What Is Information Architecture? A Beginner’s Guide

Information architecture is the backbone of user experience design. But what does it actually involve? Read on to find out.

information architecture ux design

Consider every webpage, link, photo, and video available on the internet—it’s an overwhelming amount of content that, without proper organization, would be impossible to find, use, and navigate. 

This is where information architecture, also referred to as IA, comes in. Information architecture is a discipline that focuses on the organization of information in digital products such as websites, apps, software, and platforms. If the role of UX design is to make a website or platform accessible, intuitive, and user-friendly, it helps to think of information architecture as the crucial step that comes before any design takes place—information architects establish a blueprint of content flows, determine hierarchies, and label different elements involved so that the product, once designed, is understandable to the user.

“Good information architecture makes users less alienated and suppressed by technology,” said Jakob Nielsen, a principal at the Nielsen Norman Group and an expert in human-computer interaction research. “It thus simultaneously increases human satisfaction and your company’s profits. Very few jobs allow you to do both at the same time.”

What Is Information Architecture?

“Information architecture is the practice of deciding how to arrange the parts of something to be understandable,” according to the Information Architecture Institute. This is applicable to both digital products and physical spaces, although the discipline is more widely associated with interaction design and user interface design for the web.

In practice, this can take many forms. For example, UX designer Soojin Sielle Kim was hired by the Museum of Art and Design in New York City to assess the information architecture of its website. As part of the project, she conducted user research using the card sorting method, inviting participants to do a card sort using the museum’s existing pages to determine what cards and categories made sense to them. Kim’s research yielded findings such as some participants not understanding what certain cards (and, by extension, page labels) meant, confusion about acronyms such as “FAQ”, and a lack of clarity about secondary pages that were nestled within primary links—all of which then fed into recommendations for ways to organize information to improve the navigation system, clarify labels, and rethink the content strategy. 

In another example, an information architect might be brought on to conduct a content inventory audit, which, as the name suggests, involves cataloging the contents of a website or digital product in a clear and accessible way. IA plays an important role here because it can help design and product teams understand what they have to work with, remove unnecessary or outdated content, and improve the findability of work that is currently hidden. It can also help identify inconsistencies in messaging, ensure metadata is accurately tagged, and that complex website structures are clearly mapped for designers. 

In a nutshell, information architecture is like the skeleton on which functional, accessible, and logical digital products are built.

5 Step Guide to How Information Architecture Works

Information architects spend their time structuring content in ways that make sense to the end-user. In action, this job commonly involves the following steps:

  1. User experience research. Although UX research is its own discipline, information architects often engage in research methods such as card sorting, usability testing, user interviews, and tree testing in order to better understand how users interact with a product, their behaviors and motivations, and what ultimately makes sense to them. Through research, information architects gain insight into how users think when they search for information, which then informs how they organize that information.
  2. Content inventory/content audits. One of the responsibilities of information architects is knowing what content a product already has and how it is currently grouped or categorized. Information architects perform a content inventory to record what content exists, run content audits to determine the efficacy of the content, and group related items to determine the relationship between content. 
  3. Navigation and hierarchies. Navigation and hierarchies are among the main components of information architecture—they determine how users will interact with content and how it should be structured. When it comes to hierarchies, an IA might use diagrams to sketch out a sitemap or a product’s flow; when it comes to navigation, an IA might use learnings from research to figure out what a user expects to see when they interact with a product and what might be more intuitive to the user. 
  4. Prototyping. Often mockup prototypes in the form of wireframes to show designers and developers the hierarchy of information and how it should be laid out on a page in order to maximize views, clicks, scrolls, or follow-through. These wireframes tend to have clickable and navigable links, which designers often refer to as they build a product or page.
  5. Taxonomies. Also known as labeling, a large part of an information architect’s job is to classify, categorize, and label content in a scalable way so that it can be easily searched, sorted, and managed. 

8 Principles of Information Architecture 

UX researcher, information architect, and interaction designer Dan Brown authored a paper in 2010 on the eight principles of information architecture—a list of principles that information architects can use to help them make design decisions. They are as follows:

  • Principle of Choices. The more choices a user has, the more challenging it is for them to make decisions. This principle suggests offering fewer, more focused, and meaningful choices to users.
  • Principle of Objects. Treat content as living, breathing objects with behaviors, attributes, and a life cycle. This means all website content should have a consistent and recognizable internal structure and a discrete set of behaviors.
  • Principle of Multiple Classifications. Even when users share many similarities, they don’t necessarily share similar thoughts. This principle factors in differences in thinking and offers users multiple ways to find what they’re looking for, without overwhelming users with too many options.
  • Principle of Front Doors. Assume that most visitors won’t come to a website through the homepage (a.k.a “Front Door”)—many arrive to specific pages through search engine links (a.k.a “Sider Doors”), so it’s important for a page’s design to tell visitors where they are and what else they can find on a website.
  • Principle of Growth. Assume the content you have today is a small fraction of the content you will have in the future. Design for exponential growth; design for scale; design to accommodate new content types.
  • Principle of Disclosure. Don’t overwhelm users by showing them everything at once. Show just enough to help the user understand what kinds of information they’ll find if they dig deeper. For this principle, Brown cites the Universal Principles of Design: “Information presented to a person who is not interested or ready to process it is effectively noise.”
  • Principle of Exemplars. Describe a category by showing examples from the category. For example, in a corporate intranet, a “Policies” category might feature “vacation,” “parental leave,” and “work from home” next to the category to help users understand the kind of content they will find.
  • Principle of Focused Navigation. Don’t allow a navigation bar’s position on a page to define its name (E.g. left navigation bar, top navigation bar, etc.) because a navigation menu loses its purpose when its name comes from a location on a template. Instead, focus on its contents and purpose (E.g. topic navigation, signpost navigation, marketing navigation). 

Information Architecture Essential Tools

In addition to user experience research tools such as card sorting, user interviews, tree testing, and usability testing, and more analog tools such as pen and paper and sticky notes, information architects rely on a range of site-mapping, flowchart-generating, and template-creating tools to do their jobs. Some of the more commonly used pieces of software include:

  • FlowMapp
  • Visual Paradigm
  • Enterprise Architect
  • Miro
  • Lucidchart
  • Coggle
  • Dyno Mapper
  • Omnigraffle
  • PowerMapper
  • Microsoft Visio
  • Microsoft SharePoint
  • UI8

What Is the Value of Information Architecture in UX Design?

Information architecture is a key aspect of UX design. Strong information architecture ensures that the wealth of content inside digital products is well organized, pages and buttons are clearly labeled, and information can be clearly and easily searched and arranged in such a way that is understandable to both designers and users. In other words, the better the information architecture, the better the blueprint UX designers have to work with.

“Good information architecture can do more than just help people find objects and information,” according to information architect Donna Spencer. “It can empower people by making it easier for them to learn and make better decisions.”

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