Information architecture (IA) aims to connect users with the content that they are looking for, in a seamless and intuitive manner. The Information Architecture Institute sums up IA as the “practice of deciding how to arrange the parts of something to be understandable”. To create effective IA, practitioners must understand their target audience, the content, and the platform.
Think of information architecture as the blueprint for the building: the user interface is created and designed based on the logic and structure dictated by the IA. While placing a prominent search box on your website might increase usability, an Information Architect would ask why your users are struggling to navigate your website in the first place.
What Does Information Architecture Focus On?
There are multiple components that information architects address in order to solve common website problems. The basic aspects of IA are the physical page structure, navigation, metadata, taxonomy, and search.
The page structure of the site designs the hierarchy and flow of information on the website to ensure that the user is seeing what they expect to see. On top of this is how the user navigates through the site. Learnable navigation on a website is important for a positive user experience.
Metadata decide which fields or data we want to know about the content. Some of these metadata fields are controlled lists of terms, or taxonomies. These taxonomies can be used to label, group, and display content, as well as filter search results. How we categorize and decide to structure this data can significantly influence users experience. Taxonomy mistakes, or even the lack of taxonomy, are often the root of ineffective and difficult-to-navigate websites.
IA also looks at how search works. When someone types in a term, what appears in the results? How can the results be filtered or refined? What does the user expect to do with the search tool on the site? Often, search is an overlooked aspect of a site; IA puts it back on the map.
Who Needs Information Architecture?
In short, everyone. Even if we’re not aware of it, there’s an element of IA in any experience that we’re planning, whether it’s the layout of physical or digital space. When designing a digital space, such as a website, DAM, CMS, or any other information management software, establishing a good information structure is key to the success of the information product or service. If you currently have a platform that is suffering from common usability problems, consulting with an experienced Information Architect could save you a lot of money and headaches in the long run.
Once you understand what information architecture (IA) is, you may wonder why exactly it is that you need it, in order to have a successful site. Maybe your site has some usability problems or suffers from common taxonomy mistakes, but isn’t that something that anyone can just go in and adjust with a few tweaks of the design?
But you’re most likely only resolving a surface level issue with a band-aid fix, as opposed to addressing the real problems that you’re suffering from.
Information architecture has the ability to completely change your users’ digital experience and interactions with your organization. A digital property, such as a website, should be meeting a few needs:
- Provide users with access to information and resources
- Provide an easily-learned information structure
- Serve your business needs
However, many organizations suffer from website design problems as a result of trying to address both of these needs without the proper underlying framework and structure.
How Is It Helpful?
Information architecture allows you to create a customized information structure for your business. No two businesses are exactly alike and although you can look at competitors, it doesn’t always make sense to use their structure, navigation, metadata, and taxonomies. A lot of common website taxonomy problems exist simply because the organization didn’t research their own users and consult their own stakeholders.
Information architecture may seem overwhelming. It may seem not significant enough to reassess. But a lot of common usability problems are associated with a poor IA. Improving this essential aspect of your information structure is helpful for both your users, your business, and for ensuring that your information structures support your key business goals.