It may not be sexy, but information architecture is the backbone of any good user experience.
I began my career in UX design under the moniker of ‘Information Architect’. Truthfully, whenever people asked me what I did, I cringed a little bit. It certainly wasn’t the coolest job title… I used to think it sounded like being an accountant. It’s probably why at some point in the last few years it became fashionable for most of us to re-brand as ‘UX Architects’ or similar.
In spite of this change, the practice of information architecture as a discipline has remained just as important, if not more-so. It’s one of the key skills a UX designer needs to have to make usable and logical products.
The ever-shifting world of UX
Ours is a fast evolving field.What was a best practice one year quickly fades into irrelevance the next.
We’re constantly having to rework our processes and techniques to stay on top of it all. Curve balls that have been thrown into our workflows over recent years include :
- Responsive design
- Mobile-first thinking
- The death of flash
- Single page sites
- Multi-channel experiences
- The rise (and fall) of skeuomorphism
- The rise (and continuing rise) of flat/material design
- …and many, many more.
If I had £5 for every time we had to change our workflow had to accommodate for some new development… Well, I’d probably be on a sunny beach with a fruity cocktail instead of writing this post.
But whilst fads have come and gone, the need for good IA has been one of the few constants in our field. Sensible organisation of information will forever be a staple of good design, even if we sometimes take that for granted.
This weekend I celebrated World Information Architecture Day at one of the many meetups that happened throughout the globe. Something that struck me whilst there was the lack of people with ‘Information Architect’ in their job title. This was in spite of the huge amount of great IA work that was happening.
Whilst the label has undoubtedly become less glamorous, the work is still hugely important.
Why do we still need information architecture?
Websites and apps will always need navigation
Even if it’s not always presented in the traditional way (i.e. the classic ‘nav bar’) we still need to consider the user’s pathway through any site or app. Illustrating this user journey via sitemap, a process diagram or even a storyboard is critical before diving into detailed screen designs.
This is the crux of information architecture. It means that we’ve given forethought to the order in which users will experience the content and features in our products. This kind of documentation is hugely beneficial; not just because it helps stakeholders to understand the user journey, but because it forces them to think about navigation outside of the visual presentation.
Naming and terminology are important.
It’s easy to underestimate the importance of naming conventions used in a site or app.
If someone can’t find information because it hasn’t been named or labelled effectively, the product really is doomed to fail. A facet of your design that seems so simple can cause massive problems if not thought about carefully. I’ve conducted many usability tests of sites that have crashed and burned - not due to any UI issues, but just because we just used the wrong words.
Why labor over a glorious page design if nobody can find it? Information architecture makes us question our choices in language and labeling, avoiding these kinds of pitfalls.
Content is getting more complex.
We live in a world where intricate data models are an everyday occurrence. ‘Big Data’ is the new Oil, or so I’ve been told.
Because of how complicated the information we deal with is getting, sites rarely use the simple, hierarchical navigation models that were once so common. I dare you to try drawing the site structure of a something like Facebook.
This complexity means that we need to plan content structures very carefully. This is all part of making what is actually very complicated data appear simple and intuitive to the user. The classic techniques of Information Architecture are needed to make sense of the bigger-picture.
Planning and documenting taxonomies, tagging structures and filtering systems are a crucial element of your site UX.
What we need to be doing.
Respect the importance of IA in your design process
Take the time to plan and discuss the structure and flow of information on your site. These conversations should be set aside and treated with as much importance as any other design step. The artefacts produced in this process should almost always be the first UX deliverable you present.
Test your navigation and content structure
Techniques such as card sorting and tools like OptimalSort’s tree-jack can be used to optimise and validate your IA with users at an early stage, before you’ve even started thinking about UI. This is important to catch any deficiencies in navigation and structure as early as possible.
Go forth and architect your information
Information Architecture might not be the most glamorous bit of the design process, but it sure as hell is one of the most important. Invest time into planning the structure of your information and set the foundations for a great User Experience.