What is Information Architecture? A Beginner’s Guide

You want a great website. That’s the easy part. And you probably realize that a great website involves more than just web design. But exactly what do you need? What hidden components of your website planning and building help make it successful, both for your organization and your users?

In your search for those components, you’ll probably come across the term information architecture. Often shortened to IA, it’s as crucial to your website as blueprints are to new construction. In this beginner’s guide to information architecture, you’ll learn all the basics so you can build a great website.

Colored panels with arrows pointing to other panels to represent information architecture

What is Information Architecture?

Just like a building needs an architectural design that places all the rooms, connects the rooms to one another, and ensures the space flows well, your website needs a basic structure behind it that makes sense to both human visitors and search engine crawlers. That structure is Information Architecture. Or, as The Information Architecture Institute explains it:

Information architecture is the practice of deciding how to arrange the parts of something to be understandable.

Perhaps even more so than a house, thinking about a library also serves to explain what IA is. The way the catalog is structured, and then laid out across shelves and rows, is similar to how information architecture actually works. Furthermore, libraries also utilize signs that tell you where to go, making your experience as a visitor much smoother. Applied to your website, information architecture is how all the information is structured both on the front and back-end of your website to benefit you and your audience.

4 Examples of Information Architecture

In practical terms, information architecture includes elements like

  • Sitemap: A list of all of the pages on your website, usually that indicates how the folders separate pages out into different categories. It allows you to view all of the categories and organize on a macro-level.
  • Navigation: The menus and other elements that visitors use to move around your website.
  • Footer design: Usually just one part of the overall IA process, but like navigation, the footer design helps users find important parts of your site, and is particularly useful for search engines.
  • IA Diagram: A comprehensive document that includes all the elements of the IA process, most commonly the sitemap and the navigation.

brief list of the four types of information architecture mentioned in the article

What are the 4 Components of Information Architecture?

In their foundational book Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville broke down four core components of IA that should be considered in any website build:

1. Organizational Systems

Organizational systems outline how the information will be divided. The three most fundamental systems in this category are hierarchical, sequential, and matrix-based. These systems provide the conceptual backbone for general categorization of information on your site. Examples of this include topical filtering for a blog segment, clusters of landing pages, subfolder structure, or organizing a section by date. 

2. Labeling Systems

Labeling systems are for representing data. These are the most visible components of the IA structure. Labels, such as a “contact” button to encourage a conversion event, intuitively tells your audience what to do and expect. Text within a menu is also part of the labeling system, as are anchor text for links and even headings on a page. Consider how this blog is outlined, for instance. We use headings as a labeling system to help you navigate through the information. 

3. Navigation Systems

Navigation Systems are the primary means by which users move through your site. That might include the traditional website menu, and how you design that menu to either expand or limit the users choices for moving through the entirety of the site. Maybe you want your visitors to be able to access all of the categories in your blog segment from your homepage. Or maybe you don’t. You decide that when you design the navigation system. Navigation systems also include things like where you will locate calls to action in a menu or on a page. 

4. Search Systems

Search systems range from a search box at its most basic to a complex filtering system for larger websites. It’s a way for the user to skip the navigation and go straight to their page of choice. Exactly how they find that content, and how the search is optimized, will be crucial.

9 Steps to Effective Information Architecture for Your Website

This is a beginner’s guide, so we won’t go super in-depth on recommended tools or a scientific process for building the right structure of your website. Instead, we’ll give you a basic overview of the steps required to achieve the desired end result — a blueprint that guides the website design.

  1. Define your website goals. Exactly what do you want and need the site to accomplish?
  2. Define your audience’s goals. When they come to their website, what are they looking to accomplish? Crucially these might be (and often are) different from your own goals.
  3. Create a content inventory. What does your website need to include? Start with basic categories, but don’t be afraid to dig into the content details as well.
  4. Group your content. Many information architects use card-sorting techniques to help them understand how different pieces of content belong to and work with each other.
  5. Create a sitemap. Take the grouped content, and work up a diagram on how it might be connected with each other. The result will likely look something like an org chart. Here’s a great collection of example sitemaps from Search Engine Journal. 
  6. Create the navigation. Use the theoretical connections you’ve made in the sitemap, and create them in real-time. 
  7. Start testing with users. Put the sitemap and navigation in front of them, then give them specific tasks of finding content that matches your website and user goals. How easily can they find it?
  8. Check for accessibility and mobile-friendliness. The above guidelines can play a core role in ensuring you’re not running into any troubles in those areas.
  9. Make adjustments where needed. Remember that user experience is at the forefront of any good IA. 

And that’s it! With these nine steps, you can make sure that your website has a structure that helps you meet both your business goals and those of your audience. The result is not just a better online experience, but a more focused experience that ultimately improves user satisfaction as well as your bottom line.

The best part: none of the above has a minimum threshold. Even a 3-page site for a small business can still benefit from a strategic information architecture. That blueprint will be beneficial in all of the ways described above.

Why Information Architecture Matters

You might think that your website is not complex enough, or your organization is not large enough, to strategically consider IA. That would be a mistake. In fact, every website has information architecture — it’s just that anyone considering the concept while building their site will have a central advantage when it comes to their audience.

Good IA helps you get crucial information across quickly, while helping your users find what they’re looking for. Bad IA is like a maze that your users get stuck in, to nobody’s benefit. Here are five great reasons to integrate information architecture planning into your website design or redesign:

1. IA is central to a good user experience (UX)

Web designers can use the structure created by IA to plan anything from their navigation to the structure of the individual pages. If they know how information is supposed to flow, they can optimize the design around that information to support the flow.

2. IA provides the birds-eye view of the entire site.

Whether you’re building your website from scratch or just looking to add a few features, that birds-eye view helps keep the broader context and other pieces of information front and center to make sure it all makes sense.

3. IA helps to accomplish your website goals.

Chances are you don’t just want visitors on your site. You’re looking for them to convert, be it to leads or to customers for an eCommerce business. Good information architecture drives your visitors down your funnel and gets them where you need them to go to accomplish those goals.

4. IA has a significant impact on search engine optimization.

Good IA can improve your SEO in many ways. It decreases bounce rates, improves your site’s appearance on results pages, and increases on-page engagement. It’s far from the only variable in SEO, but plays an important part in boosting your rankings.

5. IA can decrease your long-term marketing and web costs.

Every bit of money you spend on an ad goes further if the user lands on your website and finds what they’re looking for. Meanwhile, a website designed with good IA will be much easier to update, improve, and evolve down the road. Fewer full redevelopments mean less money spent.

quote from article text about why information architecture saves you money over time

Accessibility and Information Architecture

It’s always been preferable to design your website in a way that makes the information accessible to visitors with disabilities. After all, more than 50 million Americans have a disability that could impact the way they browse your site. But it’s taken a significant step forward recently, with a growing number of individuals taking legal action against websites that are not accessible.

Moreover, accessibility is great for users without disability as well. The changes you should make to improve accessibility generally tend to improve the experience on your website for everyone, including even search engine crawlers. For instance, updating alt text on images — an important component of making your site accessible to screen readers — can also you improve your rank in search engines.

5 Pillars of Accessibility in Information Architecture

The priority? Design and structure the information so that it’s easy to navigate for anyone, regardless of their level of ability. According to the General Services Administration, accessibility should affect your IA in a few different ways:

  1. Users should be able to easily land on controls and understand the site using only a screen reader. Some information architects use simulators to accomplish that goal.
  2. Page titles should be descriptive and easily convey each page’s focus.
  3. Users should have the ability to navigate your website in multiple ways. Those ways might include a table of contents, sitemap, interlinks, and search function.
  4. Changes in language should be clearly marked on your page and in your code to help people with screen readers, cognitive disabilities, and braille translation software. Keep them to a minimum, and try to bunch them together to avoid continuous switching back and forth.
  5. Forms need to be both straightforward and set up for each label and instruction to be accessible. 

Each of these requirements can be solved in the information architecture build. That baseline of accessibility, in turn, increases your potential audience and plays a part in keeping you legally protected.

5 pillars of accessibility in information architecture as listed in the article

Mobile-Friendly Information Architecture

Another important nuance to keep in mind is just how your information architecture might differ on mobile vs. desktop devices. More than half of all internet users now come through either smartphones or tablets, and the way they interact with websites is dramatically different from their desktop counterparts.

To start, they expect a simple navigation. They also prefer buttons over in-text links, and tend to be much more visual. Present them with a wall of text, and they’ll be almost sure to bail.

Those behavioral differences naturally affect the way you build your IA. If the goal is an optimized user experience, you have to make sure that you cater to your audience’s needs and preferences. That means more than simply embracing responsive design, although it’s a great first step. It’s about building the entire structure to satisfy and exceed mobile expectations.

5 Principles of Mobile-First Information Architecture

That, in turn, has led many organizations to embrace a mobile-first information architecture, which, according to the Interaction Design Foundation, incorporates a few key principles:

  • Content should be smaller, simpler, and easier to handle than the traditional desktop-based website. Limited screen sizes almost naturally squeeze the space you have to get the information across.
  • The navigation should be as simple as possible, limiting the number of options on the menu or any secondary menus that might seem straightforward on desktop.
  • Click investment is a priority. Every click a mobile user makes takes effort. The fewer they have to take to get to the spots they (and you) want to get to, the better.
  • Links should be clearly marked, and easy to find, where possible — the more descriptive the anchor text, the better.
  • Navigational cues should be obvious. Wherever you can, that means making breadcrumbs explicit and telling your users exactly what to expect when they click on them.

Here’s the thing: these might be mobile optimization tips, but they’re just as relevant for desktop IA as well. The lessons learned from mobile user experience can easily transfer to its desktop counterpart. The result is a comprehensive website that is designed to appeal to your mobile users but considers all device types.

Get help designing your IA

Don’t let the complexity of the topic make you hesitant to approach it. Instead, work with a partner who has significant experience in information architecture, and is ready to share that experience with you.

Contact us to learn more about the topic and our ability to help you build and improve your website.