Everything you need to know about information architecture

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Learn this essential part of web design with key definitions, tips on how to structure content, and a step-by-step process guide.

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Content plays a tremendous role in a website’s success. After all, it's the primary reason why people visit your site. But it’s not only the quality of the content that impacts a site's performance; the way information is organized on the page is equally as important.

Modern websites contain a lot of information, so if your content is unorganized, navigation becomes difficult—and quickly leads to abandoned sites. On the other hand, when information is organized according to the user's expectations, it becomes easier for users to navigate and find what they're looking for. The discipline responsible for a content organization is called information architecture.

Creating clear information architecture is integral to strong web design. So we're breaking it all down, including what information architecture is, why it's essential, and a complete process you can follow to build the information architecture of your next website.

Everything you need to know about information architecture

What is information architecture?

Why is information architecture important?

Foundational principles of information architecture

What's the process for defining and applying information architecture to a web design?

What tools do information architects use?

What is information architecture?

Information architecture is both art and science of organizing complex information clearly and logically so that users would easily find everything they need without much effort. Information architects rely on principles of information hierarchy:

  • Global navigation system. Sitemap, a hierarchical diagram of a website that shows how pages are linked and labeled. A well-designed global navigation system lets users navigate between screens/pages without much effort.

  • Page hierarchy. Arrangement of content and functional elements on individual pages/screens. Gestalt principles of design (principles that define how the human eye perceives objects) play an important role in organization content/functionality on individual pages.

Information architecture is the backbone of any design project—both functionality and visual design are created based on the information architecture.

Why is information architecture important?

Information architecture benefits both users and the business bottom line. Good information architecture positively impacts the user experience—the faster the users find what they're looking for, the greater their satisfaction, and the greater the satisfaction of using a product, the more chances they will convert (i.e., make a purchase).

Good information architecture design can also reduce marketing costs. It's a known fact that in business, you need to attract visitors to the website and ensure that they stick with it and become regular visitors. When visitors cannot find what they're looking for, they leave, and it becomes tough to attract them again. On the other hand, when a website offers good UX, people are more likely to visit your website again in the future (better user retention).

IA has a positive impact on search engine optimization. Search engines give higher ranking places to websites with good usability, and information architecture is a cornerstone of usability.

Foundational principles of information architecture

A title card with a web page illustration that reads "foundational principles of information architcture" and three bullets: reduce unneccesary informtaion, minimize extra actions, prioritize information.
Some of the key principles of information architecture, from architect Dan Brown.

Dan Brown, a seasoned information architect, coined Eight Principles of Information Architecture. The list of principles mentioned below combines Dan Brown's collection of principles primarily focused on creating a solid structure with the well-known principles of interaction design. Here are a few essential information architecture principles that you need to remember:

  • Reduce all unnecessary information. Less is more is one of the essential principles of design that can be applied to anything, including content. Get rid of anything that does not support user and business goals.

  • Follow the rule "Right place, right time." You need to deliver the right content at the right time.

  • Minimize extra actions. If finding information is too slow, the visitors will abandon the process and find a better alternative. Keep in mind the three-click rule that states that a website visitor should be able to find any information with no more than three mouse clicks.

  • Remember that content has a life cycle. Content shouldn't be treated as a static instance, it should be treated as a living organism. It means that the product team should evaluate and update content regularly.

  • Prioritize information. You need to show the most crucial content upfront and reveal all secondary content on demand. A technique called progressive disclosure can help you with that. Progressive disclosure initially show users only the most important content and key features, and offers more content or a larger set of features upon request. If you visit any news website, you can notice that they provide a preview of the latest news on the home page, and the visitor can dive into the news they like to read a full version.

  • Scalable information architecture. You need to consider how well your information architecture will work if you have twice as much information as you have now. When you consider how well the system will scale, you minimize the chance that you use too complicated structure.

What's the process for defining and applying information architecture to a web design?

Information architecture design is a long and complex process—you need to consider a lot of different factors to organize content logically. Plus, information architecture design requires collaborative work with almost all product team members—product designers, content writers, user researchers, developers, sales and marketing specialists.

To make things easier for you, we've created a walk-through of t