Organising functionality and content so that people can navigate intuitively does not happen by chance. It is important to take a strategic approach to information architecture, the risk is that you create good content and functionality that no one finds.
People can only appreciate what they can actually find.
– Iain Barker, Researcher and Designer
Certainly, it may be tempting to let finished master pages and menus in a CMS dictate how to organize the content of your site. And, of course, it works as long as the site fits into the narrow content format that most CMSs are designed around. But the more common is that websites break content limits for most CMS. And without a clear understanding of how information architecture works, you risk creating a site that is more confusing than it needs to be. Or, at worst, a site that makes the content virtually unavailable.
In this blog post we review the basics of information architecture – What it is, different design patterns to come from and finally some good advice along the way.
What is information architecture?
Information Architecture (IA) is a term used to describe the structure of a system. Thus how the information is grouped, the navigation methods and the terminology used in a system. The term is usually associated with websites and intranets, but is also used for other information structures and systems.
Thoughtful or random? No matter what, the information structure contributes to the user experience. An effective information architecture allows users to logically navigate the system and convince them that they approach the information they need. However, most users are most aware of the information architecture when it does not work very well, and stands in the way of finding the information they are looking for.
Two strategies – three approaches
There are two overall strategies in information architecture; “Top-down” and “Bottom-up”. At top-down, you will start from a broad overview. The work begins with finding a basic structure, which is later refined as the site architecture grows deeper. To work effectively with top-down requires a solid understanding of the needs the site is going to solve. In other words, clearly defined purpose and goals.
Bottom-up focuses on the details first, starting from the user’s perspective. Based on this, you try to log the content logically so that users can easily browse the site. In order for this to be effective, the content needs to be sorted into different subgroups, which can be developed individually and before interleaving into a whole.
A combination of both approaches is usually the best. By looking at the project from both perspectives, it is easier to discover if there are any gaps in how the content is organized, and easier to create the most effective information structure.
Starting from a proven design pattern
Different websites require different types of information architecture. And what works best depends on factors like how often content is updated, how much content there is and how visitors use the site. In order not to reinvent the wheel every time, proven patterns are based on. The design patterns (Information architect patterns or IA patterns) describe how the content can be sorted effectively. By knowing these and understanding how they work, it is easier to find a good starting point for structural work. Here are the five most common:
Single page (or one page) is just as it sounds, one page. This is best suited for sites that have a narrow focus, with limited information. For example, it may be used for sites to market a specific product or app, or a digital portfolio.
In a flat structure, all sides are laid on the same level. This signals to the user that all pages are equally important. The pattern is usually used when there are only a handful of web pages, such as for brochure pages. For more comprehensive sites with more pages, navigation flow and content functionality will be unusable.
Index page consists of a main page with several sub pages. This is probably enough because it is the most common structure for websites. The index page (also known as homepage or homepage) is intended to serve as a starting point for navigating to the remaining web pages. The undersides have, in turn, an equivalent meaning in the hierarchy.
Strict Hierarchy Pattern
Certain websites apply a strict hierarchy between the web pages, and they are based on this design pattern. In this case, information architecture consists of an index page that links to the sub pages. The sub pages are called parent pages and, in turn, have their own so-called child pages. The hierarchy is considered strict because the child page is only linked from its parent page.
Co-Existing Hierarchy Pattern
An alternative to strict hierarchy is coexistent Hierarchy. It contains, like the previous pattern, parent and child pages. But in this pattern, child pages may be available from several web pages higher up in the hierarchy. Just this design pattern is best suited when there is a lot of overlapping information on the site.
3 good advice for structural work
We also want to send you some good advice for future structural work:
Getting to know the user
Understanding what your users need and want is a prerequisite for creating an effective information architecture. And there are several ways to find out this, for example through interviews, by creating people’s or usability tests like card sorting .
Formulate a clear purpose
Every site requires a clear purpose, whether it’s selling a product, informing about an important topic, giving entertainment or something completely different. Without a clear purpose, it is virtually impossible to create an effective information architecture. How the information on a website is organized should correlate with the site’s purpose. For example, for a website whose goal is to get visitors to sell something, the content should be arranged in such a way that it guides the user in that direction.
Being consistent is also central to information architectures. If eight out of nine information pages are listed in a section, why is not the ninth included? The user expects a consistent setup, to intuitively navigate through the site. The same applies to how the information is structured on each side. Choose a pattern and stick to it. And if you deviate from it on one side, just make sure you have a good reason to do that. Inconsistency tends to confuse your visitors.
Building a structure can feel difficult. But by just starting, it will soon become clearer which parts feel more obvious and what parts will need to be tested on users.