6 Important Facts About Information Architecture

Last Edited September 11, 2023 by Garenne Bigby in UX

facts about information architecture

Often, information architecture is confused for many things. Sometimes it is used interchangeably with website navigation, technical architecture, and more. Doing this is not only misleading, but it is absolutely incorrect. These misconceptions are part of the reason that information architecture may be overlooked in the website design process. In fact, IA is one of the most vital parts of the process, and should take place before many of the other steps. It means organizing, prioritizing, labeling, and connecting website content so that it is easy to use and easy to find. To condense it even further, it is sometimes called the science and art of organizing websites. It is the time when context, content, and users all overlap.

When you develop a good information architecture, your website will be able to effectively communicate that the website visitors are in the right place by making it clear where they are, provide clear navigation and make it easy for visitors to find what they are looking for, provide links for “See Also and “Related Products” so make sure that the website visitors know what their other options are, and clear CTAs (call to action) that will let users take various kinds of action.

The end goal of information architecture is really just that—to provide the architecture. It will determine the big picture, but also include smaller things. It really is the backbone to creating a website that will be successful, as long as it is based on real research and data.

1. Information Architecture is Not the Same as Site Navigation

Many times, web professionals will merge the concepts of information architecture and site navigation. Though these two concepts are closely related and information architecture does inform the user interface, it is very important to know that they are different and to know how to identify the differences between the two.

Navigation is a piece of the user interface, while information architecture is not a part of the user interface at all. This means that the user will never actually see any of the information architecture. Typically an information architecture deliverable will be a revised site map, not an XML sitemap that will show the relationship between the content. The sitemap is then interpreted and applied to a user interface like a prototype or wireframe. Information architecture will be expressed through global, local, contextual, and supplemental navigation. When a website is larger and more complex, the supplemental navigation will be much greater. For example, you may choose to use the site index rather than a site map.

To put it simply, information architecture is the backbone of a website, while the navigation is the elements in the user interface that allow the users to reach information on the website. When developing the IA, the developer will need to perform content inventory, content audit, information grouping, taxonomy development, and descriptive information creation.

When a developer is putting together the navigation for a website, they will need to make decisions regarding usage priority, placement, and pattern. All of these things are influenced by mental models.

It would do no good for the designer to ignore the information architecture and focus solely on the navigation when building a website. It would lead to inefficiency and could cost the company. Navigation is not equipped to adequately accommodate the entire scope of functionality and content of a website.

2. Information Architecture is not Technical Architecture

While it is true that some information architects do have outstanding technical skills, it is very important for professionals of the Internet to understand that a technical team should not be putting together the website information architecture. Instead, the technical team will be receiving guidance from the qualified information architect.

This is because a website's architecture and related navigation system will be based on the mental models of the website's users, not on the mental models of the website's technical team. The information architect will understand the mental model of the user based on scenarios, personas, user interviews, content inventory, usability testing (not user testing), and other user experience processes.

There is a way for web developers to streamline these processes through automation and programming, but the making of a qualified information architect may keep content centered around the user rather than the technology.

The types of technology decisions that are made about websites in the making include content management systems (CMS), server types, coding and scripting, navigation types (menus, text links, images), and troubleshooting pages individually. These decisions should be made based on search engines as well as searchers themselves, and also what the other teams involved with the website development have determined. The teams providing information would be marketing, information architecture, and usability. The technology architect would take guidance from the information architect.

An information architect would know when to call in the help of the technical architect. To give an example, tale duplicate content delivery. This has the ability to hinder direct access to desired content through search engines. Duplicate content annoys users. But the interesting thing is, that user generated tagging usually leads to content duplication. Knowing this, an information architect would call on the technical architect to help organize the content with faceted classification or user-generated tagging in order to reduce the negative impact of duplicate content.

Information Architecture is no better than technical architecture, and vice versa. These two positions work hand in hand for creating a workable website that is pleasing for users. They must not only listen to each other, but support each other as well. When a website is being built, there needs to be strong communication between the information architect and the technology architect.

3. Information Architecture Needs to be Based on the Mental Models of the End-Users

These mental models are an explanation of an individual's thought process relating to how something works in the real world, and will faithfully represent root motivations with matching behaviors. For example, a very well-known mental model on the Internet is blue underlined text. Most web users know that this format means that the text is a clickable (or tappable) link. This is not to say that all clickable text needs to be formatted to be blue and underlined, but it is most certainly recognized as a global mental model.

Content should be labeled largely based on the user's language and understanding. Not having the benefit of a tree test or card sort test, how should the technical team know how users will organize and label content?

Many government websites are guilty of not being user-friendly and not following any mental models. Often times, information is not easily accessible through the website, and individuals end up calling the office to find the information that they need. This is a great example of how all website owners should be able to understand the mental models of their users and should be able to accommodate them.

It is necessary to develop mental models through exercises such as task flow diagrams or card sorting. These mental models will act as the framework as a website is being designed or redesigned. These mental models will not provide a specific design choice, but a series of “givens” such as the blue underlined text for links, and the like. These are essentially a map of the end user's cognitive process.

4. Information Architecture Should Come Before Site Design and Development

People are visual beings. Aesthetics are an important part of the user experience. In fact, it has been said that there are many designers and many design schools that cannot distinguish things that are pretty from things that are useful. Schools will train the students to create things that are pleasant to look at but will not be usable or understandable.

This is often the case with the website designers. Clients will become attached to the design of the website before the architecture is done, and even though the design might seem correct it might not support the architecture.

Many times when a website is difficult to use, it is because the website design is no effective and does not mesh well with the information architecture. This is why it is vital to design the website around the IA. It will ensure that the website will work correctly with all content and metadata considered.

5. Information Architecture is Important for Positive User Experience

Company CEOs often overlook information architecture because of the lack of interest in that facet of the process. People will notice a faulty information architecture when it is broken.

Think about what users will say if they cannot find desired content on a website. Why are they not able to find this content? Is the labeling system clear? Does the website have cross-referencing to redirect users in the event of an error? To avoid “link juice” do old links direct to the homepage and leave users confused about the desired content?

Users should be delighted with the website content. It is vital to ensure that they are able to locate and discover the desired content with the effective navigation in architecture. If they are not able to find the content, they will not be delighted. Users will leave the website and likely choose a different one to get their information from, leaving the undesirable one permanently.

A website can't work effectively for a company when the user experience is negative. When the user experience is less than great, the company may see a decrease in retention rates, as well as decreased conversions. In order to keep these important statistics for the company positive, a website should create a great user experience, being able to successfully anticipate the user's needs. This will lead to a website that is effective and useful, while being easy to navigate.

User experience has everything to do with conversions. It is a means to an end. Great user experiences are not created just to make users happy—they are created to lead to something. This could be a way to keep people on a social networking site, or it would be a way to keep users on the website to buy your stuff. The quality of the user's experience will have a heavy impact on their opinion, possibility for referral, and then ultimately conversions. A user's experience is subjective and personal, and is affected by personal preferences, mood, experience, and other things. The user experience is a responsibility that is shared by all of those who take part and contribute or support a product, spanning from the user interface all the way to those who act as customer support.

6. Effective Information Architecture and Site Navigation is Important for Long-Term Search Engine Exposure

When a site has proper information architecture, content that is relatable is connected in meaningful ways. Keywords are very important for search engine optimization. They will be placed in the content and in the labeling system. It is not necessary to create a large footer to potentially help the SEO. Search results are more accurate when there is a clear information architecture. Google, as well as other search engines, will interpret content and accurately interpret context when the content is labeled, organized, and connected properly. To be put simply, visibility and search engines will increase when information architecture is clear.

A great user experience will lead people to desirable content and it will instill a long lasting impression on the user. User experience will build on the foundation that information architecture provides. Do not skip the information architecture step, it is vital to accommodate and understand user mental models.

It can be said that information architecture is one of the most important parts when designing or redesigning a website. It will provide a solid outline for which the website will need to be designed around, and will allow all necessary information and content to be arranged upon the website in a way that makes sense and is pleasing for users. This will ensure that the users return to the website for all of their relevant needs.

Garenne Bigby
Author: Garenne BigbyWebsite:
Founder of DYNO Mapper and Former Advisory Committee Representative at the W3C.

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