Information architecture is the science and art of developing digital and physical blueprints to visually display the layout and flow of data. Information architecture documents systems, processes, relationships and environments. IA can be used to organize and help design a variety of different projects, including: website design, corporate hierarchy, database development, logistics, event planning, etc. To provide clarity to this concept, website design will be used as the primary example. Information architecture has three main components:
Users: Those who will be interacting with the website.
Content: The data that will be stored and displayed on the website.
Context: The categories, associations and relationships between various users and content.
Why Is Information Architecture Important?
Information architecture (IA) is the foundation for organizing large amount of information. It is the blueprint upon which all other aspects are built: form, function, interface, interaction and visual design. The IA process should be the first step in design. Good IA is effective, and it can save both time and money.
UXO and Information Architecture (IA)
Information architecture (IA) is a critical element of User Experience Optimization (UXO). The website user should be able to quickly find the information that he / she is looking for, provide easy to find customer support information, and be a pleasant experience. Also, if the website sells a product or service, the website owner wants to ensure that the interested buyer can buy that item, is exposed to other relevant items for upselling, has relevant information that the potential buyer is looking for, and that the whole process is a pleasant experience. IA describes the details of all these interactions. It describes how various components within the website should behave and deliver in sequence all the critical information a buyer needs to make a decision and buy a product, such as navigation, payment portal, relevant upselling, placement of contact information, product reviews, product description, visual layout, etc.
SEO and Information Architecture (IA)
There are various elements of IA that improve search engine visibility:
– Content structure and hierarchy.
– Navigation and link structure.
– Placement of comments, reviews, surveys and social media buttons.
– Placement of images, videos and podcasts.
– Placement of titles and headers.
IA and Website Design Process
Define Website Goals and Objectives
What is the purpose of the website? Is it to inform or sell? Do you even need a website to fulfill your goals and objectives? Who will be using the website? A single website cannot do everything you want it to do effectively. It is often better to have multiple targeted websites than it is to have a single one-size-fits-all website. For example, WalMart has one website for products and store locations, another for jobs, another for careers, another for photo development, another for community involvement, and another for current news. The more targeted a website is within a specific market niche, the better your results. Whatever project you are working on, defining goals and objectives is a necessary first step.
Project Development by Committee
Corporate culture plays the most significant role in how project committees are organized and operated. Who are all the people involved in design, development and management? Are decisions made by committee consensus or by an individual? Is the process more formal or informal? The larger the project, the bigger the population of people involved. Everyone involved should know and understand their roles, responsibilities and expectations.
Ask Questions About the Website
Find and ask those involved a variety of questions. These questions help determine the mission, purpose, design and content of the website.
The basic set of questions should include:
1) What is the mission of the organization?
2) What are the short- and long-term goals of the website?
3) Who is the audience?
4) Why should people visit your website?
5) What specific things do you want a visitor to do while on the site?
6) Which products or services generate the most profit and cash flow?
Define the User Experience
It is extremely important to determine who the audience is and who the website is for. Websites geared for children will have a very different style, content and flow than those geared toward engineers or doctors. Defining the user experience you seek establishes a clear, well-documented definition of your audience, and it helps in understanding how users will interact with the website. This is the most important thing to remember related to designing, developing and maintaining a website – if end users quickly and easily find what they are looking for and these experiences are reasonably pleasant, they will return. If end users have difficulties finding the information they are looking for, they will not return. Search engines like Google take this into account in a significant way. They analyze website traffic, bounce rates, page load times, user reviews, comments and other social signals to increase or decrease the rankings of websites.
Study Your Competitors
Knowing your competition is a good way to learn about your own site. Whether you are casually browsing your rival’s site or seriously evaluating each and every competitor, you need to be aware of what other sites are doing. Identify what they are doing well, and not so well. Generate a list of features that you might want to use on your own site, such as word choice, placement of videos, layout and functionality.
Filter Answers About the Website
The primary purpose of this stage of website development is to generate specific tasks and objectives. Turn the answers from the questions and situations above into tangible goals. Also, rank these goals by priority. Many companies provide a variety of products and services. There is only so much real estate on the first page of any website. Choose 3-5 items that are the most critical to promote. Determine and prioritize the features that are most important to both the organization and the end user. Generate lists based on features and importance. Remember that more is not always better.
Create and Test Scenarios
Scenarios are stories and situations about different types of potential users. They help demonstrate how each person might interact with a website. Scenarios are useful in testing the site’s design once it is near completion. To truly test how a site performs, you may want to make some of these scenarios based on real people and real experiences. A young female may use the site quite differently than a middle aged man. A working professional might be looking for different types of information and in different ways than a college student. The more the website is designed to do, the more scenarios you will need. Testing a website like ebay.com is quite different than testing a site like lowes.com. Give each person a set of tasks and objectives to accomplish during the design test. The professional may want to furnish his / her home with matching chairs, tables and sofas. The college student may want to create a wish list for potential graduation gifts. Create a variety of situations and determine which issues need to be fixed.
We now know what the website should look like, what infomation it should contain and how it should function. It is now time to identify content and functional requirements. Types of static content include copyright notices, privacy statements, and membership rules. Functional requirements include member logon pages, newsletter signup pages and contact forms. Work with the technology and production people to determine the feasibility of each requirement. When you decide on the final groupings and names, use them as the basis for defining the major sections of the site and the names of each section. This is the basis for your site structure.
You are nearing the final stages of this process. Generate, organize and label content and functionality. Use pencil and paper for the first draft. Once you have a good handle on the project’s Information Architecture, generate the final layout and design of its content and functions.