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?
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
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 the process of developing information architecture for a website.
1. Define company goals
Building the information architecture for a website should always start with defining your company’s global priorities such as:
Business goals: What do you want to achieve with your website? What business goals do you pursue?
User needs/wants: Who is your ideal visitor? Why would they want to visit your website? What value does it bring to your visitors?
To answer those questions, you need to work closely with your stakeholders and define key performance indicators (KPI) that you will use to measure your success. For example, suppose you design an online shop. In that case, one of the key performance indicators will be conversion rate—the number of visitors who purchase something to the total number of visitors.
2. Conduct user research to understand user’s goals
The goal of user research is to understand the user mental model—what content your visitors expect to find on your website, where they hope to find it, and how they wish to interact with it. During this step, it's essential to consider various aspects that can influence users' behavior and actions, including user emotions.
Here are a few things you need to do to get this understanding:
Conduct a series of user interviews. User interviews will give you a better understanding of user needs and wants. You will understand what your target audience finds valuable. Once you know what your users consider valuable, you can design to satisfy those needs.
Create personas. Persona is an archetype of your ideal visitor. Having a persona is beneficial for many reasons, but for the case of creating information architecture, it will be possible to use personas to evaluate your content.
Write scenarios of interactions with your website. Scenarios of interactions will help you understand how users will interact with your content. A technique called storyboarding will help you visualize the scenario of interaction so that anyone can understand it.
3. Conduct competitor analysis
Competitor analysis will help you understand how your competitors organize information on their websites and what your users might expect. “Users spend most of their time on other sites,” says Jakob Nielsen. “This means that users prefer your site to work the same way as all the other sites they already know.”
When you conduct competitor analysis, aim to answer the following questions:
What makes this website good, and what makes it bad? (Identify the strong and weak sides of your competitors?)
How is the information displayed on the page? (What hierarchy of information your competitors use on their pages?)
How is the information distributed between different pages? (What navigation patterns does your competitor use?)
4. Content inventory and analysis
Content is the heart of the website and it should be taken seriously early in the design cycle.
The process of working with content can be divided into two major stages:
Content inventory. As the name implies, content inventory is a process of collecting all information that you show (or plan to show) on your website. If a website already has content, you need to go through all your pages first and collect everything that you have on the site—text content, media files that visitors can download, videos that visitors can view. If you don't have a website, collect all content that you plan to show on your website. It's vital to understand what content you have and who in your organization will be responsible for it (ideally, assign ownership).
Content analysis. The analysis will help you understand the importance of your content for end-users and the business. At the end of this process it will be much easier to decide what to keep and what to get rid of. Try to evaluate every content item based on its usefulness for the user and accuracy.
5. Create an organizational system
The next step after you conduct content analysis is to group that content into meaningful sections. At this stage you need to label all your content and define key sections on your website.
Here are four systems that you need to create on this step:
Adding labels for individual content blocks makes it easier for team members to use them to create individual sections or pages. A technique called card sorting, a technique in user experience design that lets subject experts or users organize topics into categories that make sense to them, will help you group and label content according to user expectations.
A hierarchical system will help you to organize content according to its level of importance on individual pages. For example, when we design a landing page, we typically put the most critical content on the top of the page so that visitors can find it without scrolling through a page.
A navigation system is a system that helps users move through the content. Clarity and simplicity are the most critical properties of navigation. People will use different entry points to your website (they might land on the home page or a nested page). But no matter where the user lands on your website, it should be easy for people to navigate from that page to where they want to go. At this step, you need to create a sitemap, a diagram that presents a website's navigation structure.
It's vital to consider information-seeking behavior. The user might know exactly what they're looking for (i.e., a user knows that they want to purchase a pair of New Balance 574 shoes) or explore all options (i.e., a user is browsing to find relevant clothing).
If your website offers a lot of content, it might be good to offer several different ways to browse the site’s content. For example, large retail websites like Amazon, eBay, and BestBuy offer search bars to help users find a particular product. Search functionality acts as a shortcut for users who know exactly what they are looking for.
6. Prototype a solution
Prototyping a solution based on the knowledge you've collected in previous steps. Depending on the stage in your design process, you can create low fidelity prototypes (a lo-fi prototype containing only bare essential elements of design) or high fidelity prototypes (a hi-fi prototype looks and works almost like a finished design).
The lo-fi prototype is valuable at the early stages of product development because it helps validate the overall product design direction (whether your design works for your user or not).
A hi-fi prototype is more suitable for later stages when you want to collect more specific feedback on your design (such as how the color scheme that you use on your website makes your visitors feel). Since the goal of information architecture design is to find a proper structure for the content, in most cases, it will be enough to create a low-fi prototype.