Building a website is a lot like building a great big house; you need a solid foundation and sensible, well-considered architecture before you start working on the interior design. It’s important to know where the rooms are going to be and to develop a sensible flow through the house – you’re not going to want to open the front door to a bedroom, or have to go through a bathroom to get to the kitchen. Architecture is important.
There are a lot of attributes that come together to build a great website, but none more so than information architecture (IA) because it informs so much of the design process and influences user behavior by inspiring sensible navigation decisions.
Information architecture is so much more than the wireframes of your website; it is the considered practice of intentional, human-centered design.
What Is Information Architecture?
Information architecture is everywhere – it’s in the websites, apps and software we use every day as well as the physical spaces we exist in. Information architecture is how we make sense of our surroundings and have a shared language for finding what we’re looking for.
Dan Klyn, an information architect at The Understanding Group and teacher at the University of Michigan School of Information, explains: “Information architecture is the thoughtful contriving of ontology, taxonomy, and choreography in the service of utility and delight, making the complex clear.”
Ontology: having a common understanding on how we categorize and conceptualize information.
Taxonomy: creating systems and structures to present, filter, and organize information.
Choreography: anticipating user behavior and curating their interactions and flow through your website through design.
The Application of Information Architecture in Web Design
In web design, information architecture is the blueprint of your website – the process of structuring and organizing your content. It informs your design, wireframes and sitemaps. Because IA is all about helping users understand and find their way through your website, UX designers use IA to predict and cater to user behavior to improve overall site navigation.
Information architecture has roots in different fields and methodologies in academia including library science, cognitive psychology, and architecture.
Information architecture relies on mutual understanding. To understand what your website’s information architecture will look like, you need to first understand who your users are, how they use your website/app, how you present information to them, and how users behave given the information you provide.
How Information Architecture Informs Design
Visual elements, interaction, functionality, and the navigation of a website are all informed by the original IA. UI design relies on proper organization of assets and functionality. Information architecture will make the user interaction and user experience design easier. If the information architecture is poorly designed, users will have difficulty navigating your site. Flawless UX relies on building a great information architecture.
Borrowing from the principles of cognitive psychology, information architects build better designs by taking a human-centered design approach to the problems they are trying to solve. They take into consideration the following:
Cognitive load: how to provide enough information to inform the user, but not so much that they are overloaded with too much information at once.
Mental modes: how to take advantage of assumptions your users have before they interact with your website so that elements of your design and layout are familiar and easy to navigate.
Decision making: how to help users make the right decisions in their user flow, which could mean how information is presented as well as the timing the information appears in their experience of your website.
Systems for Better User Experience and Web Design
The best way to consistently keep your information architecture solid and stable is to develop a system to catalog your information so it will be easy to categorize, organize, and present to the user. Examples of systems you might employ include:
Visual Hierarchy: Content is presented in a way that uses design (color, size, contrast, alignment) to distinguish the level of importance for visual elements.
Sequential Hierarchy: Users follow a pathway of tasks in a set order to accomplish an end goal.
Matrix: Users choose how their content is organized according to a broader set of similar information called schemes.
Organize groups of data under clear, concise labels.
How your users move through your content on your website in order to find what they’re looking for.
When your website has a lot of data under lots of different labels, it can be easy for your users to get lost in a sea of content. Employing an internal search functionality allows the user to find the information they need. An efficient internal search engine relies on excellent information architecture – when content is labeled, categorized, organized, and presented in a systematic and intentional way, it makes content more searchable.
What are Organization Schemes?
Organization schemes are your plan for how you will organize content and how you will build connections in the commonalities between different content. Information architects categorize content using mutually exclusive schemes, and then they can further organize them according to data within those schemes.
Schemes are how you organize your content and how you create relationships between different pieces of content that are related. For example, you could organize content alphabetically, chronologically, by topic, or by audience. Having a good scheme in place means you could, for example, filter your content by year (2020), then organize it chronologically from January to December.
The Importance of Great Information Architecture
Information architecture is the foundation of great web design and will be used by designers and developers to make your website awesome for the end user. If you’re having difficulty developing the information architecture for your website, partner with a UX agency to develop IA that will meet your business objectives by cataloging your content and creating a design that will exceed the users’ expectations and needs.