Information Architecture (IA)

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What is Information Architecture (IA)?

Information architecture (IA) is the discipline of making information findable and understandable. It includes searching, browsing, categorizing and presenting relevant and contextual information to help people understand their surroundings and find what they’re looking for online and in the real world.

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IA is used in physical spaces like museums or department stores, as well as in websites and applications. For instance, in a natural history museum, you will find fossils from the Jurassic period exhibited together, just as your favorite packet of chips will always be in the snack aisle of your supermarket.  

Information architecture operates from two perspectives:

  1. People perceive information, products and services as places made of language

  2. These places or information environments can be arranged for optimal findability and understandability.

Language in this instance means visual elements, labels, descriptions, menus, content. We can arrange this language so that it works together to facilitate understanding. 

Diagram showing the breakdown of information architecture between content, context and users

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Good IA is informed by content, context and users. 

Content

  • What kind of information is available?

  • What relevance does it have to the user?

Context

  • Where is the user seeking out the content?

  • When, why and how is the user engaging with the content?

User

  • Who is consuming the content?

  • What value does it provide?

  • What preexisting expectations do they have?

In the book Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, Louis Rosenfeld, Peter Morville, and Jorge Arango describe the concept of “information ecology” which comprises users, content, and context “to address the complex dependencies” that exist “in information environments”. The Venn diagram above illustrates the nature of these relationships. “The three circles illustrate the interdependent nature of users, content, and context within a complex, adaptive information ecology.” 

Context relates to business goals, funding, culture, technology, politics, resources and constraints. Content consists of the document or data types, content objects, volume and existing structures. Users comprise the audience, tasks, needs, experiences and how they seek information. 

Good information architecture is informed by all three areas, all of which are in flux depending on the information environment. 

IA and UX design

As with all aspects of UX design, information architecture starts with understanding people—namely, their reasons to use a product or service. A methodical and comprehensive approach to structuring information is needed to make it findable and understandable irrespective of the context, channel, or medium employed by the user.

Once you understand how a user behaves and seeks information, you can design a successful sitemap (like the one shown below), website navigation, user flows and so on. 

diagram showing the sitemap of a bookstore's website

A bookstore’s sitemap

© Visual Paradigm, Fair Use

Designers need to understand the following when designing websites and applications:

  • the information needs of users

  • the site or app’s content

  • the business goals of the website, app, or organization

An information architect’s deliverables typically include:

  • site maps

  • wireframes

  • hierarchies 

  • navigation

  • and metadata. 

Information architecture should be a holistic process, so when a new product or service is being designed, it’s important to start with IA. Good IA serves as the foundation of effective user experience design. 

Learn More About Information Architecture

Card sorting is one of the most popular methods to understand how users classify information. Learn how to conduct effective cart sorts in this Master Class.

The guidebook to information architecture, Information Architecture, 4th Edition.

Better understand the practice of information architecture in relation to UX design.

For principles and the importance of IA in UX design, read this article.

Questions related to Information Architecture

Why is information architecture important for user experience? 

Information architecture (IA) significantly enhances user experience by structuring digital products in a user-friendly manner. It ensures users can find information and complete tasks efficiently which directly influences their ability to navigate and interact with websites, apps, and other interfaces intuitively. A well-designed IA reduces users' cognitive load and prevents them from feeling overwhelmed and helps them locate what they need without frustration. This ease of navigation boosts user satisfaction and engagement, making it more likely for users to return. By improving accessibility, IA also makes digital products usable for a wider range of people, further solidifying its importance in creating positive user experiences. 

Watch the Master Class, Design for Adaptability: Component-Driven Information Architecture, to learn more. 

What are some highly cited scientific research on information architecture? 

Dekkers, T., Melles, M., & W Vehmeijer, S. B. (2021). Effects of Information Architecture on the Effectiveness and User Experience of Web-Based Patient Education in Middle-Aged and Older Adults: Online Randomized Experiment. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 23(3). https://doi.org/10.2196/15846 

Danaher, B. G., McKay, H. G., & Seeley, J. R. (2005). The Information Architecture of Behavior Change Websites. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 7(2). https://doi.org/10.2196/jmir.7.2.e12  

Guizani, M. (2022). A Decade of Information Architecture in HCI: A Systematic Literature Review. ArXiv. /abs/2202.13412 

 Lacerda, F., Lima-Marques, M. & Resmini, A. An Information Architecture Framework for the Internet of Things. Philos. Technol. 32, 727–744 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13347-018-0332-4  

What are some well-regarded and influential books on information architecture? 

Morville, P., & Rosenfeld, L. (2015). Information Architecture: For the Web and Beyond (4th ed.). O'Reilly Media.  

Van Dijck, P. (2003). Information Architecture for Designers: Structuring Websites for Business Success. Rotovision.  

Covert, A. (2014). How to Make Sense of Any Mess: Information Architecture for Everybody. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.  

How do you start the process of information architecture design? 

Designers initiate the information architecture design process by first understanding user needs and evaluating the content available. They conduct user research to gain insights into the audience's behaviors, preferences, and goals. Following this, designers assess the content to identify what exists, its relevance, and how it should be organized to align with user expectations. This foundational step ensures the development of a user-centric information architecture, enhancing navigation and interaction efficiency.  

Learn more about how to get started with IA in this Master Class, How To Use Card Sorting For Better Information Architecture. 

What tools are used for creating information architecture? 

Designers use a variety of tools for creating information architecture, including: 

 Card sorting tools: These help in understanding how users categorize information, facilitating the creation of a structure that matches user expectations. Examples include OptimalSort and UXPin. 

Sitemap tools: Tools like XMind and Lucidchart assist designers in visualizing the structure of websites or applications, making it easier to organize content hierarchically. 

Wireframing tools: Applications such as Sketch and Adobe XD enable designers to create low-fidelity mockups that outline the basic structure of web pages or app screens, incorporating the planned information architecture. 

User flow tools: These applications help in mapping out the paths users will take within the website or app, ensuring a logical flow from one piece of content to another. Examples include FlowMapp and Microsoft Visio.  

Learn more in the Master Class, How To Use Card Sorting For Better Information Architecture. 

What are the main components of information architecture? 

The main components of information architecture include: 

 Organization systems: These dictate how information is categorized and structured, allowing users to predict where to find information. 

Labeling systems: They involve the way information and navigation options are represented to make them understandable and findable. 

Navigation systems: These systems guide users through the information architecture, helping them understand their location within the website or app and how to reach their desired information. 

Search systems: Implemented to allow users to find specific information quickly, especially in content-rich applications or websites. 

 These components work together to create a coherent, user-friendly experience and ensure that users can find the information they need efficiently and intuitively. 

Learn more in the Master Class, Design for Adaptability: Component-Driven Information Architecture. 

How does card sorting help with information architecture?  

Card sorting allows designers to understand how users categorize and perceive information. Through this method, participants organize content into categories that make sense to them, revealing insights into user expectations and mental models. This feedback helps designers create an intuitive structure for the website or application, ensuring that the navigation and organization of information align with user perspectives. Card sorting can be conducted either in person or using online tools, providing valuable data that inform the development of a user-centric information architecture, enhancing usability and the overall user experience. 

Learn more in the Master Class, How To Use Card Sorting For Better Information Architecture. 

What is the difference between information architecture and content strategy? 

The difference between information architecture and content strategy lies in their focus and scope. Information architecture primarily deals with the organization and structure of information, which makes it easier for users to navigate and find what they need within a digital product. It focuses on the layout of content, categorization, and the design of intuitive navigation systems. 

  

Content strategy, on the other hand, concerns itself with the creation, delivery, and governance of content. It involves planning the content's lifecycle, including how it's created, maintained, and eventually archived or updated. Content strategy aims to ensure that content meets both user needs and business goals, focusing on the quality, relevance, and management of content. 

While IA provides the framework for how information is organized, content strategy deals with what content is presented and how it is managed over time. Both are crucial for creating a cohesive and effective user experience, but they address different aspects of the user's interaction with digital products. 

Learn more in the NN Group article, Information Architecture vs. Sitemaps: What’s the Difference?  

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Literature on Information Architecture (IA)

Here’s the entire UX literature on Information Architecture (IA) by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Information Architecture (IA)

Take a deep dive into Information Architecture (IA) with our course User Experience: The Beginner’s Guide .

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  • Laura Klein, Product Management Expert, Principal at Users Know, Author of Build Better Products and UX for Lean Startups

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