Information architecture (IA) is, like a blueprint, a visual representation of the product’s infrastructure, features, and hierarchy. IA provides designers (as well as product development and engineering teams) a bird’s-eye view of the entire product.
Information architecture focuses on organizing, structuring, and labeling content in an effective and sustainable way. The goal is to help users find information and complete tasks. To do this, we need to understand how the pieces fit together to create a larger picture, how items relate to each other within the system.
There are 4 main components of IA:
- Organization Schemes and Structures: How to categorize and structure information
- Labeling Systems: How to represent information
- Navigation Systems: How users browse or move through information
- Search Systems: How users look for information
In order to create these systems of information, we need to understand the interdependent nature of users, content, and context.
- Context: business goals, funding, politics, culture, technology, resources, constraints
- Content: content objectives, document and data types, volume, existing structure, governance and ownership
- Users: audience, tasks, needs, information-seeking behavior, experience
There are two general types of organization schemes: exact and ambiguous.
- Exact Organization Schemes. Exact organization divides information into well-defined and mutually exclusive sections. It is best for known-item searching when users know what they are looking for. Types of exact organization schemes are alphabetical, chronological, geographical.
- Ambiguous Organization Schemes. Ambiguous organization divides information into categories that defy exact definition. It is best for browsing and associative learning when users have a vague information need. Types of ambiguous organization schemes are topic or subject, task, audience, metaphor & hybrids.
The structure of information defines the ways in which users can navigate. In UX design, these structures are hierarchy, sequential and matrix.
a. Hierarchy Structure
In Hierarchical Structures, there is a top-down approach or parent/child relationships between pieces of information. Users start with broader categories of information (parent) and then drill further down into the structure to find narrower, more detailed information (child).
b. Sequential Structure
Websites with Sequential Structures require users to go step-by-step, following a specific path through content.
An example of this type of structure is when a user is attempting to purchase something or are taking a course online. Sequential structures assume that there is some optimal ordering of content that is associated with greater effectiveness or success.
c. Matrix Structure
This type is a bit more complicated for the users since they choose the way of navigation on their own. Users are given choices of content organization. A typical example of implementation of this structure is an online store product catalog, in which the sorting of a single list of products must be provided according to different parameters, for example by color or size. It is important to remember that it is hard to process and visualize information in four or more dimensions. This means that a matrix structure with more than three dimensions can create additional navigation problems.
Some questions users may ask:
- Where am I?
- How do I find out about...?
- What's going on at...?
- What's available on this site?
- How can I communicate with XYZ?
- How do I get back to the main page?
- How do I search for...?
Besides the overall organization of the website, labeling is another key concern for the information architect. Through labeling, we are able to represent the larger pieces of information present on our website. The goal of labeling is to communicate information efficiently.
Strong labels and titles help a visitor determine whether a page, link, or content under a heading will have the desired information. Users typically scan titles, headings, and links first, and long bodies of text-only after they have decided that doing so is likely to be worth their time. To maximize usability, use labels that provide users a good “information scent”.
The best labels are familiar to users already, using the language they already use in their daily lives. The best labels are user-oriented, not product-owner- or producer-oriented. Avoid the temptation to make up or use unfamiliar words in an attempt to build interest, as these often come at an expense to navigation.
- Focus on the audience/customer segment: keep the site’s content, users and context simple and focused. Having a smaller domain helps achieve labeling that is more obvious and effective in representation. We may need to divide a larger site domain up into smaller ones to help keep each section focused.
- Keep labels consistent: This helps to keep it easy to learn and predictable. Consistency includes label aspects of style, presentation, syntax, audience, granularity and comprehensiveness.
- Use existing labels: Existing labels can come from our own site or perhaps that of the competitors. We can use the labels found on our own site as a starting point to develop a whole system from scratch. List them in tables to help sort what labels work and which are out of place.
- Compare labels with several competitor sites: It can not only help to create a list of potential labels but to also help to find patterns that have become standards in that area.
- Control vocabularies and thesauri: Try to seek out focused vocabularies that help specific audiences
- Research & analyze: To develop labels from scratch try using content analysis, ask the users directly, analyze search logs or tag analysis.
- Sort the list of terms alphabetically and remove duplicates
- Review for consistency of usage, punctuation, letter case, etc.
- Look for obvious gaps in the system - in the future considered?
- Continually improve and work on your labeling system as users and content continue to change
It's essential that the user is oriented within the page and website. They should always know where they are located in the cyber world. The information hierarchy should be clear and consistent to help them build a mental model of the organization scheme. In other words, the user should know the layout of the house so they can easily move between rooms.
- Control: Give users control over their navigation. Provide tools so visitors can decide where they'd like to go.
- Consistent: Keep the navigation consistent throughout the website so people will know where to look.
- Status: Be sure to let make users aware of their current status. A good navigation system gives the visitor a clue as to what page they are currently on. On option is to simply unlink the text link so it isn't underlined or in the link color. You can also fade an icon or unlink it as well.
- Suggestions: Provide help and suggestions so users know their options and what they might do next.
- Match Theme: After planning out your site, use your overall impression to decide if your site navigation should be casual and friendly, technical and serious, businesslike or goofy. Find a visual theme that represents the overall content and carry that throughout the site.
- Logic: Using simple text and graphical icons that represent different sections or simple buttons with word labels is easy and obvious for the end-user.
- Compact: Keep the primary navigation system in a compact package, at the top of the page, the bottom, or off to the side. If the page is long, put the navigation system at the top and bottom. Use both graphical buttons and text links for those who don't or can't display graphics. It's always a good idea to have more than one way to navigate.
- Access: Every section of the website should be available within 3 clicks.
- Home page serves as a portal to the rest of the site
- Visual consistency
- Visitors should know where they are and how they got there
- No vague links
- Visitors should have somewhere to go next
- No wasted space
- Navigational system is evident
- Navigation types are consistent
- No over-reliance on the browser's controls
- No over-reliance on site maps
- Visitors should know exactly what is available on the site
- Quick access to all parts of the site ( no more than 2-3 clicks)
- Easy to request additional information
- Attractive navigation system but fast loading
- Reinforcement of the branding of the company or product
- Built-in features are used wisely (e.g., link color)
- Contextual clues are provided (e.g., banners)
- Visitors can move vertically and horizontally
Search system is used in information architecture to help users search for the data within the digital product like a website or an app. The searching system is effective only for the products with loads of information when the users risk getting lost there. In this case, we should consider a search engine, filters, and many other tools helping users find content and plan how the data will look after the search.