What is the role of a well-designed information architecture?

13 December 2020

Natalia Bienias

Head of Design
Natalia Bienias
What is the role of a well-designed information architecture?

A well-designed information architecture supports the process of searching and navigating through content, which affects the speed and ease of use of the product. As a result, users can use it more willingly.

What is information architecture?

It is the structure of the content with which we supplement a website or mobile application. Information architecture is not just about structures in digital reality. Take, for example, shopping in a large supermarket where we have not been before - we have to buy some pasta.

We can conduct our search in several ways, e.g. by walking up and down all the aisles. We can ask a member of staff a question, provided that someone like that appears in sight (and that we actually recognize them as a supermarket employee). In large stores, the aisles are often marked with product categories - we can follow them (if they are legible and unambiguous, and also up-to-date!) We can also follow our intuition and experience. Based on previous visits to similar stores, we will exclude sections with toys, frozen foods or fresh fruit and vegetables - this will limit the scope of our search to a few aisles. We also know what packaging pasta usually comes in - we expect specific dimensions, colours and products from a similar category placed nearby (e.g. groats and rice).

Everything that surrounds us gives us information, and the way our environment is designed either helps us to find the content we are looking for or makes it difficult for us. Virtual space works in the same way.

Information architecture in virtual space

When thinking about information architecture in digital products, we will consider issues such as:

- navigation (main navigation, breadcrumbs or context menu),

- content structure and mutual relationships between its elements,

- element nomenclature,

- search (ways of searching and displaying the searched content).

The quoted example of a brick-and-mortar store can be translated into a virtual product. Truth be told, we could arrange all the content on one page. But instead, we divide it into subpages, we add navigation, tag and categorize them. We logically combine them into smaller groups to make it easier to find content that may be of interest to our audience. By the manner in which we order the content and by the specific structure in which it is arranged, we will tell the users whether they are approaching the required information or not.

And here we arrive at the most difficult part of working on information architecture. How do we group and name the content so that it is intuitive and understandable for users?

What should you remember when designing information architecture?

In a good information architecture design, we consider the context, the content and the user. I am under the impression that we usually forget about the latter. Who we aim the product at can completely change the way the content is presented, categorized and named. A website about the available drugs would be designed in one way, as it would be aimed mainly at pharmacists-specialists who can look for a product, e.g. by specific ingredients. Specialized vocabulary, such as Acetylcysteinum, Celecoxibum or Acidum folicum, would not be surprising for them and they would relate to it easily.

Whereas, a concerned parent, simply wishing to find a remedy for his child, is bound look for completely different content. In this case, the specialized vocabulary would be incomprehensible and might discourage them from exploring further.

We can combine content for different types of users, but keeping in mind the above example. What will cause specialists’ and amateurs’ satisfaction? It is worthwhile considering additional categories and filters that will cover practical and comprehensible groups of information. Electronics stores are a good example.

Specialists - experts in technological issues - efficiently navigate through technical filters - when looking for a computer, they will pay attention to the CPU, graphics card, memory and a number of other issues. Other users may simply look for a "movie watching" or "ultra-light" computer to work freely while travelling.

Sample categories from RTV Euro AGD

How do we know in what way should we speak to a user? First of all, it is worthwhile starting by asking yourself who our user is. Companies that have conducted client surveys may know the answer to this question. The ones that have yet to implement the surveys may be surprised at how many optimization possibilities one can discover just by talking to one’s clients. 

How to verify information architecture

We can carry out the initial verification as early as at the stage of analyzing the existing data - having the website traffic analysis at our disposal, we can try to identify potential errors. If we do not collect such data (by all means, it is worthwhile doing it!), we can test a project with users. Depending on the stage of work we are at, we can even start testing at the stage of creating the navigation structure and system.

Card sorting as mentioned above or tree testing will be a good tool at this stage. Tree testing is a way of evaluating information architecture by asking users to find elements in the previously prepared structure. An additional advantage is the fact that to carry out such tests, we do not need to prepare prototypes or projects - we can test the content itself. Furthermore, we can conduct them in the form of remote, unmoderated tests, which will facilitate the collection of quantitative data. On the other hand, however, this form of test does not give us the full context of usage nor does it allow us to ask why the users have followed the chosen path.

Card sorting as mentioned above will help us to supplement the information with the missing "Why?" This is a method in which all the test participants group names written on tabs according to criteria that make sense to them. We can use sorting in both quantitative and qualitative testing - depending on the needs. It allows one to structure knowledge about the studied domain and leads to an architecture design that meets user expectations. Card sorting can take various forms - in addition to giving users ready-made categories to be sorted, we can give them the opportunity to create their own. There are many possibilities, depending on the needs, we can adjust the technique to the information we want to obtain.

In turn, errors in the architecture design may be indicated by users during usability tests. By performing specific tasks in which we will incorporate areas that are interesting for us (e.g. related to navigation or searching), they can also find places that will be problematic for a larger group of users.

A few final words

Let us not forget that not only the content itself and its structure matter. How we present the content, how we display it, will affect its reception. The typeface we choose, the sizes we select or the colours we add to the project will affect the final reception of the content, as well as they will support or hinder navigation. A good product is a combination of wisely planned content and appropriate visualization.

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