How to create Information Architecture and why it’s important to your project success

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Posted by Saul Gowens

5 minute read

Introducing Information Architecture

I’m an Information Architect sounds like an impressive job title at a networking event or meeting new people, but what does that actually mean and what is information architecture and why is it important?

Information Architecture – is the hidden power behind software development

When delivering a new technology product, the information architecture provides the framework to make things happen. 

Your user discovery gives you the understanding and the user stories which give you the problems you need to solve. 

It is the information architecture that maps out how the identified user needs will be addressed and the user problems solved. 

The wireframe and user flows map out the journey you users can take through the application. 

The next and key step is to create the information architecture.  The foundation of any software development and the data framework to make the journey happen. 

Ultimately, the application of information architecture principles will determine if an application is successful or not.  

 

What is information architecture

A house is built by tradespeople based on an overall plan created by an architect, software development follows exactly the same process. 

You won’t often see ‘create information architecture’ as a milestone or a specifically mentioned as key deliverable within an agile project, but it’s always there, bubbling under the surface as every component or element is added to the UX.

The definition of Information architecture (IA) is the practice of structuring and presenting the parts of something — whether that’s a website, mobile app, blog post, book, or brick-and-mortar store — to users so that it’s easy to understand.

In application development, IA principles are applied in wireframing, sitemap design and user journey mapping.   

Ultimately information architecture is the blueprint for your application, representing the product features, the hierarchy and the infrastructure in an easy to understand format. 

the goal of information architecture

Describing the user needs, the content to be created and the context of the requirements.  Providing product development and technical teams with a complete overview of the product to be built.  

Once in place, the information architecture makes it easier to follow user journeys through the planned application and make key decisions related to new features and how to implement them into the application.

 

How to design information architecture

Information Architecture (IA) should show an understanding of how an application or website works from the user perspective. 

Presenting a flow of how the application will work within a single easily understandable document.   

The challenge is how…

The process of creating an information architecture document is similar to creating a flowchart, but based around two specific requirements.

  1. Creating a visual hierarchy, features, functions and user behaviour.
  2. Creating a legend to make sure it’s easy for the user to understand the differences between the different types of features, interactions and flows to be applied.   

Remember this is an overview of your application/website/project and the objective is to give clarity.

 

Information Architecture Principles

So you now know the importance, but how can you develop IA for your application or website project, fortunately, information architect and UX designer Dan Brown has developed 8 core principles to apply for successful Information architecture.  

First mentioned within a 2010 issue of the Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology.  He looked to list “guidelines based in universal truths that provide a sketch of what makes any information architecture good.”  

Thankfully it’s a useful list and one that has been widely accepted as a methodology to help guide your design decisions.

 

The principle of objects

Remember to treat content as a living breathing thing, with lifecycles, behaviour and attributes.   For example within a website, it’s likely that content will have a shelf life.  Some content might be immovable cornerstone content, whereas other content might have a limited use.

In the case of limited use content, what happens to that content when it’s no longer useful and how could that impact the content in other places within the website. 

Apply the principle of objects to your content types and map out all the rules and relationships associated with them.

 

The principle of choices

The greater the number of choices you give to someone the more difficult it is for them to make a decision.  So the principle of choices encourages you to minimise the choices available to the user.  Plusnet show a create example of this with clear navigation for account users to help direct them to the appropriate place.  

information architecture plusnet my account login

Better to focus on the categories of information at the top level, and present routes from that point.  It makes user decisions easier, less stressful and therefore much more effective.   

 

The principle of disclosure

The vision of Amazon is to be the everything store, however, when you visit Amazon you aren’t presented with everything.  Instead, you are presented with enough information to dig deeper and find what you are looking for.

That is the principle of disclosure in full effect.  Show only enough information to help people understand a certain amount of content at a time.  Allow them to find their way to their destination one step at a time, rather than overwhelm them with choice.

Another excellent example of the principle of disclosure is the Google search page.  A simple box opens up billions of pieces of information.

information architecture principles google search bar

The principle of exemplars

The principle of exemplars – describe the contents of categories by showing examples of the contents.  This can be handled by subtly placed icons or massive screen filling images. 

Amazon does this a lot on their front page, but Netflix are the experts.  Showing you options to watch based on things you are already watching, categories of things you like, or things you have previously watched.

Information Architecture - principle of exemplars Netflix UX

 

The principle of front doors

The principle of front doors relates to user behaviour, assume that at least half of your website visitors will come through a page other than the home page.   

More applicable to the ‘outside’ of applications, this is especially true within websites where SEO and PPC drives visitors to specific pages.  The principle forces you to consider the how the navigation and supporting elements of the design inform new users about the core offering of the site.

 

The principle of multiple classification

Make sure you offer different classification schemes to help the many ‘different profiles of user’ to find what they are looking for.

Look to find a simple way to support easy ways for users to find what they are looking for.  Be that classification by category, topics or content type.

This can be a tricky principle to apply, but it is another principle in which Amazon excel, providing multiple options for users to find what they are looking for.  

If you are searching for an audiobook, you can find it via the audiobook category, audible membership, books, or even the ‘product page’ of book through the different version of the available publication. 

Information Architecture Principles Amazon Product Screenshot

The principle of focused navigation

Avoid user confusion.  The navigation within your application should be consistent across your site or application and be linked to relevant content.

Consider this principle when designing your menu structure and in-page navigation.  If you are using breadcrumbs to direct users, then be consistent with the use of breadcrumbs within the application.  

 

The principle of growth

You want to be successful and when you are it’s likely that your application or website will grow in content and function.  Therefore, you should construct your IA to follow the principle of growth, so it can accommodate your application as it grows.  

In practical terms this means you should be able to add a new section to a website, new categories and product lines to your e-commerce store without breaking the existing IA. 

It’s the last on the list as it’s the hardest to deal with, try and plan for the future as best you can.  That being said, since we live in perpetual beta it’s the principle of growth that is usually the failure point of IA and forces the replacement of existing applications.  

 

The Zaltek Ninth Principle of IA

Whatever project we are working on, when we are applying the principles in developing an information architecture document, we apply one extra special rule which we consider to be our 9th principle of IA.  It’s the principle of Kaizen (continual improvement) “how can we do this better”.