Good information architecture (IA) leads to websites and products that are organised in a way that makes it intuitive for people to find what they are looking for.
IA is concerned with the organisation of information, and in a website context, it is the invisible structure that defines how content or products gets organised.
An example setup for usability testing a website. It includes a webcam to record the participant’s expressions as they undertake tasks on a website.
What is Information Architecture?
IA is primarily concerned with defining groups of content and the relationships between them, as well as the taxonomy, or, choosing the language used to name both the information and the groups. There are many examples of information architecture and taxonomy that exist outside of websites, such as books in a library, products in supermarket aisles, or scientific names in various fields such as botany or chemistry. For digital products like apps and websites, when an IA is working well, users can intuitively find the information they need.
How is it different to navigation?
Navigation is the visible aspect of the IA and exists to allow the findability and discoverability of information, content or products. Some examples of navigation components are the main navigation menu, secondary or utility navigation menus, search fields, footers, filters, sort options, breadcrumbs and related links. Website navigation is informed by the IA and is made up of interface components that allows users to find and discover information (content/products) on a site.
Why should you improve a website IA?
Existing websites which have large amounts of content or sell a large volume of products can be challenging or confusing for users to navigate. If you have ever used a website and not been able to find what you were looking for where you expected to find it, you have likely experienced IA issues! Some typical examples of IA issues include not being able to quickly find store opening hours or contact information, or intuitively locate a product category while online shopping. Improving an IA aims to alleviate IA issues and effectively support the majority of users to complete their top tasks successfully. Some typical examples are increasing revenue for a site that sells products, or reducing call centre volumes for an information based site by better supporting self service.
How do you make changes to an existing IA structure?
The kinds of changes you might make to an existing IA are moving specific content to where users expect to find it, adjustments to the groupings, adding or removing groups, changing the levels of hierarchy, or amending language to be more user centric. Prioritisation and decisions also often need to be made about how to maximise limited main navigation real estate to meet both customer and business needs.
Whether it is an existing IA being improved, or a new IA being designed, understanding how your users think about the content on the site is vital to informing any changes. Insights from research activities such as, True intent surveys, card sorting and Tree Testing all help to inform what tasks users are trying to complete, what their mental models are relating to the content you have, and where they expect to find things in an IA structure.
Information architecture research provides valuable insights into how users expect to find things on your website.
There are also a number of general IA principles that can be applied in conjunction with more specific research findings to inform an IA.
Examples of general IA principles
- Striving for consistent concepts (at every level of the hierarchy, similar concepts are used to organise information
- Mutually exclusive options (using a process of elimination, users should generally be able to easily choose where to look because the options don’t overlap)
- Using descriptive and natural language for labels (avoiding marketing concepts or internal organisational terminology)
- Providing ‘information scent’ (at each step of their journey, provide users with a sense that they are on the right track. This is usually achieved by creating groups that align with users’ mental models)
The main outcome from an IA project is typically documentation that either captures the proposed changes to an existing IA which can be used to guide changes to an existing website, or documents a proposed design new IA structure which can inform the design of a new website. Key findings from research activities that have informed the IA are also documented and shared. For example, qualitative insights from a true intent survey and card sorting, and quantitative metrics from tree testing. These findings are valuable to guide future design activities.
The team at Nomat have been engaged to work on information architecture projects across a range of sectors including online retail, higher education and government. We have conducted IA research for Myer, Kmart, Treasury Wine Estates and the Australian National University among others. We are experienced in improving existing IA structures as well as defining new IA structures as part of a broader process of designing new websites or apps. We offer flexibility in our approach to meet your needs.
If you would like to discuss your project needs please get in touch.