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26 Oct, 2020

What is Information Architecture 

And what do I do with it?

From brewing a pot of coffee to navigating through your favorite app, information architecture is pervasive. You may not even notice it, but our lives are subtly — and sometimes overtly — guided by the information architecture around us.

And that’s exactly why you need to understand what information architecture is — especially as a designer.

What is Information Architecture?

In its simplest form, information architecture (IA) is the discipline of organizing information clearly and logically. Its purpose is to make sure said information helps users easily navigate and use a product, app, or website.

In essence, IA is like a map. It allows users to understand exactly where they are and how they can get to where they want to be. To do this effectively, information has to be presented in a way that makes it easy for the user to follow the map — with minimal cognitive effort. 

The Importance of Information Architecture — Particularly in Design

Whether you’re designing an app, website, or any other product (physical or digital), your ultimate goal should be to give users a great user experience (UX). No matter how exceptional your product may be, if your user struggles to find their way around, the negative UX will increase the likelihood that they dump your product. And once you lose a user, bringing them back is next to impossible.

That’s why information architecture must be a core element of product design — it helps guarantee a great product experience.

Information architecture may not be visible to end users, but it should form the backbone of product design. After all, your visual design and navigation will be heavily influenced by your IA. If your information architecture is designed well, users will find it easy and enjoyable to use your product. Not only will the high customer satisfaction rates lead to loyal users, they will also lead to more positive reviews. And as you well know, positive reviews lead to more new users and, ultimately, significant growth of your user base.

The 8 Foundational Principles of Information Architecture that Impact UX

Information architecture is a very broad field that can’t be fully covered in a single post. However, there are some important foundational IA principles that you need to know if you’re to create a great UX for your users. These are borrowed from Dan Brown, one of the pioneers of modern IA.

Principle of Objects

Treat your content as a living entity. Like any living thing, each piece of content has a unique lifecycle, behaviors, and attributes. These will determine the way you structure a particular piece of content.

Principle of Choices

Don’t overwhelm your users with too many options as this will mean more cognitive effort. And more effort could cause anxiety, leading to a negative UX. If there is to be a range of choices on a page, they should all be focused on one particular task.

Principle of Disclosure

One common mistake many designers make is to try and squeeze in a lot of information on a single page. This only leads to information overload. The principle of disclosure states that you should show just enough information to help users understand where they are and what they’ll get as they go deeper. Limiting the information they see at any given point will allow users to better absorb it.

Principle of Exemplars

If you’re presenting different categories, show examples of content in each category. Examples, especially visual ones, will help users easily identify what they need to do on that page.

Principle of Front Doors

In the case of a website, assume that a good portion of visitors will come through some page (door) other than the homepage. This means every page should include some basic information letting users know where they are and the steps they should take to get to the next level.

Principle of Multiple Classifications

The principle of multiple classifications simply means you should offer users different ways to browse the content on your site. This is because different people prefer different methods of finding what they’re looking for on your website. Structure your navigation in such a way that it caters to all common browsing methods.

Principle of Focused Navigation

Focused navigation simply means every navigational element should not be defined by where it appears. Instead, it should be defined by and focus on the directions it contains.

Principle of Growth

Always anticipate the growth of your website. As your website grows, so too will the amount of content increase. As you design your IA, make sure to plan for this growth. If your IA is not scalable, it will lead to you having to constantly redesign your website.

Following these simple principles will help create a strong foundation for your IA, ultimately resulting in a positive UX.

The 4 Components of Effective Information Architecture

Effective information architecture, for any digital or physical product, depends on understanding the 4 components that define how you structure your content — even as you’re on the prototyping stage of design. As a result, it also determines how users interact with your product. Here’s a brief look at those 4 components:

Organization Systems

Organization systems involve determining how you’ll categorize your information. These can be further broken down into 3 structures:

  • Hierarchical. This type of content organization involves presenting information in such a way that users will quickly understand the importance of each element. Relying on the Gestalt principles, this usually involves visual perception on the user’s part. A typical example is the use of larger fonts to highlight important copy or contrasting colors for important buttons on a page.
  • Sequential. In this structure, information is presented in such a way that users move along a predefined “journey,” step-by-step. For example, to make a purchase on an e-commerce website, the user will select a product, add it to their cart, confirm their selection, and head off to the checkout page. Relevant information is presented along each step of the way.
  • Matrix. This structure is a bit more complex as it involves giving users control over how they want to browse through your information. Users are given several options for retrieving the information that they’re looking for. For example, you can organize your information according to date, trending topics, or even audience type.

But categorizing your information is only one aspect of effective IA. Let’s move on to the next component.

Labeling Systems

Labeling systems deal with how you represent information on your website. In most cases, you will have a lot of information to communicate to users. Unfortunately, giving it all to them at once can lead to confusion.

This is where labeling systems come to play.

As an information architect, you must create labels that represent loads of data in as few words as possible. For example, a call-to-action button is a label that represents the instructions you’ve already given a user.

Navigation Systems

A navigation system, in terms of IA, involves how users move through your app or website content.

Examples of navigation systems include (but are not limited to):

  • Hierarchical navigation. This is a simple system that takes users from the main page to other linked pages — usually in the form of a drop-down menu.
  • Global navigation. This is a more complex navigation system that allows for vertical and lateral movement across the website. Commonly called a “site-wide navigation bar,” it sits at the top (and bottom) of a page and consists of a set of links that allow users to easily access the top-level pages of a site.
  • Local navigation. As the name suggests, this navigation system helps users explore nearby content in relation to where they are.
  • Contextual navigation. Contextual navigation offers users a way to navigate an app or website in terms of related content. For example, an e-commerce store can offer customers contextual navigation by displaying to users a navigation menu that features related products.

Navigation systems are complex and can’t entirely be covered in a single post. Check out this post for a more in-depth look at them.

Search Systems

Searching systems are employed to help users easily search for information in a digital product. This is especially essential for products that have so much information that users are at risk of getting lost as they browse through your content.

To implement a search system, you’ll need filters and a search engine to help pull out relevant data. You’ll also have to think about ways you might present search results to users so that they are easy to understand and navigate through. 

Information Architecture — The Foundation of Good UX

While we’ve only scratched the surface, it’s evident that without good information architecture, it’s impossible to give your users a good user experience. Indeed, information architecture is the foundation of a good user experience.

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