What if you stumble upon a website with no menu or footer to help you navigate? What if you find a voluminous book with no table contents or page numbers? Your first few reactions will probably be a mix of surprise and frustration. That is because you are so used to structured content – information presented to you in an organized and understandable manner. If the organization and presentation of the content is off, you find it really hard to follow the content, understand its nature, and find it helpful, to say the least.
Humans, in most cases, need time or structure to process information. The world of the internet, however, is unforgiving and so full of content that we don’t always have the luxury of time. In the digital world, therefore, it is important to present any content in a structured way, so that the users have to spend minimum time in understanding and extracting useful information. When the content on a website or a mobile application is organized, it not only eases the journey of users but also makes it more manageable. A logical presentation and organization of the content is, arguably, the first step toward creating a strong online presence.
When it comes to the world of UI/UX design, the need for information to be impactful and useful at the same time gets more pronounced. Since interaction with new products and services is already a learning process, if the design is not familiar and easily understandable, the users will not stay for long. This is why the world of design needs information architecture. All the UI/UX designers, at some point, get introduced to this term and find it extremely valuable in their work. For aspiring designers, it is essential to understand the concept of, and need for, information architecture, its core principles and primary aims, and the best practices involved in creating a quality information architecture.
In this article, we explore all these areas, with the aim to develop a solid understanding of information architecture. By the end of this article, you will have a good idea of the tools at your disposal and the steps to put this newfound knowledge into practice.
- What is information architecture?
- The value of information architecture
- Components of information architecture
- Information ecology
- Useful tools
- How to create information architecture
1. What is information architecture?
In the last few years, information architecture (or IA) has gained a lot of importance in the world of design and communication. The usage of the term, along with its practical application, has increased over the years, giving a new perspective to the way products and services are designed and, indeed, adding value to the process along the way. Technical communicators, content strategists, UI/UX designers, and product managers, therefore, need to develop a strong understanding of IA.
According to The Information Architecture Institute, it is the practice of arranging and organizing bits of information in a way that the whole becomes more understandable. Another widely used definition of IA is that it is the act of “organizing, structuring, and labeling content” with the goal of helping the users understand and interact with the information. There are numerous other working definitions of IA. One thing common in all of them is the user-centered focus of the practice and the act of structuring involved in the process.
To understand the term, it is a good idea to break it into words. IA is made up of two words – information and architecture – both having equal importance. If, on the one hand, information, referred to the meaningful content that serves as a knowledge source for the users, is valuable to the users. Then, on the other, the way this information is presented to the audience cannot be neglected. A designer must, therefore, give equal weight to the value of information and the way he/she architects the content, so as to give the users a holistic experience.
It is also essential to have some clarifications while working with IA. Given that UI/UX design is a fairly new field, some definitions tend to twist at times, with concepts not having a clear boundary. When it comes to IA, sometimes it can be confused with navigation or sitemap. A designer must, therefore, have a clear idea of what he/she is dealing with in order to create a better experience for the end-users.
IA vs sitemap
A sitemap is a textual or visual representation of a website’s structure. A sitemap is nothing more than a catalog of web pages, giving a bird's eye view of the website. Information architecture, on the other hand, points out the connections in the entire knowledge network. Additionally, sitemap restricts itself to a single website but IA is not bound by a website, focusing, instead, on all the websites, blogs, and even offline communication channels that the users can interact with.
IA vs navigation
Navigation, as the name indicates, is simply a way in which users can find information on a website. This is achieved by providing some interaction points, such as the menu, footer, links, etc. It is important to note that, just like sitemap, navigation is a concept focusing on a single website. IA paints a much bigger picture and covers the entire journey of a user once he/she becomes a part of a particular knowledge network.
These concepts can, sometimes, be confusing. Some designers and information architects might also tend to use them interchangeably. These terms do have some things in common, with the goal of helping the users being the most important aspect. It is, nevertheless, important for a student of UI/UX design or an aspiring designer to develop a clear concept before implementing the principles in his/her projects.
Now that we’ve developed an understanding of the term and have cleared some confusion, let us try to look at the need for information architecture in the world of design and communication.
2. The value of information architecture
IA is essential to make sense of a knowledge network, leading the users to the right places, providing them the information they need. Just like an architect is needed to design and build a home, an information architect is needed to design, develop, and maintain the presence of a product or service in the digital world. The worldwide web might appear to be a big mess of information, where content is poured in from all directions with no real sense. That, however, is not the case. If you look at the websites and mobile applications that perform well, you’ll notice one thing they all have in common: there is a definite structure to the information they contain.
The primary reason for this organization is that humans when interacting with information, want it to be structured, organized, and helpful. If a product or service does not meet these needs, its usefulness comes into question, driving the audience away. It is for this and many other reasons that a good UX design agency when working on any project, will always give due importance to IA. A good information architecture adds value to the experience of users as well as to the business, generating an environment where everyone is happy.
Helping the users
Information, when presented in a structured manner, saves the users a lot of effort. For example, when users land on a website, they are, generally, looking to complete a specific task or seek answers. This means that the visitors of a website will be satisfied with the experience if they find the right answers by spending little time and effort. IA comes to the rescue in such situations. If the information is organized and presented in a way that the users can easily navigate on the website, interact with the content easily, and find the answers they are looking for, the overall experience will, indeed, be pleasing. Some of the ways in which a good IA is beneficial to users are as follows.
- Making the navigation easier on the websites and mobile applications
- Categorizing information in a logical and understandable manner
- Helping the users search and find relevant information
- Providing options to sort and filter results as needed
- Giving additional information, where needed, by leading to relevant pieces of content
Helping the business
Leading UI/UX designers always spend time developing, defining, and, in some cases, redefining the IA of a digital product. This practice not only holds value for the users but it has a great deal of importance for businesses. If information is not organized in a way that is helpful to the users, it loses all its value. If you land on a website and find it hard to make sense of the content, you will start looking for alternatives in a matter of seconds. The business will end up losing a potential customer. Similarly, if the search engines are not able to make sense of the way content is structured, a website will rank low on the search results. Certain ways in which a good IA can help businesses are summarized below.
- Attracting new users by providing meaningful content and retaining existing customers by meeting their needs
- Improving the findability of the content and getting better rankings on the SEO scale
- Reducing the time and effort required to maintain the content, thus saving cost on support
The lists presented above are not exhaustive. There are numerous other advantages linked to the practice of creating and improving the IA of any digital product. Communicators, knowledge managers, and UI/UX designers can never ignore the importance of information architecture in their respective fields.
IA and UX design
Information architecture has a lot of value in the field of design. It is often considered that designers are, in fact, information architects as they tend to meet the needs of users by presenting and organizing information in an understandable way. There are a number of similarities between IA and UX design. Some of the most important ones are listed below.
- IA and UX design aim to make the users’ journey easy, fruitful, and pleasurable
- A designer, by creating a good IA, is laying the foundation for a good product or service design
- The design values of empathy are common in a good IA and an efficient UX
- IA and UX tend to guide the users in the right direction, leading them to the right content in the right way
There are, however, certain differences between both terms. For a UI/UX designer, it is important to have a clear understanding of these differences so as to be able to put the knowledge into practice.
- IA concerns primarily with the digital world while UX is equally relevant in digital and physical environments
- As there can be no IA without information, IA relies more on content while UX focuses on the emotional aspects even when there is little or no content available
- IA does not come into play unless a prospective user interacts with the product or knowledge network but UX starts way before the user actually gets in contact with the product or service
Nevertheless, every UI/UX designer has to deal with the concept of IA sooner or later in his/her career. A part of a designer’s job is to make information easily and readily available which is not possible without a solid IA. It will, therefore, not be wrong to say that IA and UX go hand in hand at all times.
3. Components of information architecture
In order to implement the concepts of information architecture, it is first necessary to understand the components of the system and the ways in which this practice can be applied. There are numerous ways to organize, or architect, information, depending on the nature of the content and the needs of the users. Oftentimes, designers have to think out of the box, using a mix of techniques and principles to come up with an efficient IA. If we look at the theoretical bases, the system components of information architecture can be split into four different types. These four ways in which information can be organized were first introduced in the book titled “Information Architecture for the World Wide Web” by Peter Morville and Louis Rosenfeld.
The component of IA which focused on the hierarchy of information, thus giving a logical presentation to the content is referred to as the organization system. In an organization system, information can be categorized and ordered chronologically, sequentially, alphabetically, or in any other way that makes the most sense to the audience. Such systems govern the overall structure of content on a website or mobile application, giving the users a sense of the entire knowledge network without going into a lot of complicated details.
Labeling systems are the ones that use specific tags or labels to group information into certain categories. In a blog, for example, a post is often tagged, thus making it a part of a cluster where other, similar posts are already available. Such an organization helps users in finding and interacting with similar content, adding value to their overall experience. From a business point of view, such categorization helps in retaining the users, by providing them more content to interact with.
Navigation is, arguably, the most critical aspect of any digital product – may it be a website or a mobile application. A good navigation system helps the users in moving around the website without feeling lost or frustrated. The best feature of a navigation system is to help the users recover from mistakes and to always have a way out. Good navigation systems add great value to the IA as they keep the flow of information coherent and useful, leading the users to the right places without dictating their journey.
One of the essential features of a website, particularly one with a lot of content, is to have a search feature. Too much information can have an overwhelming effect on the users. If, however, they have the option to sift through the content with ease, finding what they are looking for, the entire network of knowledge suddenly becomes more helpful. Search systems tend to this need of the users, providing them with a way to quickly look through the content, presenting the results in an organized way, and helping the users filter the results if needed.
These system components are often used together, resulting in an IA that is helpful to the users and the business.
4. Information ecology
Information architecture is the end result of a system of interdependent entities, referred to as information ecology. When a designer starts analyzing or creating an IA, he/she has to focus on three important players: users, content, and context. IA is, in fact, an intersection of these three components, playing a significant role in all the decisions made in the organization and presentation of information.
The design of any product or service, both in the digital and physical realms, cannot succeed without giving due attention to its users. A designer, before even starting a project, needs to have a very clear understanding of the target audience, along with their needs and expectations. In the case of a website or mobile application, for example, the users want to accomplish certain tasks. The purpose of a good IA is to understand the need for these tasks and provide a way for the users to achieve their goals with minimal effort. All the UX design principles focus on prioritizing the comfort of the users, ensuring that the designers never let go of this essential component. This is also why UI/UX designers conduct extensive studies, such as user research and usability tests, to get a better understanding of the needs of the audience before developing the IA.
It is impossible to talk about information in the absence of content. In the current world, content is the king when it comes to websites. To make sure that there is value in the IA, it is important to have a thorough understanding of the content being dealt with. Whether it is a fashion blog or a clothing brand’s website, the nature of the content has a lot to do with the way it is organized, and the way users want it to be organized. For example, when visiting a fashion blog, the audience would most likely want to see the content organized based on trending topics. On a clothing brand’s website, however, the users would look for categories of products to find what they are looking for.
The entity that binds content and users, helping them fit in the bigger picture is the context. To create an IA that meets the needs of the users and categorizes the content in a logical manner, the value of context cannot be overstated. Context adds meaning to the way content is organized and can, in fact, be a mix of different things such as business goals, available resources, and market trends.
For an IA to be successful, an information architect must not overlook any of the aforementioned aspects. This will not only ensure that the IA produced is comprehensive but will also help the designer stick to the principles of the discipline and empathize with the users.
5. Useful tools
Creating or improving the information architecture of a product or service is a process that can appear quite complicated. However, with the help of the right tools and techniques, UI/UX designers can make this whole practice methodical and comprehensive at the same time. As organizations have started realizing the importance of design and design principles, more and more tools have started surfacing, aiding professionals in their projects. When it comes to IA, some of the beneficial tools are as follows.
Being one of the simplest tools in the design world out there, diagrams.net (previously draw.io) helps you create flowcharts, processes, and a variety of other diagrams. The best thing about the tool is that it is entirely free to use. All you have to do is to download the desktop application or create diagrams online, save your files, and you’re good to go.
Lucidchart, although not entirely free to use, has a lot of additional features. It gives you the ability to create diagrams just as diagrams.net but with the option to share the figures with others and to invite them to comment and collaborate with you. This is an excellent way to get live feedback and create an IA where a team of designers is involved in the process.
The contributions of Adobe to the world of design are countless. Adobe Illustrator is another tool that can make the tasks of designers easier and a lot more fun. This tool, however, requires a little more expertise as compared to diagrams.net or Lucidchart. The learning curve, however, holds a lot of promise.
XMind is more of a mind mapping tool. This software lets you put your ideas on the screen, giving your thoughts a clear structure. This practice can be really useful when a group of people is working on the IA of a digital product and there are a lot of ideas, coming from all sorts of angles. A tool such as XMind can help in understanding the bigger picture and putting the thoughts into perspective.
This tool serves as a combination of mind maps and flowcharts. With Coggle, designers can add a creative, presentable touch to the IA, and also share it with the collaborators. It is another one of the simplest tools, where you do not have to be an expert to make good use of its features.
There are a number of other tools and resources out there to help designers with the practice of IA. Additionally, forums, blogs, and podcasts of professionals can also highlight some of the tips and tricks when creating or analyzing the IA.
6. How to create information architecture
A well-thought-out IA, as mentioned above, adds value to the user experience as well as the business. It, therefore, goes without saying that for UI/UX designers, IA holds great importance. The students of this discipline, and new designers, often struggle with a pattern when it comes to the creation of IA. It is not unusual for beginners to ask questions such as the following.
- What do I need to start working on an IA?
- What are the steps involved in the process?
- How do I make sure I’m going in the right direction?
As with any other question in the field of UI/UX design, there is no straightforward answer to these questions. The best that can be managed is to have a loosely defined sequence, open to tweaks and alterations, and then put the skills and knowledge to practice. The following steps will serve as a guide in the creation of a new IA or the improvement of an existing one.
Step 1: Define the goals
The first step, when working on any product or service, is to be very clear about the goals and objectives. For the generation and organization of any content, it is important to know what the purpose of this information is. To get started with IA, therefore, you first need to know your goals and define them in a very clear manner. These goals will also help in maintaining good communication if you’re working with a team of designers. Additionally, a clear definition and understanding of goals can ensure that you’re taking the right steps in the right direction.
Step 2: Conduct content audit
Once you’ve clarified your goals, the next step is to go through the content that you already have. This, however, will be a little different from casual browsing. To better understand the content, conduct a comprehensive audit of everything that you’ve got. At the end of the audit, you will know the type of content you have, the things that work, and the areas that need improvement. Content audit brings you closer to your content, providing a deeper understanding.
Step 3: Understand and organize existing content
After conducting a content audit, you need to organize everything that you have at this stage. It is important to note that until now you haven’t created any new content. All the focus, until this step, is on the content that you’ve produced some time in the past, no matter how unstructured or vague it is. Organizing your existing content gives you an idea about the gaps in the content. This may or may not complement the findings of the audit. Either way, this step will prepare you to step into the field with a very good idea of the areas you’ve to focus on.
Step 4: Understand users’ needs
Now that you’ve understood your goals and your content, you get a chance to meet the people who will interact with this content. Users are, indeed, the most important element in the entire process. The designers, in this step, are encouraged to step into the field, meet the users, create user personas, conduct surveys, perform user research, and get as many insights into their needs, problems, and expectations as possible. This step has a lot to do with the final shape of the IA and should, therefore, be completed with extreme care.
Step 5: Analyze all information
After gathering all the information from the field, you can sit with your tools and talk to your team, conducting an analysis of everything that you have up to this point. Before starting this step, you need to make sure that all questions regarding your goals, existing content, and the users' needs have been answered. If anything is left unanswered, make sure that you bring it up in the discussions and get clear, unambiguous answers. This is extremely important because once you start creating the IA, you will be relying heavily on all these answers.
Step 6: Create the IA
Now is the time to wear the hat of a designer. Remember, you can be as creative as you can but the final product must be understandable and presentable. This is also necessary because the developers or content creators benefitting from your IA might not have been an active part of the entire process. Additionally, if you have to present your findings to your managers or executives, you need to be sure that the IA makes sense to them. The tools and software discussed above will be of great help in this step, guiding you through the process.
Some of the best practices to keep in mind when creating the IA of a digital product are as follows.
- Leave your personal biases aside. The IA that you’re creating will not be used by you as much as it will be by the audience. Leaving your personal attachments aside is the best way to work on this task.
- Clearly define and state your goals. Make sure that you know what the aim is and that you find it achievable, no matter how ambitious it may seem.
- Prioritize the needs and expectations of your users. Make sure that the user experience is enhanced with your proposed IA.
- Draw out the journey of users when they interact with your knowledge network. Make sure that they do not get stuck at any point.
- Present your IA in a way that makes sense to everyone and is understandable.
- Ensure that your IA does not compromise the accessibility of the product or service. You would want your content to be as accessible and usable as possible.
To summarize, it will not be wrong to say that information architecture is an essential part of the life cycle of any product or service. The need for a good IA gets more pronounced in today’s digital world, loaded with content, where users are constantly consuming and interacting with information, that too from a variety of platforms. For a UI/UX designer, this not only serves as a concern but also as a massive opportunity to make the design valuable, useful, and usable. All aspiring designers should, therefore, give due attention to the concept of IA and try to implement the best practices in their future projects.