We live in the information age — a period characterized by the rapid shift from industrial production to an economy primarily based on information technology. Our world is getting more complex, and we are inundated with so much information on a daily basis that it’s easy to experience personal overload. There is a growing need to make sense of it all and organize information in an effective way, so it’s understandable and improves the user experience. This discipline — now more important than ever — is called information architecture, or simply IA. 

Information architecture focuses on organizing, structuring, and labeling content, and how it all fits together, so that users can easily find the information they need and complete tasks. If they can’t do that, they’ll simply give up and try out the competition. It may seem obvious but often content is structured based on what makes sense to the company, not the users. It’s therefore crucial you plan ahead from the start and ensure your content scales and doesn’t turn into a mess. 

You don’t need expensive tools to architect information, and the techniques aren’t hard to learn and implement. This article will help introduce you to the key concepts every UX designer should know.

Diagram depicting how information architecture is the intersection of users, content, and content.
Information architecture sits at the intersection of users, content, and content. 

How to get started

A good information architecture is usually based on extensive user research right at the beginning. Understand who you are catering to and involve users in the process as soon as you can. Also make sure to keep up with and update the content according to what your user wants.

Once you’ve put together a list of all content, prioritize it and organize it into groups. One simple technique you can employ to get these insights early on is card sorting, a method used to design and evaluate your information architecture. It helps you better arrange your website for customer interaction. In a card sorting session, participants organize topics into categories that make sense to them and may also help you label them. It’s just one of many user research techniques available to gather valuable data that will inform your information architecture.

After conducting the research, you can begin to analyze this data and use it to build your site, but there are various components to be aware of. Let’s take a look at them.

Components of information architecture

In order to design a well-functioning website, you first need to understand what it consists of to make it work. In their ground-breaking book “Information Architecture for the World Wide Web”, Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville defined four main components of a successful information architecture. In this section, we’ll briefly go over them one by one. 

Organizational systems

These are the the groups or the categories in which the information is divided. They logically make sense of your content and establish how different pieces of information are connected. As a result, they’ll help users predict where they can easily find the information they’re after, for example when information is categorized by topic or audiences. 

There are three main types of organizational structures:

Hierarchical

The foundation of almost all good information architecture is a well designed hierarchy or taxonomy. Its main goal is to present content in a way that users can understand the importance of each element. 

If you use a tree structure, as in the example below, broad categories would be at the top, while more specific and narrower subcategories that users can navigate through, would be lower down. On the site itself you can also use visual design elements such as contrasting fonts and colors to help users, who are scanning a page, quickly find the most important information. 

An example of an information architecture laid out in a tree structure.

Sequential

In this structure, you organize your content to create a path for the user. They go through it step-by-step to accomplish a task and take in only the information that is presented to them at that moment. 

As this technique helps you limit the choices you give to the user, it’s often used for the checkout in ecommerce experiences when the customer goes from task to task to make a purchase.

Matrix

This structure gives more control to the user, as they choose how to navigate themselves. Content is still organized, for example by date or topic, but you let the user decide and simply give them access to all the information via clearly labelled links and buttons — essentially enabling them to create their own path through your product.  

Labeling systems

When you design a product, you should aim for simplicity, and creating labels — which convey a lot of information in just a few words — can help here. 

For example, you’d group all the contact information of a company (such as email and physical address, phone numbers and social media handles) together on one page and then use a ‘Contact’ label in the header. Users will intuitively know where they can find this information and don’t have to hunt around the whole site. Therefore labeling systems, how you represent information, help improve the next step — navigation. 

Navigation systems

A navigation system features various techniques and actions that guide the user through your website or app, so that they can successfully interact with it and reach their goal. It defines the way a user browses and moves through the content. 

There are many different types of navigation — let’s explore the three primary ones that James Kalbach identifies in his book “Designing Web Navigation”.

Structural

This type, which includes both global and local navigation, follows the structure of a website. It connects pages to one another based on the site’s hierarchy and on any page enables the user to move to the pages above or below it. 

Associative

Here pages with similar topics and content are connected, regardless of their location in the site structure. Links are often embedded in the text, but may be easy to miss and need to be moderated carefully. To make them stand out, you could consider creating a bullet point list or add them as ‘see also’ links at the bottom of the page. 

Utility

Utility navigation connects tools and features that help people find information about the site itself and its functions (for example, a sitemap, an index or help page). These aren’t part of the main hierarchy of the site, but provide complementary ways of finding content and also include functions such as logging in and out or changing the font size. 

Searching systems

This system, as the name implies, helps users search for information within a product, just as they would in a search engine like Google. It’s especially useful for products that contain lots of information, but think carefully about what type of content to include in the search and how to display it once the search has been carried out. 

For example, when you create an internal search for an ecommerce business, chances are users will only want to search for a certain type of data — the products and not the shipping policy. As they probably also want to just search for one type of product, consider using filters and make the results easy to navigate. 

When should you create an information architecture

Create your information architecture at the start, when you’re first thinking about building a website. It will help you understand and decide where information should be placed and how users will navigate it. Information architecture is the skeleton of any design project and will inform the visual elements, functionality, interaction and navigation of your site. 

Of course it will also come in handy later on, when a company is looking to redesign. A good information architecture that you can refer back to again and again is the foundation of a successful product. 

Why does it all matter?

Information architecture sits at the intersection of content, users and context of use. So, if you want to better equip your website or app and set it up for success, you need to understand your (client’s) users, the context the company operates in, the content it’s putting out — and the relationship between the three. Rosenfeld and Morville referred to this as the “information ecology”. Let’s briefly explore each area. 

Users

Your audience and their needs, behavior and experience drives your decision-making process when deciding how to structure your site. These are the people that are going to be using your site and seeking information from you, so you will want to carry out a lot of testing and research to study how people will interact with your site.

Context

The context refers to the terms under which you’re providing the information to your audience.

It includes your business goals, vision, mission statement and possible marketplace as well as factors such as funding, politics, culture, technology, resources and constraints. All of these need to be taken into consideration when structuring your site. 

Content

No site exists without content! This is all about what you’re providing for your customers to read, access, or use. You need to be aware of the nature and volume of your content and how it might change in the future. Structure your site in a way that means that users can better interact with your content and stay engaged, which will improve your conversions and ultimately your bottom line. 

Conclusion

Whatever it is that you’re putting out into the marketplace, it should be amplified by your information architecture. Before you start any design project, set aside some time to properly think about your information architecture and what it consists of. Analyze the different systems that help you organize your site, and really dig down into the three areas of users, context, and content. A good information architecture is informed by all three. It will help you decide how you want to design your experience and also results in the creation of other critical assets such as sitemaps and navigation.

Information architecture is a key part of UX design and commonly used alongside other disciplines, like content strategy, technical writing, and interaction design. As our world is showing no sign of slowing down and instead is getting even more complex, information architecture might just be the ingredient that gives your site or app the edge over the competition.