When you walk into the library looking for a specific book, you can locate what you’re looking for based on the attributes of that book. For example, to find a Sherlock Holmes book, you’d go to the fiction section, find the mystery subsection and then look through shelves with authors whose last name starts with “D” until you find “Doyle.”
When developing a website, you want to create a similar navigation experience for users.
“If you think about it in terms of how a library organizes all the content that they have, they have a determined structure so that us users can find the content we’re looking for as quickly as possible,” says Senior Web Strategist Kelly Molloy. “That concept is the same thing that we’re trying to do on a website.”
The way you can achieve that is through information architecture.
What is Information Architecture?
The Norman Nielsen group defines information architecture as “The underlying organization, structure and nomenclature that define the relationships between a site’s content/functionality.”
In practice, information architecture is the organization and structuring of content prior to developing a website.
“[Information architecture] can look like a lot of things. It depends on the type of site that you’re building,” says Kelly. “For a lot of our clients, information architecture starts with the site map and then transitions into a list of every single page that we need on the site and what category it falls under. The end result is the website itself.”
Information architecture encompasses the planning of a site’s main navigation, auditing all existing URLs, determining what to keep, consolidate and delete and then establishing URL structures.
“The term information architecture gets thrown around a lot, and it’s really important for folks to understand that it’s not just your main navigation. It’s how your content is connected and categorized more holistically,” Kelly says.
Why Information Architecture is Important
Information architecture helps your users find the content they’re most interested in quickly and efficiently. So, a solid information architecture is essential to creating an outstanding user experience. Furthermore, by establishing the structure of your site, it informs your development and sets your site up for long-term evolution and growth.
“Information architecture helps us understand how our content is connected and what types of content we need and what functionality we need,” Kelly says. “While people don’t typically think about that when building out a site map, in order to understand upcoming work, you need to know the complexities or the functionality within the content on those pages which is determined by those pages being categorized.”
Content should guide website design, so as a designer or developer you need to know what a webpage will contain before you can build a template for it. Understanding what specific sections are for and what pages exist within them can inform what modules need to be created to present the content.
For example, if you have a glossary section of your website where each term is its own page for SEO purposes you know that you need to create a page template that has content modules best suited for presenting those definitions. On top of that, you need to create a way for users to search within the glossary for the term they’re looking for, such as a search module or a module with an alphabetical navigation.
If you don’t go through the process of creating an information architecture, your content will be unorganized.
Take the glossary example above. If you didn’t establish that you were going to have a glossary but just created those definition pages ad-hoc they could be scattered across your website. Some could live on your blog, others could be resource pages and some could be FAQs. But, that makes it hard for users to find those pages.
How to Take Your Users into Account When Building Your Information Architecture
“The goal of information architecture is to categorize content in a way that is most intuitive for your end-user,” Kelly says. “In order to build an effective information architecture, you need to understand how your end users will categorize and group content.”
If you have a website already, look at what users are engaging with and prioritize what they’re interacting with the most
Then do a competitive analysis to understand what norms there are in your industry. If everyone follows a similar structure, it can be beneficial for you to structure your content like that as well since it’s what users are expecting.
The biggest mistake you can make with information architecture is to base it around your company’s internal practices instead of what’s best for your users.