We live in a world where in a single minute on the internet the following happens:
- 2 million Google searches performed
- 571 new websites created
- 72 hours of video uploaded to YouTube
- $83,000 in Amazon sales
So how does one wrangle this information tidal wave, organize it, make it usable, and ensure people find what they’re looking for? Information architecture! Information architecture provides the ability to organize and make sense of this vast amount of data and information that’s had countless new things added to it since I started typing this sentence.
What is information architecture?
Information architecture has many definitions because it is many things. Here are some ways of thinking about information architecture:
- The art and science of organizing and labeling websites, intranets, online communities, and software to support usability
- Structuring the hierarchy of content
- Designing the flow of information to support user task completion
- The foundation that holds up the design
- Figuring out what is important to people and how to get them there
- Talking to users > Talking about users
- Providing the right information to the right people at the right time in the right context
- Making things make sense to different people
This list is by no means expansive, but I will conclude it here for brevity’s sake.
Effective information architecture provides a solid, well-thought out plan based on user research and user testing to validate decisions before any time, money, and resources are invested in design and development. Would you build a house without a detailed blueprint? Websites and web applications should be treated the same way – don’t dive in without a plan based on research. You can’t add the foundation later, so take the time to plan it right.
From an interface design standpoint, information architecture addresses things like user behavior and interaction, layout, hierarchy, and ultimately whether or not something will make sense to users.
Information architecture methods
So how do you accomplish information architecture? There are many tools available to you:
- Card sorting
- Usability testing
- User interviews
- Wireframes and prototypes
- Empathy mapping
- Journey mapping
- Content inventory
- Flow charts
Information architecture strives to strike the right balance between business goals and user needs. Talk to your stakeholders and make sure you are meeting the business requirements, then use the methods available to you to ensure your product is accessible to the people that are actually going to use it.
Measuring information architecture
Information architecture brings great value. Nathaniel Davis said it best: “Information architecture improves the relevance of and expectations for information by probing issues about content, context, and users.” If users can’t find content, all the time spent in researching, crafting, revising, and perfecting your messaging will go straight in the trash. Users will go look elsewhere for what they want if they can’t find it from you – or they will call your customer service department and complain. In short, information architecture has a profound effect on a website or system’s bottom line.
In an enterprise environment, thoughtful information architecture helps make internal applications and sites easier and faster to use. When tools are intuitive and make sense, employees will have more time to accomplish other tasks, build relationships with customers and clients, support those relationships, and ultimately make sales. Information architecture has a direct impact on the bottom line, even if it’s not always easy to see at the surface level.
Why should you care about information architecture?
Here are just a handful of ways investing in information architecture pays off:
- Reduces the cost of finding information
- Reduces the chance of finding the wrong information, or finding no information at all
- Reduces reliance upon documentation (i.e., the interface is intuitive and doesn’t require a user manual to navigate through it)
- Reduces the number of phone calls to the customer service department
- Supports business strategy by understanding business goals and user goals
- Improves user experience through iterative user testing
- Results in increased sales by enabling users to find information more efficiently
- Improves brand loyalty
- Improves scalability and growth of systems
- Reduces maintenance costs
- Improves knowledge sharing
- Reduces duplication of effort
- Improves the ROI of content development by increasing visibility of content
This list could keep growing – but you get the point. Information architecture is valuable; products based on research, testing, and iteration have a much greater chance of success.
Want to learn more about information architecture?
If you want to learn more about information architecture, I recommend How to Make Sense of Any Mess by Abby Covert. This overview of information architecture is a great resource (and a short read – the paper copy is 174 pages) and provides many tools for framing and tackling any sort of challenge that involves information, which is pretty much all of them.