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Information architecture (IA) is the process of structuring and organizing information within a website or application. It is a key component of UX design, as it helps users find what they are looking for on the site or in the app. If you don't organize your website or app's content well, most users will be lost and confused when navigating it - rendering the actual value of your product moot.
The term "information architecture" was coined by Richard Saul Wurman in his book Information “Architects: Strategies for Structuring Information” (1989). In this book, Wurman defined information architecture as
(...) a clear structural framework that helps people reason about content.
Richard Saul Wurman
“Architects: Strategies for Structuring Information”
IA is based on users' expectations of: - how the world is organized, - which items belong to others, - what actions are connected to labels, - what we suspect under categories, - which should be more comprehensive, and what is a detail. We cannot put every piece of information on the same level. It would be so messy that it would be impossible to find anything. Information on the website needs to have its order, and web creators have to find out what is the best, the most intuitive way for users to navigate through the website structure and how to organize it.
Information Architecture analogy
Imagine this scenario: You live in Birmingham and want to visit your favorite restaurant in London. Of course, the opportunity to jump the rabbit hole or create a magic portal like Dr. Strange to teleport you there directly remains in the realm of fantasy. You have to go through several points to reach your destination. If your restaurant is where your wanted information on the website, you would have to choose, for instance, this possible path:
Home at Birmingham → Railway Station at Birmingham → Railway Station at London → Subway Station at London → Restaurant
In the form of IA, those points would be labels or categories that you would have to choose in a specific order to find what you need. Here's an example of working on IA from a web perspective. You're designing an eCommerce website that sells pet care items. How do you decide where to put "cat litter" in the navigation? Should it be in the navigation bar under the label 'Cat,' 'Cleanliness,' or 'Hygiene'? In a dropdown menu? The sidebar? Its page? These questions are all part of IA.
Why create Information Architecture?
The primary goal of IA is to improve user experience by making sure that users can navigate through content quickly and intuitively. A good IA creates a hierarchy that allows users to find what they want quickly without spending too much time searching for it. An effective order also ensures that users can access all parts of the site or app without searching through unnecessary pages or menus. Information Architecture helps structure in a logical, intuitive way:
- how users are navigating on the website or app,
- how users are searching for appropriate info, products, and actions,
- how users suspect that it should be organized.
- how users can find themselves while navigating the product,
- how the content is labeled.
What are the ways of creating IA?
There are two main ways to create information architecture: top-down and bottom-up. Top-down means that you start with a broad view of your site or app and work down from there, while bottom-up involves creating specific content pieces (such as a blog post) and working up from there. Both approaches can be effective, but each has its strengths and weaknesses, so it's essential to understand both before deciding how to build IA into your project.
Here are some tips for creating good information architecture: 1) Use visual hierarchies to organize content into groups and sections. 2) Use microsite structures for smaller, more focused content areas like blogs and microsites. 3) Use taxonomies to organize content by categories, tags, and labels.
Elements of Information Architecture
While structuring your product, several IA components can help adjust collected and revised insights to your work. Those components are an organization system and show how your content will be organized, navigated, and found by the user. They were established by IA pioneers Peter Morville and Louis Rosenfeld, authors of the most important book in IA: “Information Architecture for the World Wide Web.”
- Organization It shows how you link different pieces of information together and give sense to your content. There are three organizational systems: 1) Hierarchical structures It shows the importance of different information. It is also known as a tree structure, and it shows the broader label on the top and detailed, smaller subcategories going down in the form of branches. 2) Sequential structures It is a specific path where users follow established steps. That helps them avoid being overwhelmed or frustrated because of too many possibilities. 3) Matrix structures It is the opposite of sequential structures. It lets the user choose many paths to get to the wanted information.
- Labeling Labels are the way to find the concept - they convey a lot of information with one word. For instance, if you're looking for an e-mail address to the company, you will probably search for the' Contact' label.
- Navigation It is thinking about how users move through the content. It should be as simple and as straightforward as possible. It has to be built from metadata that categorizes and explains your content. Your navigation system can offer the user a series of different paths but always lead to the needed product and place.
- Search The search system can help when your product includes a lot of data. It also considers how the results and filters will be displayed to the user while the search is carried out.
What are research methods to define Information Architecture?
The research methods depend on the information architecture model you're using.
- Qualitative research methods like interviews or surveys would be appropriate if you're doing top-down.
- If you're doing bottom-up, then quantitative research methods like polls or surveys would be more appropriate (the reason for this is because qualitative research focuses on understanding why people do things rather than just what they do).
You can also use analytics data from past projects, if those exist, to get insights into where people are clicking most often and how long they spend on each page before moving on to another one (or leaving altogether). The main goal of research should be to find out how people interact with similar sites and how they expect things to be organized. Before you conduct it, make a list of all the things you want people to know about your product or service: - what are its benefits? - how does it work? - what makes it different from other similar products out there? Then organize them into categories that make sense for you and your users. You can revise them later during some workshops, surveys, and interviews or use previously created personas and scenarios to get into the minds of your users and imagine what would make their experience better.
UX designers will often use research methods like:
- card sorting
- tree testing
- content audits
- user interviews
- surveys (or surveys combined with other methods) These methods help determine what users expect to find where and make sure they can easily navigate the site or app. Then they'll present their findings in a report, which will guide other designers who work on different parts of the project - like visual design, UX writing, or copywriting - so they all know how to best represent those choices visually within their roles.
How to present the Information Architecture of your website?
The most popular way to visualize discovered and organized information architecture is a mind map and site map. Mind map Mind maps are a visual representation of associations between different pages in a digital product. As a tool, a mind map is helpful for instruction, allowing someone to understand the structure of content by logical sequence and develop associations. Use it on an app or website to visually represent entities and follow the logical structure of the content. With a ready mind map, you can create a site map. Site map A visual site map is a hierarchical diagram that displays the information architecture of a website. It shows how different sections are linked together and contain other sections or nodes (atomic units of content).
Why create a site map?
- to identify the content and relationship between pages and screen
- to better understand the site's goals and purposes
- to communicate a chosen path and structure to the product team
- to eliminate unnecessary information, labels, pages
- to remove duplicated content.
Some popular tools to create IA:
Eight Principles of Information Architecture
1. Object Principle
Each object evolves and has its lifecycle, different behaviors, and attributes. You have to identify them from a broad scale to detail and reorganize them to best use the content.
2. Choice Principles
Too many choices impact cognitive load. A variety of options can impact difficulties in making decisions. Therefore it is crucial to focus on the most meaningful to users.
3. Disclosure Principle
Show only the information that will help people figure out what they’ll find while digging deeper.
4. Exemplar Principle
Our brains represent categories by networks of examples. Descriptions don’t work so well as categories shown in the form of good examples of the content.
5. Front Door Principle
Take into account that not every user is coming through the front door - that means that even half of them will come through some other page than the home page.
6. Multiple Classification Principle
People have different ways of content classifications. We should offer various schemes to browse the site’s content.
7. Focused Navigation Principle
The navigation menu should rather explain what is inside, its content and purpose, not where they appear.
8. Growth Principle
In most cases, web content is fluid and changing. Assume that in the future, you will have to anticipate new content, so allow the possibility of growth of it.
Peter Morville, Louis Rosenfeld, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, 2006
Dan Brown, Eight Principles of Information Architecture, 2010
Nick Babich, Sitemaps & Information Architecture (IA), AdobeXD Ideas, Dec 17, 2019
Page Laubheimer, Information Architecture: Study Guide, NN Group, April 10, 2022
Cameron Chapman, The Ultimate Guide to Information Architecture, Webdesingerdepot.com, February 9, 2015
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