A Beginner's Guide to Information Architecture

Design UX Analyze Data Magnifying Glass

By Katharine Hargreaves

Imagine you were dropped in a strange location without a proper map. The next step might not be obvious because, chances are, there isn’t a clear path. If this happened today, you would most likely pull out your phone to get directions from a mapping app. In our modern world, we are, more often than not, reliant on technology to do the heavy lifting of problem-solving.

Ever since Google made finding an answer only a few clicks away, it’s been easy to forget that in order for information to be accessible to us, it must first be organized in a way that makes sense. When information is sorted, organized, and labeled, it becomes a map. By definition, maps are diagrammatic representations of relationships between things. Whether physical or digital, good maps allow people to navigate efficiently and with clarity through any environment.

Information architecture (IA) is exactly what it sounds like: how information is structured, from the foundation to the footnotes. Richard Saul Wurman, the founder of modern IA, believed that how information was presented was oftentimes more important than the information itself. While the process of defining information structures isn’t confined to the digital spaces we inhabit, the fluid nature of the internet requires us to think deeper about how different “knowledge nodes” connect. Let’s break down why that is.

In the digital world, information can be structured (and stored) in many different ways, like spreadsheets, sitemaps, content schedules, and databases. In the context of user experience (UX) design, the deliverables designers use to communicate information is dependent on the context of use. Designers often use IA to illuminate what content or information is mission-critical, where it lives in the system, and how it’s connected.

For a simple company website, a designer might first build a site map to communicate (to the internal team and potentially to the client) and confirm what static pages are necessary, what the information hierarchy is for content, and what information lives in the different global elements (e.g., the top navigation versus the footer).

What Are the Components of Information Architecture?

Mental models are how people think about things. In the digital space, they are often based on representations of what exists in the real world (remember Skeuomorphic design?). Most of us have mental models that influence our process or way of thinking about something. In order for organizations and companies to be more effective in communicating value to their audience, it’s important to first understand the following about their users:

  • How their users think (process)
  • What they expect (mental model)
  • How it relates to other information (classification)
  • How they refer to specific things (taxonomy)
  • Where they are in a given environment (context)

These user mental models and behaviors can and should inform the design of a digital product or experience. Ultimately, information architecture is the map that allows the user to efficiently navigate between pages and places. Although “invisible” to most users, we see IA in the following:

  • Content strategy (How will content be managed and updated?)
  • Schema (How is this content organized?)
  • Navigation (Where is content located?)
  • Taxonomy (How is this content classified?)
  • Search (How are users searching for content?)

User Research and Information Architecture

By nature, people use systems differently. When it comes to IA, it’s critical that designers advocate for user research and testing as early in the design process as possible. Ideally, it’s the first step your team takes. Because information architecture lays the foundation for the look and feel of a product, it’s imperative that companies speak with their users to understand their preferences, terminology, and mental models.

Simple IA-focused exercises such as card sorting help designers and researchers learn how users organize topics and what language they use to refer to specific information. Rather than making expensive assumptions that may deter people from using a product or service, companies can work with users from the ground up to create a solution that aligns with their audience. For instance, when a company assumes that its users refer to a topic in a specific way, it might lose a lot of customers that don’t “see” that word because it doesn’t match their mental model. This often results in customers going elsewhere because they can’t find what they’re looking for — even when it’s right under their noses.

When considering how to begin structuring the information architecture, it is helpful to ask questions such as:

  • How do users navigate content on our site?
  • If our primary user has X as a goal, how do they go about completing this task?
  • How is important information being presented to our user?
  • What language or terminology do people use when referring to this process/service/product/thing?
  • What terms do people use to search for X?

What Good Information Architecture Looks Like

Designers often talk about “delight” when it comes to user experience: the little details that add something extra to a user’s experience. Ultimately, though, delight alone is not enough to make an interface or experience effective. While investing in funky animations and slick visuals can and does attract users, what most people need is a clear path to achieve their goal or complete a task.

Information architecture has made the internet a place where people can find literally anything. Given the size and scope of the web, this is a feat to be celebrated. Without metadata, there would be no indexing of relevant articles that help you search by topic. Without the design convention of consistent global navigation on websites, it would take a lot of hunting and pecking to find the information buried deep inside (imagine Wikipedia without a search bar). Without sitemaps, designers and developers might find that they’re talking about completely different structural schemas.

As you can see, IA is everywhere. Often invisible to the unpracticed eye, the effects of information architecture on our everyday experience are profound.

Information Architecture at General Assembly

Information architecture is a tool that all great UX designers practice, which is why it’s a core skill students learn at General Assembly. While visual design can be subjective to different tastes and perspectives, it’s difficult to argue with an information schema that supports user paths through the system. When an experience is aligned around the user’s mental model, it eases the friction people feel when we’re asked to learn something new.

Most people’s default mode is to decrease complexity. Asking users to learn on someone else’s terms makes the experience less engaging and ultimately more hostile to new or naive users. As an instructor for GA’s full-time UX Design Immersive course in Los Angeles, my goal is to empower designers to develop systems that are accessible, inclusive, and supportive of users. Clear information architecture is the first step in that direction.

Meet Our Expert

Katharine Hargreaves is a UX strategist, educator, and facilitator working at the intersection of social impact design and education. She teaches the User Experience Design Immersive at GA’s Los Angeles campus. Katharine believes that human-centered design heals the world, and she’s dedicated to building tools and systems that empower people everywhere to be problem-solvers.

“Having been both a GA student and teacher, I can attest to the inspiring network of creators, thinkers, and learners who come here. I’ve met some of my best friends, mentors, and collaborators. GA continually gives back.”

Katharine Hargreaves, User Experience Design Immersive, General Assembly Los Angeles