Information architecture (IA) is a critical component of digital product design, but it’s often overlooked. Let’s explore what IA actually is and consider how this holistic approach can be best optimised for your organisation’s needs. 

 A simple cartoon-like sketch of an aisle in a grocery store, with pastel colours added.

What is information architecture (IA)? 

According to the Information Architecture Institute, IA is the art and science of organising and labelling content on websites, intranets, online communities and within software to support usability and findability. 

Good IA leads to websites and products that are intuitive for people to find what they are looking for. When an IA is performing poorly, users might struggle to locate even basic information such as opening hours or contact details. If the information isn’t readily available to them, they may assume that it’s simply not there. 

IA is concerned with the organisation of information, and in a website context, it is the underlying structure that informs how content or products get organised. 

IA research included a multi-pronged approach: 

  • Grouping: Defining how content is grouped and the relationships between these groups.

  • Taxonomy: Choosing the most appropriate language used to name both the content itself and the content groups.

Does IA only exist in digital spaces? 

Once you learn to recognise it, you will start seeing IA principles everywhere! There are many examples of IA taxonomy that exist outside of digital platforms, such as bookshelves in a library, product groupings in supermarket aisles, or scientific names in various fields such as botany or chemistry. 

Collection of emojis representing items found in a supermarket. Emojis representing items found in a supermarket. Items have been grouped in two different ways, showing that different people might choose different groupings.

Okay, but how is IA different from navigation? 

Think of navigation as the visible aspect of the IA. Nielsen Norman Group describes IA as the backbone of a website or digital product. In contrast, the navigation is made up of UI elements that allow users to access that information. Some examples of navigation components are the navigation menus, search fields, footers, filters, sort options, breadcrumbs, and related links. The IA informs website navigation and comprises interface components that allow users to find and discover information (content/products) on a site.

Why should you improve the IA of your website?

  • Enhanced user experience (including satisfaction and engagement).

  • Improved brand reputation (communicating values, identity, and personality).

  • Increase in sales (including lead generation and conversion).

  • Improved SEO ranking (makes it easier for search engine crawlers to index content effectively).

  • Decreased bounce rate (adequate internal linking, meeting user expectations based on page title and description).

How do you make changes to an existing IA structure?

In order to make effective improvements to the IA of a website, it’s crucial to understand how your users think about your content. There are several research approaches to help uncover these insights, including:

After these research activities have been completed, the following changes might be made to IA:

  • Moving specific content to where users expect to find it.

  • Adjustments to the way content is grouped.

  • Adding or removing content groups.

  • Changing the levels of hierarchy.

  • Amending language to be more user-centric.

Prioritisation and decisions also often need to be made about maximising limited main navigation real estate. By collaborating with your organisation, we can help meet both the customer and business needs. 

What are some examples of general IA principles?

  • Striving for consistent concepts (similar concepts are used to organise information at every level of the hierarchy).

  • 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, give users a sense that they are on the right track. This is usually achieved by creating groups that align with users' mental models).

What is the expected outcome of an IA project?

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 of a 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 would be reported on. These findings are valuable to guide future design activities.

The impact of these changes leads to improved findability of content and enhanced usability of the product. Past IA projects have seen Nomat engaged across a range of sectors, including online retail, higher education, and government. The team have conducted IA research for Myer, Kmart, Treasury Wine Estates, and the Australian National University, among others. The success measures of these projects include improved commercial outcomes, with one retailer reporting a 22% increase in sales in a single department. 

Nomat’s experience includes improving existing IA structures and defining new ones. These projects often form part of a broader holistic process of designing new websites or apps. Click here to learn more about our service offering.

About the author

About the author

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Eliza Crisp

Designer and Researcher

Eliza has a passion for investigative research and Human Centred Design with more than five years experience. She has a keen interest in applying Service Design to Health Care with a view of achieving improved outcomes for patients and staff. Eliza has strong communication skills, particularly when writing for the web. She is empathetic, collaborative and endlessly curious, and brings her enthusiasm for good design to every project.

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