Creating An Effective Information Architecture (Guide)

A good IA helps people to understand their surroundings and find what they’re looking for – in the real world as well as online. Practicing information architecture involves facilitating the people and organizations we work with to consider their structures and language thoughtfully. 

Many people are curious how IA is related to user experience (UX) design. UX designers practice IA everyday; the two are closely connected. Put simply, IA is an important skill within UX and other disciplines, such as content strategy, technical writing, library science and interaction design.

Information architecture is the practice of deciding how to arrange the parts of something to be understandable. If you’ve ever tried to use something and thought, “where am I supposed to go next?” or “this doesn’t make any sense,” you are encountering an issue with an information architecture. Information architecture is a task often shared by designers, developers, and content strategists.

Picture an architect planning, designing, and creating buildings and other physical structures. They need to design buildings that are functional and pleasant to use, while also being technically sound and aesthetically pleasing. People generally enjoy being in buildings where they can navigate and find where they need to go, rather than running around from one part to another not being able to find their destination.

Information architecture is similar, but relates to websites and digital products instead of physical buildings. Formally defined, Information Architecture, or IA, is the structural design of information or content (including text, photos, and videos), within a digital product. It focuses on organizing and labeling websites so that users can find what they are looking for.

In practice IA is about organizing information, that is: categorizing content, creating a consistent navigation, site map, and naming individual content groups. It is also the skeleton of the whole project, on the basis of which you create further views, visual elements, interactions or functionality.

IA allows the user to reach the content easily, without much effort. For example the inadequate structure of a website will discourage and frustrate site visitors. The organization of information in an online product itself depends on the users’ needs, but also on business priorities. For example, the structure of the information in the case of a blog or a landing page will look very different.

The IA designer is a complement to the design team. With contributing task including research, navigation, data modeling and labeling. The IA architect is responsible for how a user will navigate through the web product and reach the relevant information. The way in which users will use an application or website depends largely on how information is presented and organized.


Why Is Information Architecture Important For Businesses

In order to take care of a well-designed information architecture, you should answer to questions like:
  • How do you organize and divide information?
  • How do you present information?
  • How do you communicate the way you navigate through the site?
  • How will the user navigate on the site?
  • How will the user look for information?

The components that make up a good IA are:
  1. Organization system
  2. Labeling system
  3. Navigation system
  4. Searching system

A well-designed information architecture is intuitive and has efficient user experience. For this reason, not only UX skills are necessary to create a good web product, IA skills are equally important. Only then can it be possible to create a project meeting the users’ needs.

Tools And Templates For IA

On the market, we find a lot of tools for creating an information architecture. The simplest views can be created using tools such as Microsoft Visio. One can also present information architecture as a simple diagram. This version works well even with very large pages or applications. Diagrams are often used for site maps that are based on a previously created information architecture.


Creating An Effective Information Architecture For A Site

If you want to design an effective information architecture that will make your site more useful and legible, then you need to go through the stages of the design process which includes:

User research: Working on information architecture should begin with user research and analysis. An important part of this process is to understand the needs and problems of product users and to reconcile them with the business goals. A number of tools can be used for that purpose: card sorting, user interviews, focus groups or surveys.

Navigation: The next step is to define the navigation, the hierarchy of the individual pages, and to design how and when to display them. At this stage, we can use programs for mind mapping or diagrams for that.

Labeling: Once the information structure has been developed, it’s time to name the sections and pages so that they are understandable to the user. They also make it easier to navigate the page.

Wireframing: The next step is to make wireframes that will be based on IA. By using them, we define a visual hierarchy of information on the page as well as connections between subsequent views of the application.

When Do You Create An IA For Your Digital Product

The importance and value of information architecture will be recognized by designing an extensive website or application. In that case, it is worthwhile to work on Information Architecture at the beginning of the design process – after recognizing the users of the product, but before creating wireframes and mockups.

To do this, you need to understand how the pieces fit together to create the larger picture, how items relate to each other within the system. As a result, your IA informs the content strategy through identifying word choice as well as informing user interface design and interaction design through playing a role in the wireframing and prototyping processes.

To be successful, you need a diverse understanding of industry standards for creating, storing, accessing and presenting information.


How Do You Categorize And Structure Information?

Labeling Systems: How you represent information
Navigation Systems: How users browse or move through information
Search Systems: How users look for information

In order to create these systems of information, you need to understand the interdependent nature of users, content, and context.
Context: Business goals, funding, politics, culture, technology, resources, constraints.
Content: Content objectives, document and data types, volume, existing structure, governance and ownership
Users: Audience, tasks, needs, information-seeking behavior, experience

Though, modern use of the term IA strictly related to the design of information, it was officially introduced in the mid-1970s at the American Institute of Architecture conference where a man named Richard Saul Wurman introduced an idea that he called ‘the architecture of information’. Later on, in 1996, Wurman published his ideas in a book called Information Architects. 

It included a collection of works and graphics by designers whose work exemplified the term information architecture. Two years later, a book called Information Architecture for the World Wide Web was published and quickly became a best-seller. This book presented frameworks for design and organization of content within complex websites. Further editions of this book, evolved and expanded on its definition of information architecture.

Today, there exists a robust job market for information architects, tens of millions of webpages that reference information architecture, and even a professional organization called the Information Architecture Institution.

At the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center were a group of people responsible for developing technology that could support the ‘architecture of information’. They were single-handedly responsible for many important contributions in what is today known as human-computer interaction. They introduced the first person computer with a user-friendly interface, laser printing, and the first WYSIWYG text editor.


Effective IA Depends On The Interplay Between Three Things:

Ontology, Taxonomy, and Choreography. Ontology is the meaning of the product’s elements. Example:
Labels - Easily understood names given to individual categories
‘Produce’ is a label given to things like apples, bananas, celery.
Tags - Data about content that helps to organize it at a deeper level.

Restaurants are given tags like ‘Sushi Bars’, ‘Vegan’, ‘Russian’. These can help users to find a better match for their preferences.

Taxonomy is the science or technique of classification, putting like elements together. Taxonomic hierarchy is used to rank information. Things can be ranked in different ways, for example: importance/frequency of use, recency, alphabetically, numerically, etc. An example of taxonomy: Scientific classification system for an American Black Bear.

Choreography can be represented as a user flow, the path through a product that a user can take to accomplish a task. Very simple example of potential user flow for eCommerce and Membership/Subscription. These set of principles can be used to evaluate existing IA and help to predict the effectiveness of design and help answer questions such as:

Can the user locate what they’re trying to find? Is there more than one way to access things? How does findability differ across devices and platforms?

Can it be used across all expected devices and channels? Is the product resilient and consistent across channels? Does it meet standards of accessibility for target audiences? Is it friendly towards visual/hearing impaired users?

Easy to understand? Is the target demographics’ grade and reading level considered? Is the path to task completion obvious and free of distraction? Is it communicative (talkative, informative, timely)?
Are messaging and copy effective for users to complete the tasks at hand? Do navigation labels and messaging help `user orient themselves within the product? Are labels and messaging consistent across the product and its channels?

Is It Useful?
Are users capable of producing intended result?
Is It Usable?
Users able to complete task without frustration?
Is It Credible?
Is content up to date, updated in a timely matter? Is it easy to contact a real person? Easy to verify product security when making payments?

Is It Controllable?
Are tasks and info a user would want to accomplish available? How well are errors anticipated and eliminated? How easily can user recover from errors? Are there features that allow users to tailor info/functionality to their context? Are exits and other important controls clearly marked?

IA is all about making the complex clear and helping users find information and complete tasks. Do this by understanding how the pieces fit together to create the larger pictures, and how items relate to each other within the system.

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