Just as traditional architecture determines how people will use a building or another structure, information architecture (IA) guides users in how they use information systems. And while there are many information systems out there, the most commonly used are websites.
Unlike the architecture of bridges and buildings, though, information architecture has more moving parts, a more abstract form of ‘building materials,’ and has only been around for a few decades. Additionally, information systems like websites are more malleable and can be adjusted and improved over time.
If you can master the principles of information architecture, you can build a website that will stand the test of time. Whether you’re in the process of creating your website or want to revamp your user experience and content, this article will provide you insight into how you can transform your website into a shining example of well-designed information architecture.
Information architecture refers to the process your users go through to gather information about your products or services through a website or other digital platform like an app. Information architecture provides people with a systematic way to navigate from point A to point B in order to achieve an action or gain knowledge. In other words, better information architecture promotes easier accessibility of information through intuitive navigation design.
The best information architecture not only streamlines the user’s journey and goals, but it fulfills specific user needs by organizing a vast amount of information into little, easily digestible categories.
Much of the methodologies, techniques, and principles used to understand and improve information architecture design come from Peter Morville. Morville is the founding architect of this branch of user experience (UX) and content inventory systems. While he was the first, there is a large number of experts in this discipline who develop IA best practices through the Information Architecture Institute and user research.
Before we dive into how to improve your information architecture, it’s important to have a good sense of what is included in this field of study in relation to your website. While information architecture can apply to library science, spreadsheet science, and even physical structures, we will be focusing on IA in relation to websites.
All it takes is for a website to load in order to be flooded with examples of information architecture. Information architecture is the strategic organization and presentation of your website’s content. In fact, nearly every aspect of a website and web design is part of IA. Of course, there is good information architecture and subpar IA, but all of the following are important parts of an IA system that go into your site:
Good IA comes into play in all of the above. And these elements are often categorized into UX design, content creation strategy, and homepage layout (UI design).
Search engine optimization (SEO) and information architecture both benefit website owners and web users by improving the internet experience. SEO and IA make quality content easier to find, understand, and navigate. SEO and IA differ in where they fit into the website creation process.
SEO has the goal of increasing a website’s visibility through the science of configuring content, front-end web development, and back-end web development in response to search engine algorithms. The result is a website that search engines can find and display as search results to web users’ inquiries. This is an ongoing process. SEO requires a proactive and reactive approach since algorithms often change. Additionally, search engines see value to websites that regularly update their content.
Information architecture often works best when established before active web design begins. IA establishes a framework that supports the efforts of SEO specialists for the lifetime of a website. With a well-strategized IA, a website will have a strong foundation of logical organization. This makes a website more enjoyable from the user’s perspective since they can find what they need easily. In turn, this improves the website’s reputation. A better reputation increases the website’s authority and pushes it higher on search engine results pages, so more people can find it.
Good information architecture only as to be designed once.
Like most systems, the best IA only has to be designed once. If an IA system is effective, it will allow a website to scale and respond to changes needed for the most current SEO strategies. As more blogs, products, or landing pages are added to a website for SEO, good IA already has a designated location and system to handle them.
As your local librarians will tell you, providing easy access to information is priceless. Information is both empowering and vital for the best individual experience and a better society. However, when it comes to your UX, IA has a more specific importance. It increases your brand’s value to potential clients while bolstering your sales.
Good IA structure based on set principles has the power to help people find what they are looking for within seconds. One of the simplest examples of this is concise and accurate folder labels in your Google Drive. This naming or navigation system allows you to access the files and information you’re looking for quickly and effortlessly–leading to less frustration and wasted time.
While more complicated, Google Maps also uses IA to help people find what they’re looking for in the physical world. For instance, if you type “food near me,” your search results will be full of nearby restaurants. This demonstration of IA is a perfect example of what it means to help a user understand what they are looking for since the user is likely looking for businesses that provide food.
Improving your information architecture can turn your website from an ordinary e-commerce page into a resource visitors enjoy using. These tips can guide you through how to improve your IA and help you prioritize which tasks to begin with.
Wireframes serve a multitude of purposes when it comes to developing strong IA and a sitemap. They work superbly as information architecture diagrams that can be moved around and changed before your design is finalized.
At their very core, wireframes connect your IA to its UX design. In striking similarity to an architectural blueprint, a wireframe functions as a skeletal outline of a site or mobile app. However, this method of UX development is not limited to visual design, unlike a mockup. To accurately determine the logic of your site’s flow and the intended customer journey, this is a necessary step in your IA project timeline. Your site’s intended functions can best be evaluated through wireframing.
Through wireframing, you will have a solid idea of your visual hierarchy when you are ready to move your site to the content strategy phase. Common elements of a wireframe include
Ideally, you would use wireframes during your initial UX/UI design process. However, you can still utilize them on an existing website.
Aside from assessing functionality, wireframing is a particularly useful method of identifying paths between web pages. This critical phase of the IA process will allow you to visualize how much space should be allocated for specific content.
Low-fidelity wireframe versions of a website are quick to develop and more abstract because their main focus is on the visual hierarchy of your site. These bare-bones prototypes often implement mock content (like Latin text) as filler for spatial visualization. However, they provide you with a guideline for content volume when the time comes.
Linking concepts to tangible images and links can be a complicated process, even for the seasoned designer. If you have trouble getting your ideas to match your result, consider implementing a mind mapping software like XMind. XMind is a productivity tool used professionally to solidify brainstorming.
Conversely, high-fidelity wireframes are more detailed versions are excellent blueprints for interaction design. They include metadata about a particular page element, like its behavior or dimensions. These more detailed versions are excellent blueprints for previewing your interaction design.
Unity and consistency across your brand are integral parts of a solid information architectural system.
Your site is a reflection of your brand, from the elements of your visual design down to each blog post and product page. Accordingly, you should be keeping your brand personas in mind each time you implement a UX feature or post a new content piece. This ensures fidelity between your company and your target audience. Use your personas as a guide to help you, your design team, and your content strategist collaborate on your ideal user perception.
Your goal user perception is the way you would like customers or potential customers to view your brand. Before making one of the many decisions IA requires, run your ideas through this line of questioning:
Any content or design elements that do not hold up to this line of questioning can be eliminated. Not only can this process help you avoid inconsistencies, but it reduces the possibility of having too much content on your site. This benefits your web admins, especially those who keep up with content creation for SEO purposes.
Visual hierarchy is a principle of laying out and sizing visual elements to denote their importance to the viewer. For example, alignment, texture, whitespace, and contrast are a few of the visual design concepts that can help draw users’ attention to the right content. An effective user interface design does more than simply provide information. A quality hierarchy can persuade and impress users.
There are a few aspects of visual hierarchy that are highly beneficial to apply when creating UX design based on cognitive psychology.
1: Larger images are perceived as more important
2: Bright colors garner more attention
3: Elements that are aligned are more pleasing to the eye
4: Higher contrast demands more attention
5: Repetition tells the viewer that elements are related
6: Proximity (or closeness) denotes interconnectedness in topic
7: More white space around an element draws more attention to it