Information architecture (IA) is the structural design of shared information and it applies to multiple fields. When we talk about IA for user experience (UX) we are focusing on the structure of information within a digital product.
The goal of an information architecture process is to provide a structure that is easy and quick to navigate. Providing quick access to information that the user wants in the quickest, least painful way. In this article we have outlined some key IA principles:
The focus is the content
Our primary role when designing a new IA is to ensure users are not distracted with complicated navigation; they should be able to locate what they want in a seamless fashion. A good IA should be almost invisible. Content is the primary focus of a platform or website, the path a user takes to access that information should be clear and intuitive. In addition, the perceived understanding of what is to be found in that location, should match the content in that area.
Mental models are how we understand the world, they change the way we perceive information based on past experiences. In the context of IA, we need to take into account the existing mental models of our users, making information available in areas the user would expect to find it.
Reducing cognitive load
Cognitive load is the amount of information that the working memory can process at one time. We don’t want to overwhelm our user with multiple choices (also referred to as the ‘paradox of choice’).In the context of UX, we want to present the information that’s most relevant to the user at that time, while stripping away unnecessary noise.
Terminology and labelling
It’s incredibly important to review terminology and labeling to ensure it’s consistent and relevant to the user. Try to avoid internal phrasing and refer to the users’ mental models. In other words, what do they expect to see?
How Make it Clear defines an IA:
Define the objectives: The first stage looks to understand what the organisation is looking to achieve and combines this with the objectives of the users. It’s expected that multiple forms of user research would inform this, such as user stories and user personas.
Map and review existing architecture: The existing information architecture (if one exists) should be mapped and relevant data collected on how effective the existing approach is. For example, Google Analytics (and/or any other analytics available) or customer sentiment can highlight areas that would need addressing. It may also be applicable at this stage to review what competitors are doing and establish if there are industry-standard approaches that should be reflected in the chosen solution.
Gather content that will be required in the target IA: At this stage, information should be gathered on new content or functional areas. This information is informed by user stories.
Group content: Content will then be sorted into logical groups. This is typically done via a card-sorting exercise. During a card sorting session, participants organise topics into categories that make sense to them. The sort can be open or closed (or hybrid) and may be conducted with users or internal teams.
Map new IA and refine terminology: Stage five covers documenting the proposed IA, it should be a conclusion of the previous stages and include recommendations on terminology and naming that will make the most sense to users.
Test: The proposed IA should be tested with real users via a tree test exercise. Tree testing is a way of evaluating a proposed site structure by asking users to find items based on the proposed IA.
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