If you want to build a great house, the person to call is the architect. We all know this, but architecture can be applied not only to traditional buildings but also information space. Similar to buildings, information should be structured with a solid foundation. Understanding the basic principles of good Information Architecture is essential for any designer who creates products for people.

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?

People often use the words “Information Architecture” to mean the menus on websites or in apps, but that’s not accurate. While menus are a part of IA, they’re only one part of it.

Information Architecture is all about the organization of information in a clear and logical way. Such organization follows a clear purpose — helping users navigate complex sets of information.

diagram detailing how information architecture is the combination of content, users, and context.
IA design is the creation of a structure for a website, app, or other products, that allows users to understand where they are in the product and where the information they are looking for might be located.

The value of Information Architecture

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 the process of finding information is 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.

bad ai can leave a user feeling like they are travelling through a maze to get to the end goal.
Bad IA design forces users to complete a journey to find the required information. When users can’t find what they are looking for right from the start there’s a huge possibility that people will abandon a product.

On the other hand, having a clear Information Architecture that helps users easily complete their tasks means they will find a product more usable. An information architect is focused on creating IA that makes it possible for a user to focus on their tasks, not on finding their way around.

Common methodologies

While IA has roots in numerous fields and methodologies, it’s important to focus on two methodologies at the core of IA — library science and cognitive psychology.

Library science

Libraries have always been associated with the practice of information science. Library science is the study of how to categorize and catalog information resources. Both the art of categorizing (defining things by similarity) and cataloging (creating metadata and assigning it to content in order to find it again in the future) are extremely valuable for IA.

Ancient Egyptians in the Library of Alexandria review scrolls that use bibliographies to categorize them.
The history of IA goes as far into the past as ancient Egypt. Librarians in the library of Alexandria listed the content of the library on a 120-scroll bibliography. Image credit ancient-origins.net

Cognitive psychology

Cognitive psychology is the study of how our minds work —  what mental activities take place in our brain and what different factors influence our attention. Most UI/UX design rules we have today have roots in cognitive psychology. Information architects use some elements of cognitive psychology to define the way information should be structured. Here are a few key elements of cognitive psychology that are most valuable for IA design:

  • Gestalt principles. Gestalt principles explore users’ visual perception of elements in relation to each other. They show how people tend to unify visual elements into groups according to their similarity, continuity, or closure.
  • Mental models. Mental models are assumptions people have in their minds before they interact with an app or website. Information is easier to discover when it’s in a place that matches the user’s expectations of where it should be. 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.”
  • Cognitive load. Cognitive load is the amount of information that a person can process at any given moment. When architects consider a user’s cognitive load, it helps them prevent the user from being overloaded with too much information all at once.
  • Recognition patterns. People visiting a website or using a mobile app expect to see certain features associated with a definite kind of product. Designers apply various recognition patterns to make the interaction familiar.
  • Visual hierarchy. Visual hierarchy is directly related to content readability. One of the essential points to consider for architects is scanning patterns — before reading a page, people scan it to get a sense of interest. The most common scanning patterns are F and Z patterns.

The role of information architecture in design

While IA isn’t really visible to end-users, it presents the backbone for the design. Navigation and visual design are built based on information architecture.

A table containing the elements of user experience that depict abstract to concrete and conception to complete.
Information architecture is the foundation for efficient design. Even the most powerful UI design can easily fail without appropriate IA. Image credit Jesse James Garrett.

What information architects do

Information architects work to create usable and findable content structures out of complex sets of data and information; essentially, structuring content so it’s easy for users to find what they are looking for. For any new project, the information architect identifies the changes that need to be made and creates a plan to make them happen. The more content a site/app has, the more critical its organization becomes, and the more significant the role of IA in the UX design process.

illustration detailing how information architecture connects people to the content they are looking for through strategic sorting
Image credit Murray Thompson.

As part of a UX project team, an information architect can be involved in a variety of activities. Common activities include research, hierarchy and navigation creation, labeling, wireframing, and taxonomies.

Research

Researching what users need and want is one of the most important steps in creating an effective IA design. Information architects need to have a firm understanding of how users access the information on a site or in an app. Through research, information architects are able to learn what mental models users have when they use a product. Once architects know that, they’ll be able to tailor an Information Architecture to best meet user’s needs.

Information architects needs to know facts, behaviors, problems and the needs and goals of users to create good IA's.
Knowing the users, their goals and information-seeking behaviors is the key to effective IA. Image credit Adobe/Laura Klein.

There are a number of ways to go about researching user needs. Often, an information architect will take an active part in user interviews or card sorting, where they can hear expectations directly from users or see how prospective users would categorize a variety of information groups. Information architects also need access to the results of usability tests to see if users are able to navigate efficiently.

Person sitting at a table with labels written on index cards. The person is sorting the cards into categories.
Card sorting is a simple way to figure out how to best group and organize your content based on user input. One of the reasons information architects like card sorting is the clarity of patterns that typically emerge. Image credit Fostermilo.

Content  inventory and audit

Information architects should have a good understanding of the range of content and functionality to be supported by the structure. Content inventory and audits help architects achieve such understanding. A content inventory typically appears as a spreadsheet, listing out each page on a website or in an app, while a content audit gives an information architect insight on how useful, accurate, and effective the content is.

A spreadsheet containing each page, page title, url and comments about it's effectiveness is an important tool for information architects.
An example of a spreadsheet, listing every page on a website or in an app.

Creating hierarchy and navigation

Hierarchy and navigation are two essential components of any digital product. The first component defines the structure of content, while the second involves the ways users move through it.

The information architect is the key person responsible for determining how information on a website or app is displayed and accessed. In order to create a hierarchy, the IA needs to consider both what the user expects to see (based on research) as well as how the business wants to show the information (based on project requirements). The deliverable that’s commonly associated with this activity is an information architecture diagram (the diagram can be in a format of a sitemap that illustrates the hierarchy of content across a website).

A visual sitemap shows the relationship between the pages of a website or app. This creates an information architecture.
A sitemap helps visually denote how different pages and content relate to one another. Image credit Anton Suprunenko.

Labeling

UX writing is an important part of IA design. Not only should the information be properly organized, but it should also be properly labeled to best suit the needs of the end-user. Labels play a significant role in whether users can find information. For example, a page that contains information about a company is going to be most easily found if labeled “About” rather than “General Information.”

Wireframing

An information architect can create wireframes using wireframe software to demonstrate the hierarchy of information. Based on information gathered during research and hierarchy creation, an architect can sketch out screens in order to demonstrate what content on a page is supposed to be there and how it’ll be arranged. Usually, wireframes created by architects are utility-only, with a limited number of graphic elements. Such wireframes will be used to guide the team on the development of the project.

A low fidelity wireframe containing labeled parts help information architects communicate the content hierarchy on a page.
Putting content into wireframes gives information architects a good sense of how the content is arranged and how well a UI achieves project goals. Image credit Speckyboy.

Taxonomies

Taxonomies help organize and classify information and features based on similarities and differences of the concepts behind them. This may appear as categories within a news site, sections within a corporate site, or metadata tags within an eCommerce site. IAs choose taxonomies for a website or app based on the mental model of their target audience — how people group similar types of content or pieces of information.

A tree structure depicting the taxonomy of toys versus electronics in a product category.
Set and depth in a product taxonomy. Image credit Boxesandarrows.

Data modeling

Information architects often act as a bridge between the design and engineering teams on a project. IAs need to make sure that the visual design proposed by the design team is relevant to the data model created by the engineering team.

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 feels about using a product, system, or service. This includes a person’s perceptions of the practical aspects such as utility, ease of use, and efficiency of the system. It’s clear UX design means much more than structuring content. At the same time, good Information Architecture is the foundation of efficient user experience. User Experience takes Information Architecture as its foundation and brings it to the next level. That’s why every good UX Designer is also a competent information architect.

Chart using circles depicts the overlap between interaction design, visual design, information architecture and more, all which ladder up to UX design.
Information Architecture comprises only a small part of a user’s overall experience. UX designers focus on factors that influence users’ behaviour and actions such as emotion and psychology, while the IA experts stay focused on the user’s goals. Image credit Scorch.

Conclusion

Content is the heart of every app or website, and it should be taken seriously from the very start of a project. Good IA design is the foundation of efficient user experience because well-organized, well-structured content makes a product easier to use for your users.