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What is information architecture and why is it so important?

Published on 11 Aug, 2022 by Laurens Somers

How many times have you searched a website for a specific topic, but you didn’t find it? When every menu item seems to be relevant in your search, but when you click on one, you are disappointed to see you didn’t get the right info? That - although the website looks beautifully designed - you still feel lost and you even close the website out of frustration and go back to Google? Well, you are certainly not alone, and fortunately there is one concept that can put you out of your misery: the art of designing a good informative information architecture.

Before you can use something, you have to find it first

Information Architecture (IA) is the organisation of information with the aim of improving its findability, relevance and comprehensibility. From a user experience (UX) perspective, this means drawing up clear themes with relevant subdivisions and understandable labels so that users can quickly find the right information with a minimum number of clicks.

In short: the right information, in the right place and in the right words.

Whether it’s a website, a mobile app, a dictionary or even a physical place, the users of any service need to be able to quickly find the right information in a way that feels logical and clear to them. Because as Peter Morville - the ‘founding father’ of information architecture - so clearly emphasises: “Findability precedes usability. In the alphabet and on the Web. You can't use what you can't find.”

A good information architecture is the basis of a good user experience and emphasises the synergy between users, content & context.

Three circles representing context, content and users. In the centre, the circles overlap which stands for information architecture.

Good UX starts with a good IA

But why put effort in structuring information?

As a customer/user (and we’re all customers/users somewhere sometime):

  • It helps you find the right information faster (and this makes you happy!).

  • It reduces the cognitive load and ensures you are capable of making the right decisions faster.

  • It helps you focus on the taks you want to complete (and don’t get distracted!).

  • It reduces frustrations and therefore also contact with customer service/support.

  • The chance you will use the product or service again (with pleasure) increases.

As an organisation:

  • It reduces the chances of users going to a competitor (or back to Google) because they haven’t found the right info.

  • It increases the chances of conversion (when they quickly find what they were looking for!).

  • The user gets a more complete picture of what the organisation has to offer, which increases the chance they will also use other services.

  • Customers will return more frequently (because they’re happy!).

  • It reduces duplicate content (and therefore also the extra of work to keep it up-to-date).

  • It reduces costly support/contact with frustrated customers.

In the current content era, the importance of a good IA is emphasised even more. One simple search in Google results in hundreds of sources, each claiming to answer the searcher's question. Now more than ever it is essential not to overwhelm or frustrate your users with unclear labels or ambiguous menu items. A good IA ensures that users immediately know that they have come to the right place.

“Findability precedes usability. In the alphabet and on the Web. You can't use what you can't find.”
Peter Morville; pioneer in the field of information architecture and UX

How to design a good IA?

  1. First you need to understand what your users are looking for, why they use your service and what tasks they want to complete. User research (user or guerilla interviews, focus groups, etc.) is therefore essential to map out the needs and wishes of the users. Of course, more data-driven research methods are also important. Think of Keyword Analysis, Google Analytics, Hotjar, Competitor analysis, etc. The goal is to know your users as well as possible.

  2. Create a first logical structure (hierarchy) with minimal levels. Make sure it is based on the user research you conducted. Try to ensure that users can access any information in just two actions (read: clicks).

  3. Stay away from (professional) jargon or ambiguous concepts. Almost always, they end up frustrating & confusing users. Make sure you understand the language your users use and clearly name the tasks/information present.

  4. This is the most important step: test the information structure extensively with real users! And make adjustments where necessary based on the test results. The quality of an IA can be examined both quantitatively and qualitatively.

Co-creation workshop where participants are engaged in an information architecture exercise hanging against the wall.

How do you test your IA?

1. Card sorting
Card sorting is essential when drafting a good information architecture. This is a simple exercise where you divide all the information into relevant parts. Let users organise and structure the information in a way that makes sense to them. From this exercise you will learn which patterns and preferences your users use when they search for information related to your service.

Co-creation workshop where participants sit around a table and engage in a card sorting exercise.

2. Tree testing
Once you have established a structure, it is important to test it against relevant scenarios. The scenarios are structured in such a way that participants have to indicate where in the tree structure (and under which label) they would look for specific information. This technique is called tree testing.

During tree testing we stay away from any visual support. We specifically test the hierarchy, labelling and structure of information (to gauge its findability). If you skip this step, you run the risk of designing a really nice website or service that still frustrates users because they can't find the right information fast enough.

At Knight Moves we use different tools (eg. Optimal Workshop or Maze) to test the quality of your information architecture. Of course always with real end users.

After a first round of card sorting & tree testing, it is important to adjust the IA where necessary, and possibly even organise more testing to make sure the IA is designed successfully.

Tree testing exercise for an end-user with a scenario on the one hand and the information architecture of a website on the other.

Your IA is the foundation of your service

A good IA is the foundation of a good user experience (UX). After all, before your customers can use your service, they must be able to find it. And this search for the right information is done by means of a logical structure with clear subdivisions & labels.

Remember that the IA is the backbone of your service or organisation. Just like a book, where the table of contents is adjusted when a chapter is added, the information architecture has to evolve as the organisation or service develops.