Understanding UX: Introduction to Information Architecture (IA)

by Rufus Walker
March 27, 2018

In my previous post Understanding UX: Empathy Meets Technology, I explored the idea that UX can be explained as the capital letter ”T.” Think of the top horizontal line of the “T” as representing the general broad range that is User Experience, whereas the vertical line of the “T” represents the depth people can specialize in within the broad UX spectrum. One of those lesser known depths is something called Information Architecture (IA).

I have encountered many people who don’t quite understand what IA is or why it even matters within the UX process. “You write copy, use some SEO and just send it out right?” The answer is no; IA is so much more than that.

So, what is Information Architecture?

Information Architecture is all about thoughtfully taking your content and structuring it in a way that best positions it to be clearly understandable by your intended audience. At the end of the day, great IA needs to make sure that users find the information they are searching for and start the tasks they are wanting to complete.

You can achieve this balance by first understanding how the three components of IA (context, content and user needs) work together to shape your message.

  1. Context accounts for things like business goals, client objectives, current culture, and technological constraints. What do you need to write? Why do you need to write it? These parameters are important because they help establish your intended goal and mission.
  2. Content should define the authority, structure, and tone. What are you trying to say with your content? Does this message sound consistent across various touchpoints?
  3. User needs account for your audience segmentations, tasks, behaviors, and general knowledge. How will your users receive this message? What do you want or need them to do next? Will they clearly understand your message?

In their book, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web: Designing Large-Scale Web Sites, Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville elaborate on these components with questions that I believe you should ask yourself during the IA process.

  • How is your information labeled and structured?
  • How are you representing this information?
  • How are users going to navigate through this information?
  • How are users going to search for this information?

Information Architecture itself is still a very complex and broad term. Many experts choose to further specialize within the discipline — some that you might already know. For example, there are many experts in taxonomy, which is a subdiscipline of IA. Taxonomy is the categorization, or classification, of things based on a predetermined system. A website’s taxonomy is the way it organizes its data into categories and subcategories, sometimes displayed in a site map.

So, next time you find yourself working on a new website or app, clearly think about the foundation you want to build for your content and design. Having great copy and visually stunning designs won’t do you any good if users can’t find the information they need.