What is Information Architecture
Information Architecture (IA) is the structure of shared information. It is how the content on a website is organized, structured and labeled.
The goal of IA is to help users find information quickly to help them complete tasks.
According to Peter Morville, the purpose of your IA is to help users understand where they are, what theyâ€™ve found, whatâ€™s around, and what to expect. As a result, your IA informs the content strategy through identifying word choice as well as informing user interface design and interaction design through playing a role in the wireframing and prototyping processes.
Main Components of IA
- Organization Schemes and Structures: How you categorize and structure information
- Labeling Systems: How you 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, you need to understand the interdependent nature of users, content, and context. Rosenfeld and Morville referred to this as the â€œinformation ecologyâ€.
- 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
Website Information Architecture
The first thing to consider is the purpose and mission of a project.
Closely related to that is to get a handle on your clientâ€™s goals.
Finally, you need to have a good sense of the end users of the project. Technically savvy users who already have some working knowledge of the information contained on a web site have entirely different needs than beginners to a given topic who may not have a high level of technical understanding. If you donâ€™t know what kind of user is going to be using the content, you canâ€™t properly structure that content to meet their needs.
How Users Find Information
There are four main ways that users seek information on a website.
In this seeking pattern, the user knows exactly what theyâ€™re looking for, they know how to describe it, and they might even know where to start looking. These are an IA professionalâ€™s dream.
The exploratory visitor has an idea of what they might need to know, but they might not have much idea of how to actually find it or where to start. They may dive into your siteâ€™s menus to see if anything looks like it might be relevant (this is where well-thought-out labels are key), or they might attempt a search.
Search that auto-suggests terms is a huge advantage for these visitors. They may know a keyword or two, and a search that will suggest related terms to help narrow their results is likely to be a huge help to them and give them a better user experience.
The unknown user doesnâ€™t really know what they need. They might have a vague idea, or they might think they know, but they donâ€™t know enough to effectively find it without some assistance. This is common in more complex industries like legal or financial.
It can also be present in many educational settings, where users might be looking for a solution without really understanding their problem.
This can also be apparent when someone is referred by another user, or when a visitor is simply looking to keep up to date with a topic or industry.
In any case, you need to find a way to guide your visitors through your content, to help them figure out both what they need and how to find it. How you do that can vary depending on the specific likelihood of each scenario.
For example, how you guide a visitor through a news site is entirely different than how you would guide them through content on a site offering financial advice. The main similarity, though, is that the user needs more guidance.
These people are looking for things theyâ€™ve already seen, and they may or may not know exactly how to find those things again. There are two different ways you can deal with this type of visitor.
The first way is to passively save content for users (such as a â€œrecently viewedâ€ section on an ecommerce site). This type of system requires no action on the part of the user, but can also be limited in how effective it is. For example, you might opt to save the last five pages a user visits, but what if the thing they want to get back to was ten pages ago? Or fifty? Theyâ€™ll have to re-find it on their own.
The other is to provide active tools for visitors to use to save content so they can easily re-find it later. This could be things like a â€œsave for laterâ€ function, a wishlist, a favorites, or something similar. These active solutions can make it easier to for users to re-find content thatâ€™s important to them much better than an automated, passive solution can.
Content Organization Models
There are six basic models for organizing and structuring content on a website or similar project. These models can sometimes be combined, or used on their own.
A single page site puts all of the content and information on just one page. This works best on a site with limited content and a very focused purpose. Single page sites are generally broken down into different sections, often with navigation to permalinks for each topic.
Single pages are common for things like personal websites, sites for individual products (either digital or physical), and similar sites. You may also see them as stand-along sub-sites on a larger site.
Flat structures are most often seen on small sites with less than a dozen pages. On a flat site, all of the pages are interchangeably accessible, ie, thereâ€™s only one level of navigation. This kind of site is most common on things like portfolios and agency sites, simple business sites, and e-commerce sites with only a handful of products.
Flat sites become significantly less usable as they grow in size. If youâ€™re considering using a flat site, be sure that the content will not eventually grow to the point that this kind of structure would become unwieldy.
Index sites are similar to flat sites, though they often have a list of all of the pages on the site in a central location. This makes sites with larger numbers of pages still usable with a close-to-flat content structure, which keeps them simple.
Again, these kinds of structures are best for sites with a specific purpose, like an e-commerce site, a business site, a portfolio, or a site educating on a very specific topic.
A daisy structure is most commonly seen in things like web apps, though it is also seen on educational sites sometimes. The daisy structure means that users return to a central point (like a home page or landing page) after completing specific tasks on a site.
With a strict hierarchy, pages are only accessible from their parent page. This can be a great structure for sites that wish to guide users through information in a very specific manner, without allowing them to skip ahead. This type works well on educational sites.
Related to the strict hierarchy, which provides users with more than one way to access particular content. This is one of the most common organizational patterns, partly because of its ease of implementation.
Multidimensional hierarchies can also be the trickiest to pull off. Because while you want to allow users multiple ways to access content, you still want to guide them along logical paths whenever it makes sense to do so.
Multidimensional hierarchies at their simplest include pages that are accessible from their parent pages, along with from a central navigation menu (often including sub-menus).
At its most complex, you have sites like Wikipedia, where pages are linked to one another in contextual ways, as one page is mentioned on another. This weaves an intricate web of interrelated content that seemingly goes on forever.
These types can be combined to create a hybrid.
Dan Brown's Eight Principles of Information Architecture
Information Architecture Tools