Introduction to Information Architecture
Information architecture (IA) is structuring your content so that it is easy to use by those who need to use it — in other words, visitors to your website. To this end, when we design a website’s IA, we concern ourselves with navigation, labeling, and the organization of content.
The Big Pitfall
The biggest pitfall to avoid when designing IA is thinking about your content the way your organization does. Websites that structure content to mirror the structure of the organization, and that label the navigation with the same words the organization uses, make sense to those within the organization, but do not make sense to the site’s users. Instead, begin by considering the needs of users when they come to your site. What do they most want to do? How do they think of the content? What words do they use to describe that content? If you have frequent interaction with the audiences who use your website, you have a definite advantage. You know their questions. Your goal is to get them to the answers as quickly as possible.
Keep in mind that users are goal and task oriented. They typically do not visit your website to kill time. Therefore, the best information architecture is nearly transparent. User will not discern or care about your IA, but they will care about how easy it is to get to the content they need. It’s okay to put content on your site that promotes the interest of your organization, or that touts an award or achievement — just don’t let it get in the way of the users’ goals and tasks.
The All Important Homepage
The first questions users have when they land on your homepage are “What is this?” and “What can I do here?” Answering those questions quickly is crucial to the success of your site. If users cannot figure out what your site is about, they will soon leave. In addition to reading titles and logos, users also look to navigation labels, headings, and link text to decide if they are in the right place for what they need to accomplish. Additional strategies for facilitating this process are tag lines and short paragraphs that succinctly describe the purpose of your site.
Avoid content that interferes with users’ abilities to focus on their tasks. Typical examples are unnecessary animations, too many graphics (especially if they look like advertising), and inflated copy full of hype but lacking in specific information. Branding is important, but keep in mind that users also form impressions about your organization from how easy your site is to use.
(By the way, these best practices also promote prominent returns in search engine results. After all, Google also wants to know what your site is all about, and relevant copy is a great start.)
Occasionally we reach an impasse when designing the information architecture for a website. Under which category do we put such and such a page? What labels in the main navigation bar will make the most sense to users? A good solution to solving these problems is to conduct a user test. User tests involve actual users completing tasks on the website in progress. The tests, conducted quickly, yield insights that are invaluable to those designing the site. Asking the users to “think out load” during the sessions, we gain immediate access to how they think of the content.
On large projects, tests conducted iteratively during the process identify problems and resolve them as the IA evolves. On smaller projects, a single round of testing can resolve one or two nagging concerns over navigation or labeling.