What is information architecture?
As per Wikipedia, it’s “the art and science of organizing and labelling data including: websites, intranets, online communities, software, books and other mediums of information, to support usability”. We could simplify it to “the art and science of organizing websites” (we’re only talking about it in the context of websites in this article).
Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville (information architecture gurus, you should read their book) defined the ‘three circles of information architecture’ as content, users and context of use:
It’s about organizing the content and flow of a website based on research and planning. The end goal of information architects is to come up with a structure / design that balances the users’ desires with the business’s needs.
Users have four fundamental questions when they arrive at a website: Am I in the right place? Do they have what I am looking for? Do they have anything better (if this isn’t what I want)? What do I do now? One of your key tasks is to make sure you do a good job at answering these questions – on every page of your site.
This means that you have to
- Assure visitor’s they’re in the right place (always make it clear where they are).
- Make it easy for visitors to find what they’re looking for (clear navigation, search etc).
- Make sure visitors know what their options are (links like “See also”, “Related products”).
- Let them take various kinds of action (clear CTAs).
What’s the end deliverable?
The final goal is essentially to come up the architecture of the site. The end deliverable might be things site maps, site-flow diagrams, and wireframes to convey how the site will work from a practical perspective.
It should determine the big picture – organizing the content on the site to support the tasks that users want to perform. Information architecture should also include little things like deciding that products on a search page should be ordered by price rather than by name.
And all of it should be based on actual research and data. Not much room for opinions here.
There are multiple ways to approach getting the website information architecture right. Here’s the method that has worked for me over the years.
Five steps to putting information architecture together
You achieve your business goals when you help people achieve their goals. You can only do that when you fully understand your user’s goals, problems, and aspirations.
Step #1: Gather data about the users
It’s critical that we get inside the user’s head. Before you embark on working on the information architecture, you need to know answers to these questions: What problem are we solving? Who needs it? What’s this site for? The earlier the purpose and goals are clearly defined (and written down!), the more easily problems are identified and solved, the easier it is to stay focused, and the better the end result.
Talk to your users. In person interviews and phone calls are best, but online surveys are also great. Here’s a post I wrote about conducting user research.
The end goal here is to really understand what your users want and why they want it. There will be probably different intents and use cases, and that’s to be expected.
Step #2: Create customer personas and write user stories
Your website should be designed for somebody, not everybody. This is where customer personas come in.
Personas are fact-based (derived from user research) fictional representations of your users. They represent the goals, motivations, characteristics and behaviors of the most important groups of your users.
Here’s a sample persona (attaching a photo to a persona helps us imagine a real person we’re building the site for):
Next step is connecting use cases with personas. Use cases provide a simple means to decide and describe the purpose of a project. Use cases have 2 components: actors and goals.
Actors are people using the website. You only want to focus on the most prominent groups – the user personas. Goals are what one, some, or all of the personas want to achieve. Every use case must have a specific goal and the actors that will perform tasks to achieve that goal.
Goals might be things like read a blog post, check account balance, book an appointment, download software, take a test and so on. Use cases define goals and purpose: the problems we are trying to solve. (this is the first step to improving customer lifetime value too)
When you approach your website organization thinking about personas and what they wish to achieve, you will work with greater confidence, clarity.
Step #3: Metadata, scenarios, pages.
Once you have an understanding of the users – their intent, the why behind it and how they’d like to achieve their goal – you can begin to figure out how to present your content in a way that will make sense to your users.
There are several good methods to do this, but here’s one that I like to use:
Figure out the metadata
Metadata is information about information. It’s what helps users find the content they’re looking for. Let’s say you want to buy a coffee grinder, and go to a website that you know that sells those. If you browse around and can’t find it, it’s a sign of bad metadata. If you get your metadata right, you’ve already cleared the first hurdle of effective site design.
You have to determine what kind of information to store about stuff that people care about – life coffee grinders. Maybe they’d like to search by blade size? Color? Brand? Knowing what are all the different parameters and variables you need to store in your system is crucial for excellent search results.
The metadata for a book could be title, description, author, release date, ISBN, comments, cover image. Plan for it!
Step #4: Create user flows
Now that you’ve figured out the kinds of pages you need on your site, map out the optimal user flows (I’ve written about creating user flows here).
When designing flows, it’s also important to know the four modes of searching information. There’s an excellent article by Donna Spencer on this very topic. According to her, the four types are:
- Known-item search. Often, when people know exactly what they are looking for and what it’s called, they’ll mostly use search. But some prefer navigation, so it has to work with search to get people where they know they want to go.
- Exploratory seeking. This happens when users may have a need, but aren’t certain what will fulfill it. They might be looking for a re-marketing solution or a new laptop. People will recognize an answer to their question, but won’t know if they’ve actually found the right answer (doesn’t know if there’s a more suited option out there).
- Don’t know what I need to know. Sometimes people don’t know what they need to know. Somebody looking to buy gemstone jewelry will realize that she has to figure out precious metals, treatments, gemstone clarity, hardness and many other things. They’re looking for one thing, but discover they really need to know about something else.
- Re-finding. People may want to go back to things they discovered in the past. If they saw something they liked on your site during their previous visit, make it easy to find it again (change the color of visited links, use permanent shopping carts etc).
Each information-seeking behavior relies on specific navigational tools to succeed.
Step #5: Create sitemaps, wireframes – and gather feedback
You’re only 1 person, and you need fresh sets of eyes and brains to challenge your thinking. Maybe you missed something, maybe you misunderstood the importance of something. This is why you need go through it all with your team mates (or other peers).
You can use sketches, diagrams, site maps or wireframes to communicate your findings and proposals for going forward.
Gather feedback, iterate, and move on to planning your site structure.
People can only buy what they can find. There are a number of studies that show websites are losing money because the navigation system has failed and user can’t find the product they are interested in. I’ve seen the claim “up to 50% of sales lost due to bad navigation” being thrown around, but I haven’t found the actual study confirming this. Nevertheless, good navigation is critical.
Information architecture works hand in hand with usability and conversions. If your information architecture is good, but your usability sucks, your visitors will be able to find what they are looking for, but will struggle to complete the purchase flow – resulting in poor conversions. However your web site information architecture is bad (even if your usability is good), most of your web site visitors won’t even be able to find what they are looking for, and thus will leave your site even before entering the sales funnel.
Getting the information architecture of your site right will ensure a great user experience, which in turn leads to higher retention rate and improved conversions.