Have you ever visited a website and become frustrated because you couldn’t find the information or product you needed? Did you try and use the primary navigation and find that it was not intuitive, or the product you were looking for was not in the category or place you thought it would be? This is where website information architecture can help.
Below are some information architecture basics and best practices that cover topics such as defining information architecture (IA), IA and knowledge management systems, the psychology of IA, and how a website’s structure impacts content strategy, SEO, website design, and conversions.
What is Website Information Architecture?
Website information architecture is a strategy shared by designers, developers, information architects, SEO professionals, and content strategists. It is an information model describing the rules for how information should be organized, interlinked, accessed, and presented. In other words, information architecture is the creation of a structure for a website with the goal of helping a user understand where the information they want is in relation to the current page they’re on and providing them the best path to get to it.
Dan Klyn of The Understanding Group defines IA as the combination of the following 3 things:
- Ontology – discovering, defining, and articulating the rules and patterns that govern the meaning of what we intend to communicate.
- Taxonomy – developing systems and structures for what everything is called, where everything is placed, and the relationship between labels and categories.
- Choreography – anticipating the way users and information want to flow and creating a path for change over time.
According to Peter Morville of Semantic Studios, the purpose of your IA is to help users understand where they are, what they’ve found, what’s around, and what to expect. Information architecture includes the following:
- The structural design of shared information environments
- The combination of organization, labeling, search, and navigation within a website
- The art and science of shaping website experience to support usability and findability
Information Architecture Systems and Principles
To be successful, you need a diverse understanding of industry standards and basics for creating, storing, accessing, managing, and presenting the information. In order to create these systems of information, you need to understand the interdependent nature of users, content, and context. These information and knowledge management systems include the following:
Organization systems – the categories in which we place information
Labeling systems – the ways we represent information, such as the terminology considered appropriate for the target audience.
Navigation systems – the way we move from one piece of information to another
Searching systems – the way we search for information
The Psychology of Information Architecture
Much of the strategy behind IA is rooted in cognitive psychology. Cognitive psychology is the study of how the mind works and its mental processes.
Cognitive psychology is a vast study, but below are 3 key areas that information architects value most:
Cognitive load – the amount of information that a person can process at any given time
One goal of good information architecture is to keep from inadvertently overloading a user with too much information all at once. They will integrate with the wireframe and content strategy teams to help define the content elements that are needed to keep a balance between information presentation and information consumption.
Mental models – the assumptions people carry in their minds before interacting with a website or application
Another goal of good information architecture is to make information easier to discover by putting it in a place that matches the user’s mental model of where it should be. This is usually accomplished by performing card-sorting activities with a sample set of target users of the website.
Decision making – a cognitive process that allows a person to make a choice or select an option
Information architects can help users make decisions by providing certain information at key moments during the user journey around a website. To learn about the audience’s decision-making processes, the information architect will analyze the usability tests, card sorting exercises, stakeholder interviews, and user interviews.
Why Should You Care?
Organizing your website’s content in a way that aligns with how users think it should flow accomplishes a few things:
- Increases leads and conversions
- Provides a great experience that users will want to come back and use
- Utilizes an SEO best practice that increases findability and rankings
- Prevents usability concerns
- Prevents content management issues
- Creates clear paths for visitors and enhances the user experience
- Prevents you from having to redesign a website you just invested in