Last week I attended great talk by Abby Covert about Information Architecture (IA). Abby shares my love of tackling big piles of tangled up information, and she—literally—wrote the book on How to Make Sense of Any Mess.
Since my own experience with IA grew up around websites, it was a good refresher to hear also about some of the very un-website projects Abby gets to tackle, such as analyzing complex business processes to inform operational software design.
As with many of the tools we use to make better websites, IA is older than the web and transcends it. But it is a critical component of effective website design that doesn’t always get the credit it deserves.
A Brief History of Website IA
Information Architecture became a formal project component early in the days of professionalized web design. We were learning that meaningfully designing the structure and navigation of a website was a critical prerequisite to effectively creating content and visual detail.
As a member of the first IA-focused team for intel.com almost fifteen years ago, I got to work closely with what we called “IA” at the time — mostly site trees, global navigation structures, and the early phases of layout design, expressed as reams of diagrams and wireframes.
As the fields of web design and digital marketing matured in parallel, I recall us talking increasingly about users. The marketers were realizing that, online, we could target audience personas at a much more granular level than the demographic-based segments of traditional advertising. And the web designers were starting to incorporate the User Experience (UX) practices that had grown up around software and product design.
We started building more user-centric research into our up-front planning. At first, persona development often fell to the IA experts, but as web UX spun off as a separate discipline, with agencies building out UX teams, the workflows shifted to match. UX, focused on the direct experience of the users, took on personas, wireframes, and navigation UI, adding new practices such as mapping out user journeys and flows, eventually evolving into prototype design. Good UX meant looking at the website as various user would see it, which is rarely as a two-dimensional site map.
This freed Information Architects to focus on their original specialty: understanding the information systems of the site, and structuring that information for better ease and understanding.
UX and IA Together
UX and IA are often treated as a hybrid. They are heavily interrelated. I know that back when I was heading up “UX/IA” for Intel.com, it would have been almost impossible to split out the various tracks of work and manage them separately. The menu systems, template designs, libraries and algorithms all were made of a finely meshed combination of both practices (along with visual design and other specialties). Similarly, my agency partners (shoutout to the brilliant folks at Razorfish) were smartly organized with UX and IA specialists on a single team, working in lockstep.
But they are two very different things. One way to think about it is to consider a non-fiction book: The book is organized into chapters, it has a table of contents, an index, footnotes and endnotes. IA would be detailing all of those things. The book also has some kind of presentation and form. Maybe it’s a rough manuscript in three-ring binders, or a beautiful glossy hardcover with thick paper and thumb indexes, or it’s published as a full-color PDF with internal hyperlinks. Those details have nothing to do with the IA—the IA is the same regardless—but they have everything to do with the UX.
Modern website IA is about the structure of the information and the design of access to the information, regardless of presentation or interface.
The Untapped Potential of IA
Fifteen years ago, or more recently for those who haven’t been keeping up, a new web design went through an “IA Phase” at the end of which came a deliverable called “The Information Architecture,” usually made up of some site trees and lots of wireframes. That got approved, and then handed off for visual design, content creation and technical development. After launch we often didn’t think much about IA until the next redesign came along.
But that has no bearing on how web IA is (or should be) practiced today. Websites are ever more dynamic and complex. The site IA changes every time content is added or removed, new metatags are introduced, or sitewide navigation is modified.
So if you’re still thinking of “Information Architecture” as this thing you pay attention to at the beginning of a project (and if you’re still thinking it looks like site trees and wireframes) you’re missing a big opportunity.
Ongoing IA Is Good for Business
This is not an academic exercise. Years of research have shown us the number one biggest website user frustration is not being able to easily locate their desired content. And frustrated users are more likely to leave, less likely to buy.
IA is one of the best tools you have to keep customers happy. How?
- Plan smart: Organize site information based on how your users are likely to look for it, not how you think about it internally. This means working across teams within your company. It also requires getting out of your office to talk to real users.
- Use all your tools: Sitewide headers and footers are just one piece of a strong IA toolkit. A comprehensive IA system utilizes a suite of features, including advanced search, interactive libraries, metatags, dynamic content, content type management, and strategic layout systems.
- Don’t stop: IA is not set-it-and-forget-it. Just like your content and your platform, it requires ongoing maintenance. Testing navigation changes, curating metatags, using change control processes… there are a multitude of ways to help keep your IA smooth and user friendly.
Most importantly, don’t stop talking to those users. They’ll tell you what they want and why it’s hard to find.