What is information architecture?
"Information architecture (IA) is the structural design of shared information environment."
Whether that's an app, a website, or a database, all need functional structure to be useful. Information Technology Architects oversee implementing this structure across larger systems. Everyone from copywriters to web designers plan information architecture on a smaller scale.
Your information architecture is the single most important component of your user experience. A beautiful website with the most important information hidden away in a footer link is still an awful user experience. To have good information architecture, you need to have a clear picture of what you want to convey. You also need to be sure that it's the information a user is looking for.
"Visual Sitemaps illustrate information architecture perfectly by showing a clear structure and organization of information."
Why is good information architecture important?
Good information architecture takes users where they want to go. It is the structure of your website and the way your information is organized into categories. These categories make up the way that people will access content. The most visible example of this will always be a websites central navigation. Each individual page has a unique information architecture. Sub-menus, headers, and scrolling elements all make up the way you distribute information on your platform.
What does it have to do with UX?
Much like UI and UX, Information Architecture and UX are inseparable concepts. Without a hierarchy for information, you cannot have a user experience.
Here's what happens when your Information Architecture helps creates a positive user experience:
The New York Times:
The New York Times has a well defined information architecture that goes hand in hand with its UX goals.
The Information Architecture:
The first decision you must make when opening the NYT website is what category of news you'd like to read. NYT knows we're here to read, and immediately gives us a means to find the content we're looking for. This is reinforced by a visible "Search" button next to their otherwise hidden main menu.
The User Experience:
It looks like a newspaper, this is a clear defined user experience. Continuous scroll mirrors the experience you get by reading and then flipping over your paper. Each section below the fold loads as you scroll - you can almost hear the shuffling of paper as you go.
For an organization selling as many things as MailChimp is – they’ve dedicated valuable Information Architecture space to education.
The Information Architecture:
Let's look at MailChimp - the first menu option you see is "Why Mailchimp?" MailChimp is a SaaS company, their primary goals is showcasing why you should use their product. By defining your information architecture, you also define your companies goals. The top level navigation items showcase the information you are most interested in disseminating.
The User Experience
From here, their marketing platform, pricing, and resources are the next menu options. Their goals are clear - sell you their services. They also use valuable real estate to showcase their unique position: they are experts who provide education. This defines the user experience.
What can you do to avoid it?
But what does bad information Architecture look like?
This is quite an extreme example, but aside from the color choice and 90s layout - the information is not organized in any meaningful way. There are too many menu options, many of them can be condensed under a single header - "Products" or "Services" in this case. The list goes on.
Small tweaks to your information architecture can still have profound effects. These steps can help you get the most out of your Information Architecture and improve your UX.
Put yourself in the user's shoes
Focus on what your users want to do when they are using your platform. Create personas that reflect real behavior. Test your information architecture with real goals.
It doesn't matter how you get it, but you need feedback. Feedback from users identifies unmet needs and take any guesswork out of the picture.
Make small, deliberate changes to the structure of your site. If you change too much at once, you can't easily measure individual impacts.
Set a clear strategy. When planning a website or an app, there is a huge amount of information that you need to put in specific locations. Your information architecture is immediately tested whenever your website or app goes live. If users bounce or fail to access important features, your information architecture needs work.
Interested in working with fivestar*?
If you decide that it is valuable and profitable for your business to have custom software, fivestar* can develop solutions that centralize workflows, optimize processes, and enable decision-making through real-time data and business intelligence.
About the Author: Cameron Avrigean
Cameron Avrigean is a Marketing Coordinator at fivestar*. Cameron is an analytics fanatic with a penchant for copywriting and social media. He works with the marketing team to create engaging content, and is looking for the next big thing. Cameron holds a B.S. in Business Management from Point Park University.