There’s a mansion in San Jose you can visit that shows architecture gone awry. A wealthy widower spent the last several decades of her life constantly renovating her home, resulting in all sorts of architectural oddities: a stairway to nowhere, a doorway eerily situated on the second floor exterior, ornate windows that open into nothing. It’s the type of house that reminds you why architects exist.
The same is true of poorly laid-out websites, where you can’t find a contact page, where searches yield strange results, and where blog posts seem to be part of a different website entirely.
The discipline that wrangles a website’s disparate functions and content together is called information architecture. It’s an important concept for UX designers to grasp. Similar to real architecture, it lays a blueprint around which all future growth occurs. Without good information architecture, a website can end up feeling like a staircase to nowhere.
What is information architecture?
Information architecture (also known as IA) is the process by which content is organized and made readily available to users. It encompasses and makes sense of the work of multiple fields, including marketing, sales, design, and customer service. In this way, it’s similar to user experience design more broadly, but the two disciplines are distinct. Information architecture focuses on organizing and structuring content to make it easily accessible, while UX design is broader, focusing on creating a positive and meaningful user experience through intuitive interfaces and interactions.
UX deliverables like sitemaps, wireframes, hierarchies, navigation, and metadata are all influenced by information architecture. A vested interest in IA can help UX designers with a couple of their key goals, including improving site navigation, enhancing user engagement, and facilitating user interactions. It also makes for a cleaner, better looking website.
But, as always with UX, it’s about more than aesthetics: information architecture in UX can, and definitively should, ladder up into core business objectives. It can:
Increase conversion rates: New users can more easily find the information they need, and purchases can be streamlined.
Reinforce credibility: A clean and well-organized website increases consumer confidence.
Improve productivity: Employees know where different types of content belong and can more readily build out new pages as necessary.
Boost SEO: Good site-level organization is a key factor in search engines’ algorithmic rankings.
Reduce customer service costs: Users can better troubleshoot their problems when a website surfaces the right information to them at the right time.
How to design information architecture
Whether you’re building a digital product from the ground up or attempting to renovate a preexisting website, the process typically follows a few time-honored steps.
1. Understand user needs
As always, start with users. Who will be using your product and what do they want to do? Conduct user research to understand the target audience, their goals, and the tasks they need to accomplish using your website or app. Gather insights through methods like interviews, surveys, and analytics data.
Other user research tools – like mental maps and personas – can be helpful here, as they’ll help you keep specific humans in mind once you’re designing.
2. Define business objectives
Turn to internal stakeholders to get a grip on what the needs of your business are – perhaps even what precipitated this interest in a reorganization of the information architecture.
Typically, this is some sort of growth: more users, more sales, more sales per user. Regardless, understanding the ultimate business objectives provides KPIs and metrics to test against further downstream. It will also help build buy-in when it comes to presenting the sitemap to internal stakeholders: you can clearly explain how it ladders up into business objectives.
3. Conduct competitive analysis
Users don’t arrive at your product in a vacuum. They will have visited competitors’ products and will likely have expectations about how a site or app like yours should be laid out, as well as the words you use to describe similar categories. Taking a look at competition can also generate opportunities – perhaps no competitor is producing evergreen informational content, highlighting the potential for a serious SEO campaign. These should all be factored into the IA’s “blueprint.”
4. Create a content inventory
This step will go a little differently whether you’re working on an existing site or creating a new one. If you’re working on an existing site, compile a comprehensive inventory of pages and sections, perhaps on a spreadsheet containing information like page title, URL, type of content, age (how current the content is), and who owns it (perhaps by department). This helps you understand the breadth of information that needs to be sorted and where there are potential gaps.
If you’re building an architecture for a net-new website, this process plays out a little differently, involving conversations with departmental heads about what sort of pages they’d like to see in the short and long term. Still, seek to be comprehensive in this situation, too – a spreadsheet similar to the one described above would still be appropriate, even if the pages are more hypothetical.
5. Categorize content
All of the content that you’ve inventoried needs to be categorized. There are a number of ways to do this, but card sorting can work well: writing the names of all the different types of content down and having them sorted logically by your target audience. So, pages for “sandals” and “boots” could be grouped under “footwear” for an ecommerce site. A content initiative for a landscaping business may result in categories like “gardening” and “DIY projects.”
All of these categories help you better understand how your users group different types of information, after which they can be nested into a sitemap.
6. Create a sitemap
Here’s where the categories are sorted into a coherent structure. Often this is hierarchical, where top-level categories (like shoes) have subcategories (like sandals). A top-level “Help” category may link to both “contact us” and “troubleshooting” options. In the end, this sitemap should look like a diagram, with top-line boxes representing different categories and nested sub-sections and pages beneath them.
7. Design the navigation system and user flows
Once you have a sitemap, you can design a system for users to navigate it: perhaps a menu bar at the top of the page that remains visible on all pages, or a pop-out menu on an app that’s always visible as three lines. Then go back to some of those personas and user research you did earlier and test the navigation internally with a few different scenarios.
Can you search for and purchase a particular product? Can you browse for gift ideas? Can a new user who came via search quickly learn more about the company and sign up for the newsletter? These internal validations will eventually get tested by users, but the user flows are important to mock up internally.
8. Test your wireframes
Create wireframes or low-fidelity prototypes to visualize the information architecture. Run a prototype test or navigation test and iterate on the designs, ensuring that the content is organized logically and the navigation is intuitive. Seek feedback from users and stakeholders during this phase.
When the wireframes seem sturdy enough to build out, create the real product and put it in the wild. Of course, like other types of user-centered design, creating an information architecture is iterative, meaning at any point it may be advisable to move back up to earlier steps. This continues even after the product is launched – a wider field of users means more data to be checked against KPIs, such that refinements can continue.
The 8 principles of information architecture
One way to test your information architecture is to take a look at some of the bedrock principles of the field. Originally formulated by the UX designer Dan Brown, these eight principles have slightly abstract names, but their actual definitions are fairly straightforward.
The principle of objects
“Treat content as a living, breathing thing with its own structure, attributes, and behaviors.” For example, a news website may treat each article as an individual object with its own unique URL, metadata, and related content, and it may require more frequent updates for breaking news; the same website may treat its customer service page as a much more static experience.
The principle of choices
“Create pages that offer meaningful choices to users, keeping the range of choices available focused on a particular task.” A landing page at an ecommerce website may offer two paths — “shop” and “learn more” – rather than making users choose between all the possible models and types of content upfront.
The principle of disclosure
“Show only enough information to help people understand what kinds of information they'll find as they dig deeper.” A software application may initially present users with a high-level overview, revealing more advanced features and settings only when users express interest or need for them.
The principle of exemplars
“Describe the contents of categories by showing examples of the contents.” For example, a grocery delivery site may show icons that represent different types of products in each “aisle.”
The principle of front doors
“Assume at least half of the website’s visitors will come through some page other than the home page.” Users who arrive via search, paid campaigns, and direct email blasts likely all have different expectations. Design funnels for each accordingly.
The principle of multiple classification
“Offer users several different classification schemes to browse the site’s content.” For example, a recipe website might allow users to browse recipes not only by cuisine type but also by dietary restrictions and cooking time.
The principle of focused navigation
“Don't mix apples and oranges in your navigation scheme.” This means that navigation systems should be consistent – a bar at the top of the page shouldn’t shift and use different words once users click into different types of content.
The principle of growth
“Assume the content you have today is a small fraction of the content you will have tomorrow.” For example, don’t assume because you don’t want a blog now that you never will.
If you’re wondering if you’ve designed a sturdy blueprint for a website, try running through these principles to see if they apply. Is there room to grow? Is the navigation consistent? Can users learn more as they choose to? These questions will help ensure your information architecture is sturdy enough to support your website or app into the future.
Popular tools for information architecture
Many of the tools for designing information architecture are similar to those used in UX design. Some of the most helpful include:
Lyssna: Evaluate the effectiveness of your navigation structures by testing with real people. Run a prototype test or navigation test on the overall usability of your information architecture, recruit your own users or from our participant panel, and collect actionable data.
Axure RP: A prototyping tool for creating interactive wireframes and prototypes, including hierarchical structures and sitemaps.
OmniGraffle: A diagramming tool with shapes, connectors, and templates.
Lucidchart: A web-based diagramming tool with collaboration features.
Microsoft Visio: A tool for creating detailed information architecture diagrams and visualizations.
Test your information architecture with Lyssna
Ready to improve the usability and effectiveness of your website’s information architecture for UX? Try Lyssna, a powerful tool that allows you to test your navigation structures and gather valuable insights from real users. With features like prototype testing and navigation testing, you can ensure your information architecture is intuitive and user-friendly.
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Frequently asked questions about information architecture in UX
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