Getting to the Core of Good Information Architecture

Posted 1/30/2017 11:00 AM by Brittany VanMaele

I’m gonna put it out there: the #1 most frustrating aspect of any digital system is bad placement of content. 

It could be when we pull up our corporate Intranets to find a HR document; when we go online to check our banking records; or it might just be using a simple word processor.  (Although times have thankfully improved since the era of Microsoft Word’s paper clip.)

Intuitive placement of information drives user adoption. And you shouldn’t need a pestering paperclip to get that buy-in.

That’s where User Experience Design and Information Architecture, or IA, comes in.

As Steven Widen, partner and president at E-Cubed Media Synthesis Inc., puts it, “Most people can't truly multitask. For that reason, good user experience (UX) design is one that gives just enough information to proceed to the next stage. Supply users with too much information and they will probably crash.” 

User Experience & Information Architecture

There’s no point of creating a website or digital product if you haven’t considered the paths users will take and optimized their experience.

It could be the most beautiful product created using the latest technology, but without effective IA, it won’t be impactful.

So what exactly is IA, what does good IA entail, and what are the overall benefits of implementing sound Information Architecture? Let’s dive in.

What is Information Architecture?

In a digital context, Information Architecture refers to the way information is organized on a website, mobile application, software, or another product.

Elements of IA include

  • Organization schemes or structures
  • Labeling systems and tags
  • Navigation systems
  • Search systems

Per the IA Institute, “A good IA helps people to understand their surroundings and find what they’re looking for…Practicing information architecture involves facilitating the people and organizations we work with to consider their structures and language thoughtfully.”

IA encompasses all systems and structures that dictate how and where users interact with your content. When you deal with the way information is being grouped, navigation methods, or the terminology within the system, you are molding the IA.

What is Information Architecture?

Benefits of Strong Information Architecture

Organizing your content in an easily navigable way provides an obvious benefit to users and by extension, your business.

When a user can find the information they seek and use your product successfully, their satisfaction translates to better traffic and conversions. When nurtured properly, satisfied users turn into product evangelists.

But there are more benefits that result from a strong IA – some related to strategy and others that improve operations.

Better Project Scope & Management

When IA is designed properly, it will provide clarity for the project overall.

Designers and developers will better understand project scope, enabling them to provide more accurate estimates to product owners, project managers, clients, or stakeholders.

IA also provides parameters for what requests are in scope and what can be pushed to Phase 2, 3, or beyond.

In some cases, your documented IA can double as a project management framework, helping your team track progress without requiring a cumbersome migration to a digital project management system.

Get Stakeholder Input & Correct Content Gaps

Since IA is all about organizing content in a logical, user-first way, the process requires you to consider what content fits where and what content might be lacking.

Who better to identify these content gaps then internal stakeholders who are very familiar with the organization’s products, services, and resources?

Constructing an IA – especially for an existing site with lots of content – will separate the necessary content from the superfluous.

Know Your Product Inside & Out

Being involved in the IA process can also help stakeholders, in-house marketers, and content owners understand website functionality and grasp the basics of IA.

This understanding is essential because Content Management Systems (like Sitecore!) come fully-loaded with marketing automation features, and IA principles should be carried throughout marketing initiatives like landing pages and blogs.

Your initial website IA is a foundation that should be built upon as your business (and your website) grows.

Knowing the underlying logic behind that structure – and training others to get it – is key to follow-through! (Your future self will really appreciate it).

Benefits of Information Architecture GIF

Houston, We Have a Problem: Enterprise IA

Large companies often struggle with guiding content authors and users through the functionality and troves of information on their websites.

When users have trouble finding the information they want, it’s hard to find value in the system they are using.

Imagine every employee in your company spending an extra five to ten minutes per day struggling to find information on your intranet. That cost can add up quickly. 

What if users grow frustrated when your site isn’t providing answers, or they can’t figure out how to contact you?

There’s no consensus on whether declining bounce rates directly affect SEO, but if users regularly abandon your site, over time search engines will recommend other resources in the search results.

The Context, The Content, and The Users

These problems can be solved with a strong IA that will make your organization more efficient and profitable.

So how do you go about that?

An effective IA comes from understanding the context (in this case, business objectives and constraints), the content, and the requirements of the people that will use the site. 

Basics of Information Architecture GIF

Context

For IA to work you need to understand not just the business objectives for the project at hand.

Other necessary details about the organization include:

  • Technology: what systems, platforms, and technologies do they currently use? What do they have access to?
  • Resources: what resources do they have on staff to maintain the website? What are their existing marketing resources – collateral, content marketing, websites, etc.?
  • Culture: what mission, vision, and values are they striving to uphold? What drives the company’s growth and guides internal and public-facing interactions?
  • Politics: what networks exist within the organization? What is the chain of command?
  • Constraints: what is hindering the organization from meeting current objectives? What makes the current IA ineffective?

To get these insights, check out:

  • Existing IA: review the existing structure to note current strategy and issues.
  • Existing product documentation: review user guides and internal documentation to make sense of the existing IA and determine the organization’s objectives and intentions.
  • Mission statements: read the mission, vision, and value statements and other external or internal documents that shed light on its organizing principles.
  • Organization charts: review how the organization is structured (at least on paper).
  • Stakeholder interviews: talk about your observations and questions with key staff members. Existing IA or documentation may not accurately reflect their intentions!

Content

Prepare to get up close and personal with your content. You need a deep understanding of what you’re organizing to present it most effectively.

Familiarize yourself with your content’s:

  • Quantity: how many content items are must-haves for the new IA? Can any be consolidated or eliminated?
  • Quality: does existing content fit brand standards and meet user needs? What content could be improved?
  • Governance: who produces, reviews, and approves content? Who is responsible for inputting, formatting, and publishing content?
  • Format: what content types are you working with? How will the new IA support these content formats and functionality?
  • Existing structure: how is content currently tagged? What tags should be retained or discarded?
  • Goals & strategy: what is the overarching strategy, and how does each piece of content achieve it?
  • Calls-to-action (CTA): what are the CTAs for each content piece? Do they match the strategy? How will the new IA display CTAs?
  • Internal links: how are content items currently linked? How will the new IA retain the linking strategy?

Conducting a content audit makes evaluating your inventory (and determining next steps) a breeze.

Users

Your IA should reflect how people think.

Makes sense, but sounds a lot easier than it is.

Different minds work in different ways, and your organization might be targeting a range of personas, further complicating the matter.

Still, you can mine data and test users to find out what your users are looking for in your IA. Look into:

  • Demographics (Google Analytics): are the users you expected consuming your content? If not, how can you change the IA to better fit their needs?  
  • User flow (Google Analytics): how are current users moving through your site? Does it match expectations? How can the IA be adapted to their actual progression?
  • User engagement data (Google Analytics): data like average time spent on the page, bounce rate, and conversion rate all indicate if your content is meeting a user’s needs.

Once you’ve gained insight into what the users want and need and you’re constructing your IA, make sure you can explain how your decisions help the customer.

Information Architecture Questions GIF

Start with the Correct Set of Assets

After evaluating your context, content, and users, it’s time to start drafting your IA assets. These include:

  • Your sitemap: the structure that your site will follow – essentially the roadmap of your site.
  • Page templates: a template shows component arrangement. The number of necessary templates will vary based on your content types and ways your users consume information. Implementing templates ensures future scalability.
  • Content matrix: designates what content goes on each page and in each component.

Once these assets are completed then the wireframes can be completed. After that, you should get the full feel of the site and how well the IA was developed.

Moving Past the Paperclip

The main goal in creating an IA is to give the user a seamless experience that makes the site feel intuitive and cohesive.

(Also, to avoid the need for pesky pop-up tutorials.)

Microsoft Word Paperclip as Information Architecture

If you achieve those goals, everything else should fall into place. Give the users what they want and they’ll return the favor.

What are your biggest IA challenges? If you need some assistance, our UX designer is up to the task! Get in touch today.