Picture this: you come to a website with a clear knowledge of what you want to buy today. So you start searching for it. You’ve successfully found the menu and are now looking for the right category. Seems pretty easy, doesn’t it? Well, not always.
It turns out there’s no such product under the category you clicked, so you try another one. Still nothing. You keep going from page to page, scrolling through thousands of items desperately trying to find what you’re looking for.
I bet this sounds familiar. However, most modern users are not so patient. Yes, they would probably come across the right piece of information if they stayed long enough to search for it. But they didn’t. Nobody has all the time in the world to go through unrelated labels and confusing category names. That’s why you need to make sure your information architecture is seamless and intuitive for the user. And we are here to help you do that and guide you through the process of creating a user-friendly website.
What is Information Architecture?
According to Usability.gov: “Information architecture (IA) focuses on organizing, structuring, and labeling content in an effective and sustainable way. The goal is to help users find information and complete tasks.” In simple words, Information Architecture is about making the complex clear.
The reason it is so important for your UX is because IA is the foundation of your website’s navigation. Whether it’s good or not will directly affect the user’s impression of your web and company overall. None of this sounds too complex and in fact, creating intuitive navigation is a lot easier than you think when you have the right approach. But if it’s so simple, then why do so many companies fail to provide this seamless user experience?
They don’t see the website from the user’s point of view. The information structure they create meets their expectations, but not their customers. And that is one of the main problems we face in the online world nowadays.
Components of the IA
The first thing you have to understand while working on your IA is that users perceive information differently. Therefore, it may be hard for them to understand your navigation if it’s not based on their expectations. In order to make your information architecture user-friendly you have to either think like the user or be able to ask them directly. The good news is that you can do that! And we’ll explain how a little bit later.
For now, let’s see what information architecture consists of. In their world-famous book called “Information Architecture for the World Wide Web”, Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville mention 4 main components of IA:
1.Organization systems – How we categorize information
These include the main groups in which the content on your website is divided. These categories help users predict where they’ll find certain information, which eases the searching process.
Three main types of organizational structures are:
- Hierarchical – the most common structure, when the website has the main page and the series of subpages
- Sequential – popular for e-commerce, creates a step-by-step path for users on their way to accomplishing the tasks
- Matrix – the content is linked in several ways which allow users to choose and determine their own path
In addition to that, your content can be also grouped according to specific schemes:
- Chronological scheme – content is sorted by date
- Topic scheme – content is sorted by topic
- Alphabetical scheme – content is organized in alphabetical order
- Audience scheme – content is organized for specific audience groups2
2.Labeling systems – How we represent information
These are all the categories’ and subcategories’ names. The way you label your content groups is crucial for the IA. This process requires simplicity and the ability to describe tons of data in a few words.
3.Navigation systems – How we move through information
Describes a set of users’ actions and all the steps they take while going through your web. Basically, all the interactions on their way to the desired product or piece of information.
4.Searching systems – How we search information
A very important system, especially for websites with lots of different content items, such as e-commerce. Searching systems assure user doesn’t get lost on the page and usually includes relevant filters that help them sort the information.
Principles of good Information Architecture
Now, that you’re familiar with the basic components of information architecture it’s time to start organizing your content in an effective way. Funny enough, there is no magic formula or step-by-step guide on how to fine-tune your navigation to the point of perfection. However, there is one thing we can all agree with: Good navigation is invisible.
The website designed in a user-friendly way will never make you wonder where to click or how to find something. It all comes naturally, allowing users to focus on their tasks, not finding their way around. And while there are no universal rules for creating a perfect IA, there are 8 principles, defined by Dan Brown that you can follow to make your navigation seamless:
1.The principle of objects
Treat your content as a living thing with its own lifecycle, featuring behaviors and attributes.
2.The principle of choices
Create pages that offer meaningful choices to users. Make them relevant and focused on the particular task, but remember: too many choices can be worse than too few.
3.The principle of disclosure
Only show users what they need to decide if they need to go further. It should be enough information for them to want to dig deeper, but not too much to overwhelm them.
4.The principle of exemplars
When the content of the category is not self-explanatory show useful examples of what people will be accessing.
5.The principle of front doors
Not all your website’s visitors arrive at the homepage. So give those who don’t a chance to access useful information and navigation from wherever they come on board.
6.The principle of multiple classifications
Offer different ways for users to browse the content on your site.
7.The principle of focused navigation
Keep your navigation consistent. Make sure you don’t mix categories and confuse the user. The items in one category should relate to each other.
8.The principle of growth
Your website should be scalable. Assume it will grow and develop in the future so definitely save some room for that.
In addition to these principles, make sure to check out some tips for your navigation that we’ve gathered in our latest article about improving your e-commerce UX.
Tools for improving your Information Architecture
What are the main tools that can help you to improve your Information Architecture?
This tool is a best friend of anyone who wants to improve their information architecture. It’s also something you should always be starting with. A wireframe is your web page’s layout which will help you determine and visualize all the UI and navigation elements and how they are going to work together. Creating a wireframe allows you to completely focus on user experience and gives you enough time to predict all the possible IA fails.
Remember we were talking about how you should ask your users directly what and where they expect to find in order to create a good information architecture? Well, let’s dive a little deeper into that. Testing your real users is the most effective way you can get insights into your content hierarchy.
Card sorting is a research method that allows you to figure out how people categorize information found on your website. In simple words – it lets you find out how to group and label your content, so it makes sense to your users plus gives you insights on “which content probably should go together”. The reason why UX researchers love card sorting so much is that it’s super fast and easy. At the same time, it’s crazy how many insights you can get from just asking people to put cards into specific categories.
The process is simple.
You create cards and then let testers sort them into groups. Each card represents a content item from your website, that you want to categorize. There are 3 types of card sorting: Open, Closed, and Hybrid. You can either ask people to sort cards into already defined categories or allow them to create their own. More on which type to choose in this article. You then share a link to your study with your real customers or get testers from the respondent pool and let them drag and drop the cards into categories that they think suit best.
Tree testing is also known as “reverse card sorting”. This is a method that tells you how easily users can find information on your website. If they get lost, it tells you exactly where that is. It is a popular technique for testing the effectiveness and intuitiveness of information architecture. Tree Testing will show how the visitors of your web understand labels and categories as they are intended.
Instead of receiving a set of cards and having to place them into categories like in card sorting, the information architecture is already known and what respondents have to do is find the card relevant to the task by finding it in the tree. A tree is a text-only version of your website structure. You’ll just need to create several tasks for testers to complete. They then go through these drop-down menus that represent your website’s structure, click on them and try to find what you’ve asked.
Don’t let them get lost!
Being the foundation of any website, navigation directly affects the way users percept your business. With all the information mentioned above, you are ready to dive into the world of information architecture and make all the useful improvements. Register for a free account, access a variety of our useful tools and watch your website thrive online like never before.