Information architecture (IA) is a key aspect of UX design that focuses on organizing information, structuring Web sites and mobile apps, and helping users navigate them to find and process the information they need. A well-designed, user-friendly information architecture ensures that users spend less time and effort searching for information and are successful in finding what they need. Key information-architecture tasks include identifying common features in content, forming groups of similar information objects, and linking documents to other documents on the same topic. Optimizing search for a Web site or mobile app also helps visitors to find information quickly.
The knowledge that forms basis of a well-designed information architecture for a Web site or mobile app comprises the following:
the information needs of visitors
a site or app’s content
business goals and budget constraints
In this article, I’ll describe some principles of information architecture, then look at the role of information architecture within the context of UX design.
Principles of Information Architecture
Certain principles of information architecture guide the work of most information architects and UX designers—sometimes even without their realizing it. Once an information architect or designer learns to use these principles, it becomes easy to solve the most complex IA problems and create user-friendly Web sites.
Now, let’s look at some specific principles of information architecture.
The Principle of Objects
It is important to perceive content as an organic whole, with its own image, strengths, and weaknesses. The initial stage in developing a strategy for presenting information involves organizing all the categories of content objects and determining the types of interactions users need to have with those content objects. The task of the information architect or designer is to present the content to visitors most efficiently.
The Principle of Selection
While the information architect or UX designer creates pages that are valuable and relevant to users, it is important to limit their number. Providing too many options makes it difficult for people choose among them. The larger the selection, the longer it takes for users to process all the data they receive, which can be irritating to them.
The Principle of Disclosure
The principle of gradual disclosure of information recognizes that people can perceive and process only a certain amount of information at a time. For users to be able to assimilate the content that a page presents, the best design strategy is to display only as much content on a page as is necessary for users to know what to expect next—whether by revealing more information on the same page or displaying another page. The user can then assess the data on a page to guess what information would appear on the next page.
The Principle of the Main Entrance
While a Web site’s home page is the main entrance to the site, it should not be the only landing page on the site. Users might access any landing page on a Web site.
The Principle of Growth
Most Web sites contain constantly updated content. Moreover, the complexity and amount of their content increases over time. Therefore, it is very important to use a flexible approach to content management. The entire structure of a Web site—and its search tools—should be easily scalable so the site can grow sustainably, regardless of what types of content appear there in the future.
The Principle of Multiple Classification
Different users use the same Web site in different ways, and they may use different methods of finding the same information. Some rely on search, while others prefer to browse through a site. Adapt the site’s content to various user needs and behaviors, tasks, and scenarios.
The Principle of Focused Navigation
Do not mix different categories of information within a single navigation structure. The information architect or UX designer’s task is to provide users with all the elements necessary for effective navigation. For example, if all content is concentrated within one international site, provide various navigation tools to implement a localized approach to navigation.
The Principle of Examples
Providing visual examples of content types significantly improves the user experience. This helps the user navigate more quickly, even without fully understanding what the label for a category means. For example, when displaying a specific category of products, Amazon’s Web site shows examples of products that fall into that category.
Integrating Information Architecture into UX Design
All UX designers should acquire some IA skills. The quality of their Web-site designs depends heavily on their creating effective information architectures, navigation and search systems, and reducing navigation issues. To accomplish these goals, designers must do the following:
Define a product strategy that meets the client’s goals and expectations.
Agree with clients up front on a site’s content elements and the tasks it must support. This helps avoid future misunderstandings.
Prioritize user satisfaction.
Conduct user research using various techniques to collect information about user wants and needs.
Analyze the user-research data, then decide on the best solutions to make the final product as user friendly and attractive as possible.
Consider the principles of cognitive psychology during design. Once you understand the basics of visual perception, you can take into account various factors that might affect the user’s attention. These principle include Gestalt theory and recognition patterns.
Create an information architecture that is based on the site’s content.
Base the site’s navigation system on its information architecture to guide users through the site.
Create a visual-design scheme and apply it to your mockups.
Apply visual hierarchy in presenting the site’s content to support scanning patterns. This enables users to understand the importance of all the content elements on a page based on the brain’s ability to distinguish differences in color, size, and alignment.
The Roles of Information Architects and UX Designers
Information architecture is core to and forms the basis of a Web site’s user experience. Information architects derive useful content structures and navigation systems from complex sets of information. It is necessary to create a Web site’s information architecture before adding functionality. Information architects generate sitemaps and design navigation systems that UX designers can then incorporate into their mockups of Web-page designs. When information architects collaborate with UX designers, the result is an attractive, high-quality Web site that communicates its information architecture effectively and facilitates interactions with its navigation elements.
In creating optimal design solutions for their target audience, both information architects and UX designers employ a variety of UX research and user-centered design methods, including user research and usability testing. Together, the efforts of an information architect and a UX designer ensure a pleasant experience for the user.
In the absence of a Web site’s content, design is just a decorative art, which is not enough. The information architect and UX designer must work collaboratively during design, applying the principles of information architecture to ensure that users actually benefit from the use of the Web site.
Creating an information architecture is an essential part of UX design for all types of Web sites—whether you’re designing an online store, a news platform, a social network, or a Web directory. The role of information architecture is especially important for sites that comprise so many pages and have so much content that a simple navigation system would not be sufficient.
A useful user experience is a simple user experience. It does its job. An easy-to-use Web site creates loyal customers, while users quickly leave unfriendly sites—perhaps forever. An interesting user experience makes a lasting impression on users. An effective information architecture whose structure is based on your understanding of users helps you keep satisfied customers, lower bounce rates, and improve a Web site’s popularity.
Anastasia is a passionate writer and information-technology enthusiast. As a content manager at Mobilunity, a provider of dedicated development teams around the globe, Anastasia shares her knowledge to help technology startups and other companies stay up to date. She works hard to keep abreast of the latest news in all areas of technology, including agile project management and software-product growth. Read More