Information Architecture Best Practices

Last Edited January 25, 2018 by Garenne Bigby in UX

information architecture best practices

Having a website is a vital part of internet presence. It is used to communicate with those who are curious about your brand as they visit the site to seek information. The website needs to be able to help them find what they are looking for and connect with them in a way that will help you achieve your own goals as a brand.

It takes time to make information easy to find on a website, and you must be willing to review the website from the perspective of someone that is outside of the brand so that you can really understand if it does or does not work. Presenting this information in a way that can be understood to a variety of people will take the skills of someone that can write clearly and concisely with just a dash of empathy.

How can you ensure this? Start by asking yourself these questions: who is coming to my website and what are they looking for? What do I want them to know? Is the content of my website meeting the needs of the biggest or most important visitors? Are the same questions being asked over and over again? Is there any content on the site that would keep them interested in coming back? As a website, you must do more than just provide information, you must maintain, cultivate, and grow relationships with visitors.

This guide will offer some advice about the best practices on how to evaluate and improve your information architecture. You will need to start by thinking with strategy about your content, then recognize how to organize the pages for a more intuitive user experience, and then you will gain information about how you can write more effectively for your content on the internet.


Strategy for Content

The internet is a platform that is used for communication. But it is more than just putting words onto a web page, there is no reason for anyone to read them or act on them if there is not a lot of thought put into them. You should be thoughtful about the words that are being used and how they are being presented. Aim to understand the perspective as well as the needs of your audience. Consider how your content on the internet will cultivate relationships. In order to do all of this successfully, you will have to plan ahead, think strategically, and act with intent. This is what you will need to do to provide a solid framework for creating and maintaining your internet content:

1. Identify your Goals—what is it that you are trying to convey and why?

Prior to putting your thoughts onto paper or screen, think about why you desire a presence on the internet in the first place. What is it that visitors to your website do? How should they be using the content that you are providing?

Having clear goals will help you to focus on your ideas and organize your content, leading to a more clear way of communicating with those who are visiting your website. This will help you to recognize whether or not the content is working for you, and will show you the bigger picture when your website has been inundated with requests for specific content—these are the holes that need to be filled.

2. Understanding who your audience is—list the groups of people that visit your website.

How would you do this? You can start by listing out the different types of people that visit the site into separate groups. It is likely that the audience types will include a wide array of people who will visit the site for one reason or another. Each section of the site may have a combination of visitor types too.

After that, you will need to prioritize—you can't be everything to everyone, all at once. For every page or section, you will need to figure out which group is the most important, and focus on them first. You will be addressing the other audience in different ways. The content will need to overlap for audience types, so you will be able to serve multiple groups with the same content. Looking at this in a wider view, the main audience for a website may be individuals who are looking for information about the topic for which the site serve information. These people do not have existing knowledge about the website and the information that it provides or its structure. Simultaneously, the website will be serving the needs of those who are already familiar with the website and what it offers. A website needs to be able to serve both sets of audiences, and the pages that serve first time visitors need to be especially easy to navigate.

3. Understanding your audience on a deeper level— nobody will fit into a single category, know their nuances and identify what they expect and perceive.

This gives you some context for your audience. This process of refining will help you to communicate with those who are visiting your site in a way that it will make the most sense to them. And sometimes, who you are communicating with becomes the most important aspect of your day. Conte

xt is influenced by many things including; the age of the person, where they are located geographically, how much time they are spending online, and more. While these possibilities are endless, you will need to narrow down the most likely scenario for this audience and know that this may change periodically.

4. Understanding your audience and what they need—your website should not be made for you, it should be made for those who are visiting it.

It should come as no surprise that the needs of the internal audience and external audience are not drastically different when thinking about navigation that is easy to use and content that will capture them. Both of these audiences appreciate a clear path to information and you cannot be completely sure that either will be familiar with specific terminology or the way that a web page is organized. Content that is well presented and interesting will prove to be good for everyone in the internal and external audiences.

The difference between these two audiences will lie in the specific information that each seeks to find. Uncover the information that the primary audience is looking for and then address it in a way that will be sensitive to the context. You would do that by editing the text, or updating it depending on outside influence. When thinking about your secondary audience, how will you be able to serve their needs without inundating the page or taking away from the importance you've placed on the other group? A good way to address this is to place specific information in a sidebar or call out feature area.

5. Connecting Your Goals with Your Audience

This is beyond thinking about your website’s visitors' needs. This is when you think about the goals for your website—the qualities that you want people to associate with you as well as the actions that you would like for them to perform. You should be connecting each of your goals with one or more of your audience groups. You hold the power to present your content in a way that will speak in a more direct tone to one group or the other. You are also able to choose what does or does not show on the website. If you know that your primary audience is visiting the webpage it for a specific reason, make it simple for them to perform the action. Remove the information that is not in direct relation to the primary goal. In short—get rid of the fluff, it can be distracting.

6. Guiding Your Visitors

Each web page needs to give unique information and move the reader onto the next step. This is done through the use of links within the text, event titles, headers, and captions to make a smooth transition throughout the content. The top level page of a website is what has the most varied audience. This content should link together different groups to the information that they are looking for with very little detail. The pages need to work together to tell a single story. A website will oftentimes grow in random spurts, with different authors that add content in at different times. The result is a website that is home to duplicate information and individual pages that have no cohesive flow. With just a few exceptions, the content of a webpage it needs to be unique—just to add a bit of information to the larger story.

To do this, almost all of the pages need to include one or two brief opening paragraphs that will introduce the content and will link to the key pages within the section. This portion needs to be a quick and easy read, about 30 words.

7. Your Unique Voice

Your choice of words and how you present them will say a lot about your brand. Additionally, the tone that you choose to use will help you to connect with different audiences and will aid in achieving certain goals. For this, you will need to think about who you are and who you are not. Grab a few keywords that describe your brand's character and share them with any person that is contributing to your website. If you are a fun and supportive group, craft your content to convey that particular message.

Even though the writing style needs to be relatively consistent throughout the site, the tone of each individual page can slightly vary depending on the target audience of the section and what their needs are. Overall, the writing style of the website needs to be engaging, smart, and to the point. One of the lesser known but best ways to check on the quality of your content is to read it out loud to yourself. If it flows naturally, it is more likely to be accepted by readers.

8. Sharing Stories

Stories about those who make up your brand will validate your claims and cultivate important emotional connections with your website visitors. You can't just tell them, you need to show them. Individuals that visit your website want to get a good sense of who you are and what you do. This is done through the use of real life stories, photos with accurate and descriptive captions, and videos. Success stories are also a great way to show how your brand has influence in the long term sense.

9. Changing Your Approach

There are so many ways to communicate a message—through the use of static text, headlines, event titles, photos with captions, lists, videos, and more. All of these options offer various ways to gain information and help to form a more relatable idea of your efforts.

You should not be putting every single tiny bit of information that you have into the static text of a page, especially if it is the homepage at the top level. This is where you would use a photo or a story to connect your message with the audience. You will also be providing information for a particular portion of the audience in a list of links. You can think of content on the Internet as having two functions – emotional and transactional. Emotional is more often associated with marketing to new visitors and transactional is associated with returning visitors.


Emotional content gives the story that makes your brand unique. The goal is to attract those users who can benefit from your website. This type of communication needs to be direct, personal, and authentic so that the visitors can identify with the themes and subject of the content.

The main objective of transactional content is to give quick access to information that is being pulled with a purpose by those who are already familiar with your website.

Internal audiences, or those who are already familiar with your website, are mostly associated with the transactional communication while the external audiences are mostly associated with the emotional communications. Having said that, you'll gain benefits when you have found a way to balance both. Though some visitors maybe visit the site with the intention of one quick task, you can find subtle ways to expose them to other content that will keep them longer.

10. Integrating Your Key Message

The visitors of your website will form opinions that are based on what they read on the website. Each part of the site needs to reflect the qualities of the whole as much as it can. You will need to strategically think about content like: news and featured stories, events, and really your general word choice. Readers should leave the webpage associating the brand with your key values and characteristics.

11. Clean it up and Keep it Simple

A website that is smaller and has fewer pages to keep up with is much easier to navigate than a large website that may start out by looking great but is difficult to maintain and quickly becomes outdated.

It is not necessarily better to have a lot of content. Content that is accurate and engaging is of more value. It is vital that your content be relevant, unique, thoughtful, well written, and has interest to your audience. Pages that contain nothing more than outdated copy is not exciting and will not fare well when compared to content that is being actively updated. Just because information exists does not mean that it absolutely needs to be on your website. Think about the information that people are looking for, what it is that you need them to know, and if your presentation of material is working. If content is quite dense, only keep the most important points and make them easy to be read by website visitors.

12. Have a Schedule

This can be either a full editorial schedule or a simple outline that tells you when to update your website, it is absolutely worth the effort. Simply saying that you will update the website regularly is not acceptable. Things will happen throughout the year or even month-to-month that need to be reflected on the website. But chances are if it is not planned for, it will not happen. Start by thinking about the year as a whole and identifying the most important times of year when things will happen. It could be the changing of the seasons, national holidays, events happening, and things like that. Mark all of these items on the schedule and plan ahead to update the content around them. When they are outlined in front of you, it will be easy to notice where the gaps are in content updates and will give you the time needed to find new stories or create original pieces.

The publishing schedule should be manageable in a way that is easy to stick with. Sometimes multiple calendars are even better, with one being broader, and another dedicated to just social media, or news stories.


Information Architecture and Navigation

The information architecture of the website is basically the structure of said website. It shows how the website is organized, it shows what pages have subpages under them, etc. We can see the information architecture being used within the website main navigational links. The term navigation will most often refer to the primary links, but it may also referred to various means of moving around on the website, which would include links within text, search, and lists of links. The pages on the website need to be organized in a way that will meet the expectations of your primary audience while also achieving your own goals. The following are an overview of the information architecture principles that are applied when developing the structure of a website.

Have Control Over Your Navigation List

These lists will ideally be 6 to 8 links long, but absolutely no more than 8 to 10. Long list of links are hard to read. Section navigation should not be more than three levels deep. In order to successfully keep the navigation in a shorter list, you should develop a hierarchy of information and put some pages under others as their subpages within the structure. Not every page can or should be reached from the main page. The navigation, content, and other links within a page should be what guides the visitors to information that is deeper within the website.

Use words that are descriptive and identifiable within link titles. Steer clear of acronyms or jargon that is specific to your brand. Aim to generalize the link titles so that it fits into a broader category. Your website visitors should not be guessing as to where a link will lead them.

The information architecture should be organized in a way that will meet expectations. This means that people without prior knowledge of your brand or the structure should be able to easily navigate your website. Visitors that are new to your website will not know the mission of your brand and they will not have much of an idea as to where to find particular content within the website prior to their visit.

Links should be ordered based upon their use. If a page corresponds to a step within a process that should be listed as such. The most sought after information will usually be put first, while pages of related content will be grouped together. Think of your audience when determining your link order. After all that's who it is for. It should reflect the main needs of the users balanced with internal knowledge of what you would like visitors to see first. Only use alphabetical lists when the links all have the same level of importance. In general, contact information will be last.

Similar content should have the same link titles across varying entities. When navigating between different pages of the website, visitors will be able to find the same information a lot easier if it is labeled consistently. You should be using an agreed-upon set of link titles for categories of general rule information, like “about us” and “contact information”.


Your navigation should be telling a story. The top level of a navigation should present the main aspects of the brand. Users will generally click through all of the top level links, one right after another, so these links that should work together to give a sense of the content that can be found within the website.


Navigation should also be present on every single page of the website. This is something that is non-negotiable for a successful website.


You should be linking only two pages within the section. This comes with only a few exceptions, and the primary navigational links should be leading to internal pages only, and not to another website. The links that lead to other websites should be part of a "related links” or “important links” section. In these sections, the rule for external links is not as rigid.


Think before you add a new page to the navigation. When there is new information that must be put on the website, many would just create a new page for it but there should be some guidelines in place for creating a new page.

  • Is it news or an event? If it is, it should not be created as a new page. It should be made in a way so that it can be shown on multiple pages and used in other contexts.
  • Is this information that needs to exist in only one place and will not change frequently? If yes, then this content could be worthy of its own page.
  • Does this information appear elsewhere on the site? And also is someone else in charge of this context? If yes then simply briefly mention the information while linking to the page that already exists. This step will cut down on out of date information that is redundant throughout the site.
  • Will it replace a page of current content for a period of time and then be swapped out as the updated version becomes available?


General Principles for Writing on the Internet

The content on the web page is just as important as how the page looking feels. Individuals absorb information differently on the Internet. It is vital to approach writing for the Internet in a way that is different than you would for print. When writing, rewriting, or editing your content keep these things in mind:


Be concise. Word counts should be kept low, particularly on top level pages that are guiding audiences rather than giving detailed information. The pages that are considered informational it should be no longer than about 400 to 500 words, and those top level and section homepages should be about 100 to 300 words. This would include the static and dynamic content.


Walls of texts are hard to read. Pages within a site that contain extremely technical information may be no longer than 500 words, but even content that contains lists of important information lose their usefulness when they are not broken up using headers or bullets.


An opening paragraph should summarize the content on the page. When browsing the site, any website visitor should be able to find the most important information and determine whether or not they should take the time to read the whole page. An opening paragraph needs to be no more than 30 words. This is how you catch the attention of someone that is browsing the website. On pages that are one click from the homepage, the text needs to be written as if every visitor is a first time visitor. This is because each page is a potential first entry point. It does not mean that every page needs to focus on the first time visitors, but just know that it's a possibility.


Use plain language to quickly communicate your content of the visitors. This is done by using the simplest tense of verbs, using common and concrete words, using an active voice, and using descriptive headings. The benefits of this are that your message gets conveyed in the least amount of time. More people can understand what you are saying, and there is less of a chance that you will be misunderstood.


Be conversational but not superficial. Writing for the Internet is generally more conversational, as it builds relationships, trust, and interest. One of the best ways to check your tone is to read it out loud. Some rules that you may know to be applied to formal writing will not apply to content on the Internet.


Meaningful subheadings will guide the reader through the content. Also, use short paragraphs to break up a page with subheadings so that the reader can determine which parts of the information matches their needs. One rule of thumb for writing content for the Internet is to overuse the whitespace. This is because short paragraphs with frequent subheadings will give users more room to read. In general, there should be a sub heading every 125 or more words. Top level pages will benefit greatly from the use of subheadings and it is a good practice in general for content on all pages of a website. Aim to organize the text so that the hierarchy is no more than two levels deep.


Text should be formatted with the bulleted list, clothes, and paragraph breaks. Basic content pages should not have over two bulleted lists. If you have a page that has many lists, you might want to consider a different way to present this information.


Links within text will guide readers through the site. And text links are vital in limiting the number of duplicate pages while directing visitors to the most important content on the website. On a secondary homepage, these links should be used in conjunction with the primary navigation. But be advised that the overuse of links within a paragraph will diminish their effectiveness as a guide through the content.


Considering Everything

These best practices for IA should be implemented at the conception of a website, and should be used through the lifetime of the site. The energy put into a successful new website will be wasted unless there is a plan in place for regular website updates and reviews.

Garenne Bigby
Author: Garenne BigbyWebsite: http://garennebigby.com
Founder @dynomapper
Garenne Bigby is freelance Chicago developer and founder of DYNO Mapper with over 10 years experience in both agency and freelance roles in design, development, user experience, SEO, and information architecture.

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