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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.