What is Information Architecture?
A clean and arranged room is comfortable to live in. Similarly, a house looks clean when it is built on an architectural design. The arrangement is not just limited to practical life things.
Organization and arrangement are necessary in the digital world. Digital information serves its purpose well when it’s organized in a readable manner. If you love to organize and arrange things around you and on your computer as well, you might have come across a term called Information Architecture (IA).
In digital space, this arrangement of data is Information Architecture. Is information architecture as simple as it seems from this definition? Let's explore.
What is Information Architecture?
Information architecture is the arrangement and sequence of data in digital space. The definition is elaborated with the example that when UX/UI designers design site maps, they also arrange all the pages of the app and individual screens. So that the audience can easily go through them and obtain the information they need without any hurdles.
Easy navigation is possible only with a flow and consistency in all the web pages so that the users can navigate easily through screens. This arrangement of information is Information Architecture.
UX writers and UX designers work side by side to achieve this flow consistency and easy navigation through the digital product.
If you're interested in learning more via video, then watch below. Otherwise, skip ahead.
A UX web designer once said: “Good design becomes invisible when it is worked well. We can only notice it if it is done poorly." The same is the case with information architecture.
If a user can easily navigate and find what they need, then we can refer to it as a good arrangement of data. But if one can’t find a piece of information where it is supposed to be, that’s where poor-quality work comes in.
Good information architecture results in a good user experience. A user-centered design, proper arrangement of contents, data and information leads to a good Information architecture.
Information architecture also requires insight into site map creation, web app development, app design, and content creation.
Are you wondering how different pages are designed, how a website is built, and what methodologies an information architect adopts in this? What are the principles and duties of information architects? Is there any difference between UX and IAs? Is there any information architecture institute?
If you are looking to obtain answers to these queries, then keep on reading.
What Methodologies Does an Information Architect Adapt?
Information architecture was discovered in 1970, even before there were websites and digital applications. Various methodologies have been adopted by professionals ever since then, and this term is now spread over to numerous technologies that involve digital platforms.
The old methodologies are still in use but have evolved shapes. Some of them are architecture, library science ad cognitive psychology. Here is a deeper look into each one of these.
Information needs sequence just as a building requires a map. Buildings are built according to architectural designs and maps.
The founder of Architecture, Richard Saul Wurman, believed that: “Information should be structured in the same manner as a building is structured”. This is when the concept of information architecture was developed.
Experienced architects and UX designers believe that presentation is necessary than the original task itself. Same as a building's architecture and design, information can also be arranged and can take many attractive forms.
Architecture methodology for IA requires planning, content strategy, design planning, idea’s foundation, and proper structuring of data.
2. Library Science
Library science is defined as the development of knowledge organization systems. It is the research study of how to arrange, organize, categorize, and list information resources. This methodology is adopted almost everywhere, from hospitals and labs to libraries and online databases.
There are two valuable fields of library science:
- Archival Science
What are these? Find out here:
i. Archival Science
Archival science is the method to build, study, and curate archives. Archives are a group of data like recordings, documents, and files.
An archival record includes the data that is less likely to change in the future, but edits can be made according to the evolution of data to maintain the integrity of an archive.
A person who curates archives is called an Archiver and the process of archive curation is called Archive Administration.
Cataloging is defined as the procedure to create metadata and assign it to a type/category/class so that it is easier to find whenever a need arises in the future. This metadata is stored in data repositories and libraries. We can also refer cataloguing to as categorizing the data.
Both the terms; Cataloguing and Archival Science play their role in enhancing user experience where the primary goal is to locate data easily.
This practice focuses on the need for information architecture so that the data is well-maintained and, in a user-accessible archive.
3. Cognitive Psychology
Cognitive psychology is a study to observe minds. Observation includes a study of all the processes that take place in a human mind such as thinking, precepting, learning, and problem-solving.
Information architecture demands good research on the study of how a brain thinks, and how it works so that the data design and content categorization are user-centered, and are easily accessible according to human thoughts.
Here are some key elements of cognitive psychology that are valued by architects:
- Decision making
- Mental models
- Cognitive loads
How do these aspects play a role in information architecture? It is explained below:
i. Decision Making
Decision-making is a cognitive process that allows us to choose between two different options or buttons.
This aspect plays its role in information architecture when a user has to choose between different options based on the perception that which option contains the answers or information they require.
Information architecture is closely connected with cognitive decision-making to obtain a user-centered design of categorizing information.
ii. Mental Models
These are assumptions users may carry in their minds while exploring a digital product or website before interacting with it.
Information architectures believe that users will search for information based on their perceptions and this becomes a matter of trust when users find exactly what they are looking for and where they are looking for. This methodological aspect is utilized in the designing of information databases.
iii. Cognitive load
The amount of information a user can process at a specific time is referred to as cognitive load. Information architects keep this methodological aspect in their minds when categorizing information so that they do not stuff a user’s mind with too much information that they can’t process at a time.
This aspect demands the design of categories and sub-categories of data which ensures that complete information is there, and the user is not stuffed with the information.
All these methodologies point towards enhanced user experience through categorization and arrangement of data.
Information architects make use of user-centered methodologies such as cognitive psychology, library science, and architecture while arranging and structuring content to obtain an enhanced user experience.
How to Create Information Architecture?
Information architecture works along with a team of UX writers, content strategists, and UX designers. The more content in a product, the more important is the role of information architecture.
The person in charge of information architecture is often referred to as an information architect. An information architect structures the information according to the previously mentioned methodologies so that the product is easier for the user to navigate.
Here are the duties of an information architect:
1. User Research
User experience is enhanced only with good user research. It is necessary to find out what the audience demands and how they think when they look for information on a digital platform.
This working approach demands organization and sequence of information so that it is arranged in a user-accessible way.
User research demands user interviews, usability testing, contextual inquiries, stakeholder interviews, and different sorting exercises like tree testing sessions and card arrangement to judge the thinking of users.
An info-architect takes an active part in this research and uses various methodologies to collect user data. This way, an information architect researches and notices the facts that what users expect and how they think while exploring a digital repository or a product. An analysis of the data can be drawn to enhance the results.
The results generated from this user research allow an IA to synchronize the work with the data obtained from the analysis.
Obtained data is then shared with design teams, content strategists, and UX writers so they can present their recommendations. The more is diversity in the ideas, the enhanced will be the results and a better user-oriented product can be obtained.
2. Content Inventory, Grouping of Data and Audits
A content inventory is kind of an initial repository of information, that various UX writers, design teams, and content strategists work on with the help of Information architects. Inventory can be a typical spreadsheet, a document, or a list. It helps the teams to know what they have and how they can make use of it.
With the help of this inventory, information architects work to group the data by identifying any patterns, repetitiveness, or relation between information. This way, the data is sorted out and arranged.
Content audits on this inventory enable information architects to have insights into how useful, accurate, and effective some data is from a user’s perspective.
3. Taxonomy and Labeling
Taxonomy is a method to organize and classify data based on their types and systematics. Though it is a biological term, taxonomies help IAs and UX writers a lot in their work.
It allows IAs to classify information with the help of sections, categories, and tags. It is fundamental to remember that a product is meant to grow in the future, so the listed information should be easily editable, updatable, and scalable.
Labeling as clear from the name allows a classifier to label the data. This labeled data is used in UX writing, and UX writers discover information through labels.
An example can be taken that, an “About” page allows the users to know about what the parent organization or product is about, while a page “General” can be a vague word for users and it becomes ambiguous to put such introductory information into this page classification.
4. Drafting Hierarchy and Navigation
Navigation and Hierarchy are two of the most important duties of an Information Architect.
Hierarchy means to rank information based on how important it is for the readers. This work requires a strict hierarchy pattern to research user behaviors. An analysis to check what a user expects to see and what the company wants to list down as per project requirements generates good results to define hierarchy.
Navigation means how the target audience will navigate and move through the information. IA, UX designers, and content strategists come up with scenarios that how a user will interact with a product. They then utilize this to illustrate information architecture diagrams and flowcharts.
For example, an FAQ button should be linked with the Help and Support Page. While initially, they might have considered this button to put under comment or review section.
Such kind of analysis requires teamwork, and different opinions to obtain the working prototype. This is how the complete hierarchy of the rest of the app or website is constructed.
5. Wireframing and Prototyping
Wireframing is a three-dimensional sketch or a skeleton. Information architects use this feature to draw a prototype or an initial project to show how the product will work.
This skeleton is built based on the collected information, research, hierarchy, taxonomy, and labeling. Prototyping helps architects to conclude how users will interact with the final product and what problems they can face?
Wireframing allows an architect and UX writer to predict what information can be on a page, how many screens can be there.
A prototype or a wireframe is a good tactic to share with clients so that they develop an idea of the final deliverable.
These are some of the major responsibilities of an Information Architect. Keep in mind that all these responsibilities are only fulfilled with teamwork.
What are the Principles of Information Architecture?
Information architecture is not built with vague guesses and baseless plans. It requires several principles and methodologies to be followed. Following these principles leads an architect to obtain a working prototype.
An information architect should have a complete understanding of the application, the site's content inventory, and the organization’s goals. After arranging this data, IAs should follow these principles throughout their work:
1. Rule of Choice
Less is always more. The fewer is the number of choices to decide between, the more accurate is the result.
2. Rule of Objects
The site's content drafted by the UX writer is a living object as it has its behaviors, results, attributes, and lifecycles.
3. Rule of Paradigms
Prototypes and examples should be used in the description of website content and categories to elaborate their meaning.
4. Rule of Disclosure
A hint or slight overview of a page should be written so that the user knows what content they can find inside if they dig in.
5. Rule of Numerous Groupings
Group and classify the complete content so that a user can navigate through it in steps.
6. Rule of Opening
Keep the fact in mind that the majority of users will open a page different than the home page. So, all pages are equal and should be designed with care.
7. Rule of Growth
Draw the map and architecture by keeping in view the fact that the website or digital product will grow in the future. It should be scalable as it can require updates.
8. Rule of Simpler Navigation
Map the architect in simple sections and remember that the target goals are user-centered, thus it should be easy to scan from a user’s perspective.
These are the eight major principles of Information Architecture (IA) to keep in mind. Although there are numerous terms that can be considered in information architecture, these principles are a must to follow otherwise a failure in the results is expected.
What is the Difference Between an Information Architect and a UX?
The above information arises a misconception that Information Architecture and UX design are the same fields. But no. Although these two terms are related to each other and are kind of synchronized with each other, both these are different terms.
UX stands for user experience which means how a person thinks and feels while using a digital product or a website. User experience is not content creation and is only related to the enjoyment and usability of a product.
On the other hand, information architecture is the organization and arrangement of information in a digital product or website so that it is easier for the user to navigate. Information architecture leads to efficient user experience, while UX itself is user experience.
A UX designer always works side by side with an Information architect, so both must have some knowledge on corresponding tasks for better results.
So, these two terms have the same target goals, but both have different working algorithms and principles.
What are Key Processes for Information Architecture?
As a solid foundation is necessary to build a house, information architecture is necessary for organizing content and building a strong website or a digital product.
To obtain strong results from information architecture, it is necessary to draft an outline. Here's how you can draft an IA outline:
1. Company Goals
Good information architects keep company goals in their minds. A typical company has the goals to reduce the working cost, increase sales and help the target audience.
2. User Goals
User needs and goals are as necessary as company goals are. Research users and explore who they are, and why would they use your website.
An analysis of this research will narrow down your work to solid goals.
3. Competitor’s Work
The next thing to keep in mind while mapping architecture and arranging interactive content is to analyze what work has already been done. This step is crucial because sometimes inventing the bulb from scratch can be difficult.
It is necessary to have a look at what others are doing and how are they succeeding in it.
4. Draft Content
Have a look at the website’s content structure if it is already drafted. Remove the extra information and add what is required.
Keeping in view the results from the first three points, design the website’s content accordingly. Make sure that you are not stuffing the user with too much information.
Develop a prototype at the end of this process following the methodologies and principles that are mentioned before.
We can wrap up the discussion with the saying that a good information architecture leads to a strong foundation of a website or a digital product.
Good Information architects conduct user research, establish content inventory, categorize the data, and conduct a content audit on the inventory. Taxonomy and labeling are crucial duties of an info-architect. Which are later on followed by hierarchy drafting, usability testing, and user navigation which then leads an architect to conduct wireframing and build a practical prototype.
It's important to conduct additional research on architecture, cognitive psychology, and library science to understand the basic methodologies of information architecture.
And the principles mentioned above are a crucial part of information architecture that will give you a strong foundation.
If you are new to information architecture and are looking to learn more, we recommend taking our Technical Writing Certification Course, where you will learn the fundamentals of information architecture.
Josh is the founder of Technical Writer HQ and Squibler, a writing software. He is considered one of the top product influencers in the world by Product School and one of the top technical writers. He has been writing software tutorials, manuals, handbooks, and white papers for over eight years. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here.