that shaped how people think about organizing the flow of information. Here are some of the fields and the organizing principles they contributed to IA.

Cognitive psychology

This study of how the mind processes information makes it a natural component of IA. Multiple cognitive psychology elements contribute to it:

Gestalt principles

This is the study of how people perceive objects in relation to each other. People see and interpret so much visual information without being aware of it based on similarity, proximity, continuity, and symmetry. Understanding this interpretation helps designers place graphic information in the most effective arrangement.

Mental models

This focuses on the expectations people carry when they first view a project. Designers can develop arrangements that simplify how users find information by understanding what assumptions people bring to an experience. When someone finds information where they expect it to be, their browsing experience is faster and more productive.

What are the key processes for information architecture?

Whether you're creating a website or an app, effective IA requires four basic steps:

1. Define the company’s goals

Clarifying what the company wants is vital to create the most effective customer experience. What is the end goal of the organization? Often, these goals include affecting people's behavior, reducing costs, and increasing revenue. It's helpful to take a close look at what might be blocking these goals.

2. Define the user's goals

You must understand who will be using your product to meet their needs:

  • What will they be doing on the website? 

  • What are the goals that brought them there? 

  • Are there any site problems preventing them from getting what they want?

3. Analyze your competitors

Getting an understanding of how competitors function can go a long way toward helping you develop your approach. Perhaps they're doing it right, and they can inspire you. They may also be a great example of what to avoid. 

4. Define your content

Develop a full inventory of the information you want to include. This will help you cull unneeded content on an established site. If you're building a new site, it will ensure you include everything you need. 

What information architects do

Information architects play an essential role in UX design. They structure content to make it easy and intuitive for users to easily navigate to the information they want. 

Here are the ways they get to the end product: 

User research

Learning about potential users and what they want is an essential first step in delivering a product that meets their needs. Information architects research the people they hope to reach so they understand the most effective way to deliver the content. 

Card sorting is a helpful research method for defining IA. In a card sorting exercise, the researcher may write down the different concepts or “areas” of a website on index cards. 

The participants need to organize the cards in the way that makes the most sense from their perspective, thinking aloud while they do the exercise.

The researcher may even leave some blank cards in case the participant has new or different ways to organize the website’s content. After a few rounds, the user’s perspective becomes clear, and organizing the IA should be much easier.

Content inventory, grouping, and audits

A content inventory is simply a list detailing all the project’s content.

Content grouping is a technique to sort that information based on how it ties together. 

Content audits help the information architect rate the information according to its effectiveness, accuracy, and usefulness.

These tools develop a clear understanding of the content the designer is dealing with.

Taxonomies and labeling

Researchers use taxonomy to sort the information into sections, categories, or metadata tags. Assigning accurate categories and labels makes it easier for users to find what they want. 

Creating hierarchy and navigation

Hierarchy builds the content placement; you typically display it in a sitemap. Navigation determines the most effective way for users to move through that content. 

Prototyping

With this information and initial design in place, the information architect will create simplified page prototypes for the site or app. They show the hierarchy of the content and how the navigation will work.

From here, a great next step is to run user testing against the IA. 

A good rule of thumb to test the IA is not necessarily to ask direct questions about it. Instead, give the user typical website tasks to see how quickly and accurately they can follow your IA to accomplish these tasks. 

The number of tasks would depend on how much of the IA you need to test and how much a single task could get through. Should your users get stuck during the test, the researchers can note where the issue is in the IA. This helps you make adjustments accordingly.

What is a visual hierarchy in web design?

Visual hierarchy is a diagram that shows the elements on a page. It helps create a flow of information that guides users to each element in the intended order.

How to design information architecture

Unsurprisingly, for a discipline called information architecture, building the design requires meticulous planning and organization. 

Here are the steps information architects use to methodically execute their design:

Step 1: Group and label the content

Using the content inventory, sort the information into groups and prioritize by its importance. Labeling these groups clarifies the connections between the content in each set. This prepares for the next step and lets you easily sort new information into the correct category. 

Step 2: Define navigation and build a site map

With the information grouped, the next goal is to decide the most effective way to deliver this content. A sitemap visually represents how you’re linking and presenting the information.

Once this is in place, add the navigation elements to establish how users will move through the content. This includes things like menus, search bars, filters, and footers.

Step 3: User testing

Regular tests throughout the design process keep the design on track. 

Here are four common tests:

Tree testing

Participants click through the site using only the link names to see if they can find critical information. This demonstrates if the category names are easy to understand and make it simple to navigate the content.

Closed card sorting

Users sort a predetermined set of cards with category names on them. This shows if the names are easy to understand and differentiate.

Click testing

This test walks users through the navigation elements. Users try to use the elements to complete their tasks. It demonstrates which components are effective and which ones aren’t as useful.

Usability testing

You observe users as they try to navigate a prototype of the proposed IA. They go through the steps of a typical task on the site, showing how usable the product is. It also reveals problems that interfere with the experience.

The role of information architecture in user experience (UX) design

Effective IA design is one element that UX designers focus on. After all, it's hard to enjoy a site if it’s difficult to find the content you're looking for. A solid UX designer should have a good grasp of IA. However, you need more than IA to create stellar UX design.

What's the difference between IA and UX?

UX design covers more than the information found on the site. It covers all the elements that impact how the user feels when interacting with the product. 

UX design looks at: 

  • How the site functions

  • How easy it is to use

  • If users can accomplish their goals in using it and ideally enjoy doing it

IA is one aspect of effective UX design. While UX looks at all the elements of a web page that affect the user's experience, IA focuses on the information and its communication. 

The best information architecture tools

Like any detailed job, creating effective IA is easier if you have the right tools. Here are some common ones that information architects use:

  • Lucidchart helps create flow charts, online diagrams, and a range of other diagrams.

  • Miro provides an effective method for collaborating with other designers. It helps build: 

    • Agile boards

    • Mind maps

    • Organizational charts

    • Empathy blueprints

    • Other important IA tools

  • Xmind provides business charts, brainstorming assistance, and mind mapping.

  • Coggle is a collaborative way to create mind maps and diagrams. 

Information architecture best practices

Keep these four basic principles in mind to build the most effective IA:

Define your goals

You can only deliver the right end product when you understand what that is. Get a clear picture of what you want to design so you stay on track during the process. 

Your customers' needs are your focus

The design doesn’t have to feel right to you but to the user.

Simplicity

Ensure the IA doesn't overcomplicate the product, especially if it interferes with usability goals.

Teamwork makes the dream work

Create your IA presentation so your entire team can understand it.

IA is becoming more important as websites and apps become more comprehensive and complex. This vital design skill is an integral part of UX design and more.

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