Quick guide on Information Architecture (IA)

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Information Architecture (IA) is one of the 5 UX disciplines. It is mainly in charge of organizing and naming the content of a site in a clear way. It is also the responsible for providing a simple way to access such content. 

Quoting the expert, Louis Rosenfeld, “Information Architecture focuses on making information findable and understandable”. 

Therefore, the goal of an information architect is to make sure that any user can find what they are looking for or complete a task without having to put too much effort. 

User-Experience-Disciplines-TeaCupLab
User Experience Disciplines | Source: ProductPlan (https://www.productplan.com/non-designers-guide-hiring-ux/)

Within IA, we find a number of work areas:

  • Organization: it’s the definition of the navigation structure of a web; it’s to decide how many categories or elements will the menu contain, how many subcategories, etc. 
  • Hierarchies: defines the relationship between each element or content; it’s to decide which should be the main category and which should be subcategories. 
  • Navigation: the area that defines the flow or path a user follows in our web in order to find what they are looking for. It also includes the design of the navigation elements, its location, etc. 
  • Content strategy: focuses on the definition of the content itself and the tags or terminology that will be used in each page. It’s where we decide whether if the subcategory will be named “Science Fiction books” or simply “Science Fiction”. 
  • Taxonomy: the task of tagging all resources and elements ir our web (articles, photos, videos, etc.) to create a great content inventory so that the user can find them.

All these areas build Information Architecture. In this article, we will mostly focus on Organization and Hierarchy. 

Before we start, who is our user and why does he visit us?

We all search the web in our own way… We use different words or vocabulary to name a particular product, we categorize or group products following our own mental models and we have different search contexts. However, we all expect to find what we are looking for online. 

That’s why, before we define our web’s structure, it is important to understand our users, what they need and why they have visited our site. This way, we will be able to understand their contexts, motivations, habits and behaviours. Which will enable us to to design an IA that adapts to such users. 

Generally, users visit our site because: 

  • They are looking for a specific piece of information (looking for the author of a book)
  • They are trying to complete a task (buy a book)
  • They are simply spending time browsing (checking today’s news)

Apart from their goal, users also look for information differently depending on their needs. As Donna Spencer defines in Four Modes of Searching and how to design for them (2006), their search can be: known search (the user knows what they are looking for and how it is named), explorative search (the user has a need but does not know how to satisfy it), “dont’ know what I need to know” search (the user is looking for something but realizes he/she needs to first learn about something else) and redefinition search (the user looks for something he/she found in the past). 

Therefore, as Information Architects, we must make sure that 

  1. the users are aware they are in the correct place
  2. they find what they are looking for 
  3. they understand there are several alternatives to what hey were originally looking for that might actually fit them better
  4. always offer a next step. “No page should be a dead-end” as Christina Wodtke declares in Information Architecture (2009). 

But, how can we manage to ensure all this with Information Architecture?

How to define a good IA?

Information Architects use several tools or good practices to optimize and organize the content of a website. The main goal is to improve what Peter Morville calls “Findability”, which is the quality of being found (Ambient Findability (2005)). In other words, we must ensure that all contents are found in our site. 

We now list some of the main practices in Information Architecture: 

1. Define the Organizational Structure

All webs have numerous pages and contents. We can only organize these great volumes of data by grouping pages in subgroups and create hierarchies among them. This leads to what we call organizational structures or schemes. 

There are several organizational schemes. Choosing one or another depends on: the amount of content, the main goal of our users and the type of pages that prevail in our site (navigation, consumption or interaction). 

An attribute that should always be taken into account when defining the structure is depth. A deep structure uses a clear vertical hierarchy of pages and content. In other words, mos pages are more than a click away from the homepage. On the other hand, a flat structure shows most content on the same level

In general, a good structure is neither too deep nor too flat. 

flat vs deep hierarchy visualization TeaCup Lab
Both structures have the same number pages but use different structure depths. On the left there is a flat hierarchy and on the tight a deeper structure with several vertical sublevels. Source: https://www.nngroup.com/articles/flat-vs-deep-hierarchy/

2. Use familiar organization systems

When we organize content, there is no need to be creative (in excess). Users are used to a sort of organizational systems that help them scan several elements and quickly choose one. 

Some of the most common systems are:

  • Alphabetical order
  • Numeric order
  • Chronological order
  • By location
  • Continuous / Prioritized (i.e. organizing by ratings or client reviews)
  • By categories or genres (i.e. organizing by sports)
  • Random (i.e. Spotify’s suggestion playlist)
Ikea.com uses a prioritized organization system depending on their sales volume.
Ikea.com uses a prioritized organization system depending on their sales volume.

3. Use clear and distinct terminology

Remember that all users visit our site with a goal and it’s important to make sure they achieve it. The only way we can do this is by “speaking their same language”. Information architects must

  • Know their users and how they search. We must gather first hand feedback vía user tests, interviews, card sortings, tree testings, etc. This will help us outline and use their same language.  
  • Analyze other payers and find patterns, standards and similarities. When several brands use the same term or vocabulary, it is highly probable that users are used to it. Therefore, if we use it in our web, it will most likely work too. 
  • Avoid the use of internal business terms. For example, a user might not understand what is under “Join Life” category in Zara.com menu. It is an internal philosophy which might generate doubts if the user does not previously know about it. 
Zara.com menu uses several unclear terms like “Collection” “Join Life” and “Stories”.
Zara.com menu uses several unclear terms like “Collection” “Join Life” and “Stories”.
  • Differentiate categories: A user should not have doubts about what is under a category. Otherwise, he/she might choose the wrong category, miss what they are looking for and fail to convert. Having doubts between two categories also leads to time waste since users have to explore both categories. “A good label never makes you doubt or think, doesn’t make you pause” Austin Govella en Information architecture (2009).
  • Information Simplification: information architecture should also try to simplify the information and resources that users will find. This will contribute to create an easier search experience and help users convert faster. 

4. Provide several paths to get to the same point

As we have mentioned before, we all structure information in our heads differently. We tend to group elements and categories in order to be able to cope with all the information in our heads. That is why, in most cases, it is convenient to design an information architecture that allows users to access one page through more than one path

Let’s use an example. If we want to find Yuval Noah Harari’s last book in Amazon, we can search by author, book title, or maybe through his previous book “Sapiens” if we don’t remember the two previous elements. We can also find it under “Books” category in the main menu and use a literary genre to find it.  Many paths to find one book. 

This can only be achieved if all elements and content are correctly documented in our metadata (taxonomy), there are several paths in our navigation design and the organization structure is clear and easy to use. 

Example of the multiple paths in Amazon.com to find a specific product.
Example of the multiple paths in Amazon.com to find a specific product.

5. Progressive Disclosure

It is quite common to face projects which require the organization an overwhelming amount of information. That is why we use progressive disclosure. This technique helps prioritize and organize contents such that we progressively show them to the users. The user does not need to see everything at all times. In fact, they are not able to see everything at all times and process it. Progressive disclosure helps us simplify menus, group contents and reduce the cognitive charge of our users. 

6. There is always a context

It’s important to remember that our users arrive at our site with a particular context. Also, that this context gains relevance while they navigate in our web. 

Within our architecture, this contexts also exists and it can help us organize our content. A “ball” in the “Tennis” category is not the same a that same label “ball” in the “Pilates” category. By looking at the the category, we are able to understand the context and differentiate a product or a content from another. 

Example of how the word “Ball” used in different contexts can refer to different products in Decathlon.com
Example of how the word “Ball” used in different contexts can refer to different products in Decathlon.com

7. Always listen to your users

The content of a site should always be based on how your users think about this content. That is why it is key to test the organization, hierarchies and labels with real users. 

How can we test our Information Architecture?

  • Card Sorting: it’s a UX Research techniques that helps us understand the mental model of our users. In a card sorting, several users are asked to group the elements or pages of our site into categories. We can choose among an open sorting (users also determine the number and the names of the categories) or closed sorting (users have to group the elements under predetermined categories).
  • Tree testing: another UX Research technique we use to test already existing IAs. Users are asked to find a specific element within the website. This will help us understand if the existing categorizations and hierarchies are appropriate and adapt to our user’s mental models. Compared to card sorting, this technique allows us to test all the levels of our architecture. 
  • User Testing: using an already existing web, we can detect problems with the architecture, terminology and hierarchies by conducting a usability test with real users. 
  • Web analytics: analyzing the web traffic also contributes to understand behavioural navigation patterns and see possible IA problems. 

Conclusions

A bad organization or  prioritization of elements can have negative consequences. A web with poor information architecture can seem less professional, cause users to make more efforts, bother users as a consequence, and, what is most important, negatively affect conversion rates. If a user does not understand or cannot find what they are looking for, then our architecture is failing. 

That is why we would like to restate the importance of involving the Information Architecture discipline in all phases of a web development. It will help us optimize and improve the navigation experience, while keeping our users in the center of the design process. 

 

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