Some people in the design community insist on calling website menu systems “information architecture.” I think they do it to make menu design sound sexier or more esoteric. Unfortunately that’s not what information architecture is. Or rather, it’s only part of what information architecture is.
Information architecture (IA) is actually “the structural design of shared information environments.” It’s no good just having a well-thought-through menu system for your site. Once you get people to where they need to be, the content needs to be arranged in the way they expect, using words they understand. Knowing how your users think about and self-categorize your site’s content should be central to your whole design effort. It boils down to finding out how your users think about and categorize the concepts, tasks, and activities that your product deals with, and then creating an architecture that matches this world view. My course Foundations of UX: Information Architecture steps through the discipline of IA, and the practical steps needed to apply it to your projects.
How do you work out the best IA for your site or app? You can uncover the structure using simple user research tools like card sorts and reverse card sorts. However, these tools don’t spit out a perfect solution. It still takes time and effort to interpret and take action on this research. You might need to go through a couple of versions of your architecture, testing the usability after each change, before reaching a level of user efficiency, effectiveness, and satisfaction that you’re happy with. Truly user-centered IA isn’t something you can just brainstorm; it involves a lot of customer research and testing to get it right.
The good news is there’s no magic involved. Anyone who can focus on both the big picture and detailed elements simultaneously has the potential to be good at IA. Online tools such as Optimal Workshop’s OptimalSort and Treejack make user research faster and more meaningful than traditional methods, so it’s even easier than ever today to test, analyze, and revise potential solutions. In other words, it’s now easier than ever to do it yourself when it comes to creating or updating your site’s IA.
Even if you don’t plan on doing the work yourself, understanding the steps and the output of an IA creation process puts you in a better position when talking with potential vendors. And if you hear a vendor using the words “information architecture” as a posh way of talking just about your site’s or application’s menus, do them a favor and point them to my course so that they can learn the true meaning of the term—and better serve their clients in the future.
Interested in more? Watch the entire Foundations of UX: Information Architecture course at lynda.com.