If you visited a complex website and found everything you were looking for with ease, it was unlikely a coincidence. A well-designed website structure is often the result of careful user research and testing, following information architecture principles and best practices.
So what is information architecture (IA), and how is it applied to websites? Below, we’ll discuss a set of principles to think about and the steps you can take to design a solid IA for a website.
What is Information Architecture?
Information Architecture is the art and science of structuring content clearly and understandably. The goal of IA is to enable users to find what they need with ease. Designing the IA of a website involves arranging content pieces in a way that considers their relations to each other, user goals, and user context.
As with other parts of the UX umbrella, IA can be applied in a redesign or when developing a product from scratch.
Information architecture principles:
Before diving into the process of building the IA, it’s best to start with a set of principles for guidance. A frequently referenced source for guiding the IA process is Dan Brown’s 8 principles:
- Principle of objects: Treat content as a living, breathing thing. Each object has a lifecycle, behaviors, and attributes.
- Principle of choices: Keep the range of choices focused on a particular task. Too many options can delay decision-making.
- Principle of disclosure: Give users just enough information to figure out what they’ll find as they dig deeper.
- Principle of exemplars: When describing the contents of categories, show examples of their contents.
- Principle of front doors: Assume at least half the website’s visitors will come through a page other than the homepage.
- Principle of multiple classifications: Accommodate different ways of looking for information by offering different classification systems. Consider different user needs and search scope.
- Principle of focused navigation: Keep the navigation simple and free of extraneous links.
- Principle of growth: Assume the content of the website will grow. Make sure the website is scalable and adaptable.
If these principles seem broad or somewhat vague to you, that is on purpose. They are there to help you ask good questions, not provide you with solutions. To create a strong information architecture, you must develop a research plan to understand your user’s needs and behaviors.
Steps to Building a Website’s Information Architecture
1. Define your goals
The goal of IA is to help users find what they need with ease, but what does that mean for your website? You should work with all key stakeholders and ask:
- What need do you want to satisfy?
- Why do you want to do this?
- What do you hope to achieve with it?
2. Understand your Users
You need to know who your users are. Conduct user interviews, develop personas and create scenarios. This should help you answer:
- What are these users’ goals?
- What will they do on the website to achieve them?
Your personas and scenarios should tell a story that you can share with stakeholders. Think about any constraints users may have that can lead to a worst-case scenario, and how you can prevent that.
This is also a good time to think about competitors and how they meet their users’ needs. Visit their websites and explore their information architecture, thinking of the perspective your personas would have. Refer to the IA principles and ask whether they are being met and if they are not, what they could change to improve the IA?
3. Outline your content
If your website is new, you get to start from scratch and plan out the content. If your website already has content, create a list of all pages, media, and downloadable content. Make notes on each piece, such as its accuracy, relevance, and classification. If anything is not useful, get rid of it.
4. Use card sorting to classify and group content
Now that you have a list of all relevant content, classify and categorize it. Card sorting is a participatory design technique that can help you do this.
You start by creating a card for each piece of content, which should at the very least have a printed title, but could also list features or concepts. You then give these cards to users and ask them to sort them into groups.
Userlytics offers card sorting capabilities, which can be used in either unmoderated or moderated remote usability tests. Once you’ve done card-sorting with a set of users, you can refine your results into a sitemap and menu navigation. A sitemap is a grouped and labeled visual representation of your content. Navigation is a collection of all user-interface elements that house your content, which should be connected in meaningful ways.
5. Conduct tree tests on the navigation
Tree testing is a quantitative method used to determine what paths people will take through the IA to find key information. Participants navigate the website’s navigation using link names only, which are organized into a hierarchy of topics and subtopics.
This method helps determine if names and categories convey the contents correctly. The goal is to have titles that are distinguishable from one another, and users do not have to backtrack to find what they need. You can use Userlytics’ tree testing capabilities to build and test your navigation in remote usability tests.
6. Usability test as the website develops
So far, you’ve tested your information architecture stripped to its essential features. You will need to verify whether the IA you developed is suitable for the actual website as it is developing. This means user testing the information architecture at each iteration of the website’s prototype, as well as significant developments for the live website.
Usability testing is a qualitative technique where users are often given some tasks to complete, as the researcher observes and takes notes. It can reveal how users find information, how they interpret content and what they ignore or refuse to use, and why. This method is most effective in combination with a short semi-structured interview at the end. An interview will give you insights into what they felt about the tasks, and their overall experience with the website.
Information architecture, like most design work, is never truly done. Your website will grow and shrink as your product or company changes. No matter how much a company or website may grow and change, you can always maintain a simple and understandable information architecture.