Illustrated by Avalon Hu

If you want to build a great house, the person to call is an architect. We all know this, but architecture applies not only to traditional buildings but also to the information space. Similar to buildings, digital products require a solid foundation. Understanding the basic principles of good information architecture is essential for any designer who wants to practice user-centered design.

In this article, we’ll discuss the concept of information architecture (IA), what the role of an information architect is, and how IA fits into the UX design process.

What is information architecture?

Information architecture is a discipline that focuses on the organization of information within digital products. For example, when designers create apps and websites, they lay out each individual screen so that the user can easily find the information they need. They also create a flow that lets users navigate between screens without much effort. UX architects determine the right organization and flow.

IA design connects the users with the content and the context.
IA design connects the users with the content and the context.

The value of information architecture

Content is the reason why people visit websites. We all know how important it is to produce content that users will find valuable, but what’s equally important is to make sure that the content is easy to find.

Time is the most precious resource people have. We live in a world where people expect to find a solution to their problems with the least amount of effort. When finding information becomes too complicated or too slow, there’s a risk that people will simply abandon it. And when people abandon an app or a website, it’s more difficult to bring them back. This is where information architecture design plays a key role.

When users can’t find what they are looking for right from the start, there’s a huge possibility they will abandon your product or website.
When users can’t find what they are looking for right from the start, there’s a huge possibility they will abandon your product or website. Image credit Adobe.

While IA isn’t really visible to end-users, it is the backbone for the design. The information architect’s job is to create an experience that allows the user to focus on their tasks, not on finding their way around.  

Information architecture is the foundation for efficient product design.
Information architecture is the foundation for efficient product design. Image credit Jesse James Garrett.

Cognitive psychology is a foundation of IA

While IA has roots in various fields, cognitive psychology is one of the most important, because this discipline defines the way we structure information.

Cognitive psychology is the study of how the human mind works, including the mental activities that take place in the brain and the different factors that influence human perception. Information architects rely on cognitive psychology to organize information within their products. Here are a few key elements of cognitive psychology that are the most valuable for IA design:

Gestalt principles

Gestalt principles explore users’ visual perception of objects in relation to each other, including similarity, continuity, proximity, symmetry, and closure. All of these can influence how designers should organize graphical information on the screen. A UX architect uses the principles to decide how to present and organize the information on a page.

The Gestalt principle of similarity can be used in navigation, headings, and other elements of page layout.
The Gestalt principle of similarity can be used in navigation, headings, and other elements of page layout. Image credit Eleana Gkogka.

Mental models

Mental models are assumptions people have in their minds before they interact with a product. When IA practitioners take the mental models of their users into account, they create IA that makes it easier to discover information—meaning, the information is located in places where users expect to find it. For example, when a user is looking for contact information, the first thing they’re going to look for is a page, link, or section that says “Contact Us” or “Contact.”

An illustration of how mental models work.
An illustration of how mental models work. Image credit Xebia.

Cognitive load

Cognitive load is the amount of brainpower that a user has to invest in interacting with a product. In the context of information architecture design, cognitive load is the amount of information that a user can process at any given moment. Our short-term memory (also known as working memory) cannot retain much information, so it’s easy to overwhelm users when the system provides too much information or too many options at a given moment. As a rule of thumb, the range of options or choices should never be more than seven.

What information architects do

Information architects spend their time structuring content so it’s easy for users to find what they are looking for. The more content a product has, the more significant the role of IA in the UX design process.

Here are a few common activities that a UX architect may play a role in.

User Research

Great product design starts with great user research. Researching what users need and want is critical for creating an effective IA design. Through research, information architects can learn how the target audience thinks when they search for information. This will help them organize the information in a way that meets the user’s needs.

Effective IA takes the users, as well as their problems, behaviors, and needs, into account.
Effective IA takes the users, as well as their problems, behaviors, and needs, into account. Image credit Adobe/Laura Klein.

Usually, IA will take an active part in:

  • User interviews. The IA practitioner will join other team members to ask questions related to product design.
  • Card sorting and tree testing sessions. Seeing how prospective users categorize information into groups helps the IA practitioner understand users’ mental models.
  • Usability testing. IAs also need access to the results of usability tests to determine whether the structure they’ve created worked for their users.
  • Contextual inquiries. UX architects might also visit users in real-world environments to see how they interact with a product.
Card sorting plays an important role in information architecture design because it is a simple way to understand how users categorize information into groups.
Card sorting plays an important role in information architecture design because it is a simple way to understand how users categorize information into groups. Image credit Krisztina Szerovay.

Content inventory, content grouping, and content audits

Information architects should have a good understanding of the content that the product offers. Content inventory, grouping, and audits help UX architects achieve this.

  • Content inventory shows IA practitioners what content they have and where it lives (typically a spreadsheet or list).
  • Content grouping identifies the relationships between the information.
  • Content audits give the information architect insight into how useful, accurate, and effective the content is (practitioners rate the content based on these metrics).
An example of a content audit spreadsheet, listing every page within a website or in an app.
An example of a content audit spreadsheet, listing every page within a website or in an app.

Taxonomies and labeling

Taxonomy is the practice of organizing and classifying items based on similarities. This exercise typically follows the user research and content inventory processes. The IA might classify the items using categories, sections, or metadata tags. During this process, it’s important to remember that the product’s content and functionality will grow, so the way it’s organized must be easily scalable.

Example of a product taxonomy. Image credit Boxesandarrow.
Example of a product taxonomy. Image credit Boxesandarrow.

UX writing is an integral part of IA design, because the specific labels help users discover the information. For example, you should label a page that contains information about a company “About” rather than “General Information”, which might be too vague for users to understand.

Creating hierarchy and navigation

Hierarchy and navigation are two essential components that play into IA. The first defines the structure of content, while the second defines how users will move through it.

In order to create a hierarchy, the IA needs to consider what the user expects to see (based on user research) as well as how the business wants to show the information (based on project requirements). At this step, practitioners think about typical scenarios of user-to-product interaction and use this information to design information architecture diagrams. Usually these diagrams are in a sitemap format that illustrates the hierarchy of the content across a website.

A sitemap, a type of information architecture diagram, helps visually denote how different pages and content relate to one another.
A sitemap, a type of information architecture diagram, helps visually denote how different pages and content relate to one another. Image credit Anton Suprunenko via Behance.

Prototyping

An information architect may also create simple, low-fidelity prototypes to demonstrate the hierarchy of information and navigation. Based on information gathered during the research phase, the architect sketches out the ideas to show what screens the product will have, what content will be on those screens, and how to arrange it.

Usually, IA architects create clickable wireframes that serve utility-only purposes, with a limited number of graphic elements. Later, visual designers use these clickable wireframes as a reference when they create the actual layouts.

Clickable wireframes help product designers evaluate the information structure. Image credit Adobe XD.

What’s the difference between IA and UX?

After reading everything written above, you may wonder: “Isn’t IA design the same as UX design?” The short answer is no. While the two are closely connected, they are not the same.

To understand the difference between the two, it’s important to remember what UX design is. User experience is the way a person thinks and feels while using a product, system, or service. UX incorporates utility, usability, and enjoyment from using the system—much more than just the content’s structure.

At the same time, it’s nearly impossible to create a good user experience without a solid information architecture foundation. That’s why every good UX designer should also be a competent information architect.

Information architecture comprises only a small part of a user’s overall experience. Image credit Scorch.

Conclusion

By investing time in IA design, you create a foundation for efficient user experience. After all, content is the heart of every app or website. Well-organized and well-structured content helps your users interact with a product, which leads to a great experience.