How Information Architecture Can Make or Break Your Website
Many of us can tell if a website looks great or if it came from the era of Geocities and Angelfire. Attractive site design is certainly a goal most have in mind when they're optimizing their online presence, but there is an element beneath the surface of aesthetics with an even greater impact on whether a potential user answers the burning question of ‘will they, won’t they?’ when it comes to your website.
That element is the expression of where your content goes, how it’s found, and how users navigate between pages: Information Architecture.
Information Architecture (IA) is the system by which you organize, prioritize, label, and connect content to optimize findability and usability. In a broader sense, it’s structuring information and content in a way that makes sense to your audience.
Successful IA helps your audience find, use, and understand your content.
Want a surefire way to make sure your content strategy and UX design are simpatico? Check your information architecture! Its impact is far-reaching and can mean the difference between your website being digital white noise or a mesmerizing melody that effortlessly draws users in.
Information Architecture: Harmonizing the Dissonance of Cacophonous Content
With more than 1.83 billion websites on the Internet (as of 03/03/21), it has been a necessity to help users sort the wheat from the chaff. Google has been developing and updating their algorithms each year since the beginning; and for the past several years, has been making more than a thousand updates every year due to the increasing volume of websites and online content.
The implementation of sound information architecture is marketers, developers, and businesses doing their part to bring a sense of value and order to digital content. An online search should provide instant gratification for the user; and clicking through to a site that excels at ontology, taxonomy, and choreography (the big 3 components of IA) ought to make that gratified user comfortable and sigh aloud, “ah, yes.”
Sitting down to address the IA of your website can introduce a sense of harmony between your marketing and digital presence by looking at the three key areas of information architecture: Ontology, Taxonomy, and Choreography. Understanding what each of these categories involves, and the interplay between them is central to designing a website that can be found, used, and navigated with ease.
How will users consume your content? What do they know about you, your services, or your products that they’ve come to expect and understand?
Ontology focuses on the content from the user’s perspective, or at least with their perspective in mind. Word choice, symbolism, and colors are subjective elements in that they can mean different things to different people based on their background (geographic location, age, education, etc.).
Using off-brand colors in your site design, for instance, can lead to confusion as users are confronted with an unexpected color scheme that might mislead them into thinking they clicked the wrong link.
If you’re a local or region-specific business, your content’s word choice (tag sale vs. rummage sale) might lose some users depending on where they’re from. That applies to your keywords as well; and if you choose phrases that your audience doesn’t know or associate with you, that hinders your site’s chances of being found in the first place.
To nail this aspect of your site’s IA, focus on clear content that users can understand, whether it’s the social media buttons, site color scheme, or text. Use what you know about your audience and what they know about you to gain perspective on how to improve your ontology.
When you work on a new website design and are contemplating where the content should go, how it should be formatted, what the navigation should look like, and what it should include, you’re practicing taxonomy. In biology, taxonomies are used to categorize, label, and organize the names of different animal species. The same is true for taxonomy and content!
Organizing, properly labeling, and the appropriate categorization of your content brings together the needs and ambitions of content, marketing, and UX design. Understanding the relationships within your content, established categories, and site navigation can be done through exercises like mind-mapping, hierarchy maps, and card sorting.
Ultimately, you’re organizing and categorizing on-page content in a way that makes sense to the user, accompanied by easy-to-use navigation.
As the name suggests, choreography in information architecture is how the ontology and taxonomy interact, like the melody and movements of a dance. The interplay among moving parts that have been defined, labeled, categorized, and prioritized—that’s IA choreography.
The hierarchy you establish for your content should benefit the user (easy to find, easy to browse) and serve as a meeting point for your business goals and the goals of the end-user to align.
Does the journey your business goals created align with the value your users are seeking from you? Can your on-page content be understood at a glance or is it confusing and busy? When reviewing your IA, this stage in planning can reveal whether or not your ontology and taxonomy make sense functionally and strategically.
The 8 Principles of Information Architecture
Are you curious to know how tight your information architecture is? For starters, you can look to the 8 principles of information architecture. These principles originated with OG UX developer Dan Brown, specifically to help other UX designers better understand and implement IA.
To keep it simple, each principle is followed by one or more questions you can apply to your own website, IA practices, and planning.
Is your content treated as a living, breathing thing with life cycles, tendencies, and behaviors all their own?
The Principle of Choices
Are there too many choices to make on your site?
Are available choices minimal but meaningful?
The Principle of Disclosure
Are users being met with too much content on a page?
Are users able to learn what they need at a glance and still have the option to dig deeper?
The Principle of Exemplars
Are UX options self explanatory?
Do you provide examples that explain or illustrate available options?
The Principle of Front Doors
Does your site include navigation aids or tooltips that compensate for users who didn’t arrive on the home page?
The Principle of Multiple Classifications
Can users search your site content?
Is there a search bar or top level menus, etc. that give users different ways to navigate or search content?
The Principle of Focused Navigation
Is your site navigation simple and consistent?
Was it designed with consideration for how the user interacts with it?
The Principle of Growth
Does your site have room to grow?
Does it have scalability to accommodate future changes or content?
How did you do? Does your site embody the 8 principles of information architecture? If not, don’t worry—we can help!