What is Information Architecture and why is it important?
When we think about designing digital products, we often focus on their visual aspects. Colour, images, and all other graphic elements are the first things we notice when we land on a webpage. Yet, these are not the only elements of web design that make for an intuitive user experience. The architecture of information is equally important.
Information Architecture is a term that encapsulates the principles and methodologies that UX designers use to ensure that information within digital products is organised in a user-friendly way. While there are several different ways that this can be achieved, we can say in broad strokes that a website or app with excellent information architecture is one whose content is structured in a way that makes sense to a user and is thus intuitive. This sense of familiarity and comfort is crucial. It reduces the cognitive load placed on a user as they interact with a digital product and makes navigation easy and predictable. This intuitive structure prevents a user from getting lost in the weeds trying to figure out the location of important information. Instead, it allows you to train your user’s focus on the content you want them to interact with the most. A site with an intuitive and easy-to-understand structure of information, therefore, increases user satisfaction and engagement, as well as user retention. Sites with poor information architecture, on the other hand, can feel clunky, confusing, and altogether alienating. This is clearly insufficient: You’ve taken the time to create interesting and valuable content for your website or app, so it makes sense to organise that content in a way that encourages user engagement.
Cognitive Load and Mental Models
Thinking about information architecture is all well and good in theory. But, you are probably wondering by this point: how exactly do information architects organise content in a way that users find intuitive? Building an understandable information structure starts with an understanding of the functioning of the human brain. Cognitive science shows us that, as it navigates through the world, the brain must constantly structure and make sense of a mass of undefined information. Cognitive researchers who study these processes have been able to devise principles of ‘cognitive navigation’ that are of great use to UX designers. These thought processes of how the human brain makes sense of the world are called mental models. Being aware of these, help us create the right structural design to achieve the most intuitive user experience possible. This way, we can create websites, apps or platforms that the brain can subconsciously navigate.
Information Architecture: Methods and Principles
Information Architects and UX designers use a number of these ‘principles of cognitive navigation’ when they design the website’s information architecture and augment them with insights gleaned from practical experience designing and maintaining websites. We call the sum of these cognitive science and web design insights the principles of information architecture. While we aren’t going to cover every single one of these principles in minute detail (the interested reader can find a fuller accounting here), it would be helpful to briefly go over them to provide a bit of context:
- The Object Principle – Ultimately, content is the object of any structure of information. UX designers work to ensure that any content on a website or app is engaging and relevant to both the purpose of the website or app and the categories that structure it.
- The Principle of Choices – Cognitive science has helped us understand that too much choice can be a bad thing. Presenting a user with an overwhelming number of options can often lead to them selecting no option at all. Therefore, it is important that UX designers work to decrease cognitive loads by presenting the user with a select number of engaging tasks or choices.
- The Principle of Disclosure – Information is often organised into a hierarchy (or layers) that a user ascends or descends according to their needs. A layered information structure that adheres to the principles of disclosure is one that tells the user enough information to navigate effectively through each layer without overwhelming that user with superfluous information.
- The Principle of Exemplars – Cognitive research has shown us that the brain thinks about categories in terms of the most salient example it can represent. This realisation allows UX designers to build categories around examples that are implicit and self-explanatory, as these work better than descriptions. For example, if you are buying a laptop on a website with good IA, you can be assured that any category represented by a picture of a laptop will be solely related to laptops.
- The Principle of Front Doors – Users do not always land on a website’s home page. Often, they reach websites through what we might call ‘side-doors’ It is therefore important that UX designers ensure that any page on a website gives users a sense of position and familiarity with the overall website information architecture that enables them to seamlessly navigate through it.
- The Principle of Multiple Classification – One thing cognitive science teaches us is that there is not one, unified system of cognitive classification among human beings. Some people classify things differently, so it is important that the information architect provides users with multiple different classification systems. Think of an e-commerce platform like eBay, which allows you to search for items in both broad and narrow categories.
- The Principle of Focused Navigation – Websites often have a multitude of pages that each contain relevant information to the user. As such, it is crucial that UX designers and information architects devise an understandable strategy that users can employ to navigate through a website.
- The Principle of Growth – A Website’s Information Architecture must also be designed with an eye toward the future. Websites need to be able to grow, develop, and adapt to changes in the market so it is important that the information architecture is flexible and scalable.
Information Architecture Best Practices and Studio Vi
On top of these principles, we can also speak about a set of IA best practices that we work to integrate into every IA project we undertake. At Studio Vi, we recognise that every digital product will require its own personalised and customised information architecture. Different websites have different needs, serve different users, and display different types of content. We therefore always seek to design the information architecture of a system from the ground up, focusing first on the objectives that our customers want to achieve through their web presence. Understanding their goals, visions, and services allows us to construct an information architecture that serves these purposes and further gives us the opportunity to provide customers with a digital strategy that condenses these various factors into a coherent and actionable format. Knowing a website’s target user is an equally crucial task for the information architect. Different users have different needs, seek different information and content, and navigate to find that content in different ways and along different routes. User research is therefore a crucial element of any successful information architecture, and Studio Vi has the personnel and experience necessary to make this type of research happen.
A solid information architecture also requires a plan of action that stretches beyond the immediate present. Websites, as we have noted, must be transformative and adaptive in the current business environment. We, therefore, strive to provide all of our information architecture design projects with a clear, adaptable, and scalable roadmap. Once in place, this strategy guide allows our customers to reap the rewards of effective information architecture for years to come, even when it is necessary to scale and adapt a web offering to keep up with a changing market. Of course, we realise that not all of our customers are building websites from scratch. Some come to us with an existing website whose information architecture could be better streamlined and rationalised. In light of this, Studio Vi offers information architecture workshops to all of our clients, regardless of where their particular site is in the web development process. These workshops allow us to help our clients analyse the needs of their websites, and give us the opportunity to work together to devise an IA strategy to suit the long-term development needs of their web presence.
Information Architecture in situ: EAACI
So far, we have spoken about Information Architecture largely in theory. To aid in the digestion of these ideas, we think it would be useful to demonstrate some of them in the context of a project we are currently working on. EAACI is a leading NGO in the field of allergy and immunology, whose goal is to share research breakthroughs and medical guidelines with relevant researchers and healthcare professionals. The website has grown substantially since its inception and now boasts over 12,000 members. As EAACI’s mission is to provide research and information in an ever-changing informational landscape, it constantly has to add new content to its site. However, EAACI has grown so large that finding the correct content in its expanding index can sometimes prove a challenge. To remedy this, Studio Vi and EAACI collaborated in a series of IA workshops to develop an information architecture that streamlines the content structure of EAACI’s website. Through these workshops, and the insights we have gained into the needs and habits of EAACI’s users, Studio Vi was able to make it easier for these users to access the content they need in a timely and, importantly, intuitive manner. As Studio Vi has come to understand EAACI’s content objectives and needs, we have been able to develop a plan for this content structure in cooperation with them, with the end result being a roadmap that is scalable, sustainable, and adaptable to a changing information environment.
The information architecture of a digital product is its backbone. It is the foundation that the entire digital experience stands on, and as such, is a crucial element of any successful website, app or platform. And yet, much like the foundation of a house, information architecture is out of sight, buried under the more visible content that users seek out on the web. Though it is out of sight, it should not be out of mind. You wouldn’t go through the trouble of renovating a house that sat on shaky foundations, and this same thought holds true for all digital products. If you are going to populate a site with engaging content, you want that content to be as intuitive and accessible to users as possible. Information Architecture is how we make this happen.