Generally speaking information architecture aims to help people find exactly what they are looking for. Information architecture can actually be applied to everyday physical objects, not just in digital products. For example libraries and supermarkets tend to use some kind of information architecture to structure their offers. When the term information architecture is used in the context of UX/Usability, it’s usually connected to websites or apps.
In fact designers or developers begin working on the information architecture of their product as soon as they try to divide, structure or categorize the content of their website, app or other digital product. To simplify it: information architecture is a general structure that enables users to figure out what their position within a digital product is. On top of that it helps users find the information they are looking for in relation to their own, current position.
Usually the information architecture of a product is not directly visible. Still it shapes the structure and appearance of digital products majorly. The entire information architecture usually consists of:
- Sitemaps that define the hierarchical content and link structure of a website
- Categories that include content and information that is connected by some kind of relationship
- Hierarchies that define how information is nested and which categories are main categories or sub-categories
- A navigation that enables users to navigate towards the information they are looking for using categories and the hierarchy
- Meta data which can be assigned to categories and content. Metadata makes the assignment of categories, the use of filters and searching for information within the available data or content possible
Related topicsThe roots of information architecture go much deeper than first websites or other digital products: its beginnings are library sciences, cognitive psychology and architecture. For hundreds of years, library sciences have concerned themselves with the question how resources can be categorized, cataloged, archived and found again in the most efficient way. From the viewpoint of modern media, solutions for cataloging data are especially relevant: how can metadata be assigned to content and connected in a way that makes searching and finding it reliable?
Cognitive psychology plays a central role in structuring information as well. While the area of cognitive psychology is so big it’s almost unmanageable, the following five key points help in understanding the background of information architecture.
- Cognitive Load: the amount of information humans can retain and process at any given time is restricted by their cognitive capacity. While there are different reference values, it’s widely assumed that people are able to store 5 +/- 2 “chunks” (clusters of information) in their working memory. Presenting people with more than this recommended number of clusters of information can lead to “mental overload” which should be avoided. This implies that a main menu should never include more than seven categories.
- Mental models: everybody has their own, individual perception of how things are supposed to work and look. Mental models are assumptions about how a product works, that users may already have before they even saw or used the product for the first time. Mental models can also be based on experiences with other, similar products. If you want to support your users in finding the information they are looking for, you should try to position information where users expect it to be.
- Decision making: the information architecture can facilitate decision making (e.g. during purchase of products) if you manage to present appropriate information during key moments of the user journey.
- Gestalt principles: gestalt principles influence the way in which we perceive the world and process visual information. Their key message is that humans group elements according to certain rules (e.g. similarity, closeness, continuity…). Elements that belong together should go with each other visually and also be located close to each other.
Influences on the design of the Information ArchitectureWhen building the information architecture of a product you need to consider your target group, the technology you use and the kind of data/content that will be present in the final product. Ultimately information architecture aims to make content accessible in a way the meets customers’ needs as well as the needs of the developers/designers and owners of the website or other product.
From the users’ point of view this entails intuitive orientation within the product as well as the possibility to find the information they are looking for easily. How exactly a structure that meets all these needs is supposed to look depends heavily on characteristics of the target group. Therefore there are a number of methods-mostly borrowed from user research-that enable designers to develop an information architecture directly with the user. For example it is possible to have users directly design the structure of the navigation (e.g. using tree testing) or to have users test the existing navigation.
Designers and providers of the digital product should pay special attention to the system’s context. Considering financial as well as technical boundaries is especially important. Another question to ponder is what kind of content, including its format, existing and needed metadata as well as their dynamic, needs to be structured. Especially content that needs to be updated regularly needs some kind of information architecture that is easily expandable.