Information architecture: What is it actually

Imagine you enter a discounter chain you know in a foreign city, in a foreign country. You probably don’t speak the local language and probably can’t even read the writing. Nevertheless, this is a place where you feel at ease and can find your way around. You can do your purchase. Why? Because of your experience and intuitive knowledge of how this discount shop is structured, where your favourite items will be and how you should behave in this environment.

What does this have to do with information architecture?

Roughly speaking, the structuring of discounters is nothing more than an information architecture concept, because information architecture is concerned with organising information spaces. 

However, the focus of this article and the related subject area is not on the design of discounters, but on the organisation of the largest information space of all: the Word-Wide-Web. What now sounds like a task for IT and data specialists behind the big search engines is also a task for every operator of a website. Because every website is an information space.

The discipline of “information architecture” is one of the areas around User Experience (UX)/Usability and is therefore an essential part of the planning and design of websites and online offers.

The aim of a successful information architecture is to ensure that the information sought is found by users as efficiently as possible. It is therefore also clear that information architecture does not deal with the external appearance of a website, but defines its basic structure.

A successful information architecture also ensures that the contents are described in a compact and target group-oriented manner so that users are able to judge whether the information is relevant. In addition, an IA ensures that within an item of information there are also references to related and further information.

A good information architecture should provide “a place of information” in which you can find your way around. If I were to ask you now how a website for a general practitioner would differ from a website for a restaurant, you could intuitively tell me some characteristics, couldn’t you?

Just think about it. What do you think of?

For me, the most important thing about both websites is the opening hours and the address. In the case of the restaurant, we are probably looking for a menu and prices, whereas with a doctor, thanks to our health insurance companies, we would rather not do this.

In both cases, the context of the information plays a crucial role. Contexts have a recognition value for us which makes it easier for us to navigate through the information space and to follow our information needs in a targeted manner. The information architecture and design should give us an immediate impression: We are in the online offer of a doctor, a restaurant or an (online) bank.

The topic “context in information spaces” is very complex and interdisciplinary. For a more in-depth treatment of the topic I recommend Hinton 2014.

But what does information architecture have to do with architecture?

Information spaces – like physical buildings – are usually complex and dynamic. While the interior changes frequently, the basic structure remains relatively constant over time.

  • The domain (internet address e.g. facebook.com) is the plot of land of an information space. In most cases, this property remains unchanged as long as the information space exists.
  • Menu structures correspond to the brickwork. These components should really only be revised in the course of a core renovation.
  • The design corresponds to the exterior façade. Changing this element is time-consuming and cannot be done every day, but it is certainly necessary and feasible to renovate the outer façade every few years.
  • Website categories, site areas etc. correspond to the doors in a building. These elements can be changed relatively easily.
  • The actual information, such as texts, pictures etc. correspond to the furniture. It is quite normal that these elements are in constant change.

When is a website actually good?

Many would say: “If she looks great!” Yeah, maybe. For the first impression the visual appearance of the website is crucial and as we all know: the first impression counts. But a good design cannot convince alone.

We must not rely on the visual component. The most sophisticated visualisation is worthless if it is not accompanied by other positive features. These include in particular the design of the interaction between the website and the user as well as the structuring of the information.

After all, we as users always visit websites with a specific goal in mind, and this goal is rarely the admiration of a design. The design is a means to an end, because it should help the user to reach his goal.

You are guaranteed to be familiar with websites that show blatant deficits in one of these areas – for example, interaction is extremely awkward or information is so poorly structured that it can only be found via detours, if at all.

Form fellows function.

If the customer can’t find the product, the customer can’t buy it”.(Jakob Nielsen, usability expert).

It seems self-explanatory, but it is by no means! If our users do not reach their goal because the newsletter is hidden behind meaningless icons and the blog post is spectacularly laid out but cannot be found in the search function, then our website will fail.

A wealth of information leads to a poverty of attention” (Herbert Simon, winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics 1978)

Users are used to getting quick answers to their search queries on the WWW. Accordingly, it is not only essential that the information offered can be found easily on a website, but also that it appears in the search engine hits, if possible, at the first offers.

Only if the aspects of structuring, searching and visualisation of information as well as the interaction between users and system are considered equally and coordinated in the design of the website, a solution can be created which is usable (Usability), creates benefit and also conveys joy of use. All of this together can then ensure a positive user experience. User experience does not only refer to the use of the website itself, but also includes the period before and after use (expectations, impressions, etc.)

And finally, a website is only good if it can offer a good user experience.

But what are concrete elements of an information architecture?

For the users, the obvious structuring features are particularly apparent:

  • Headlines
  • Lists for displaying related information
  • pictures
  • Text blocks
  • Users can also benefit from

Navigation elements: 

  • global navigation to answer questions such as “What kind of information space am I in” and “Where can I go from here?
  • local navigation to answer questions such as “What sub-area am I in?” and “Where can I go within this sub-area?
  • associative navigation for linking information related to content, e.g. via embedded links,

Another important aspect is the integration of search options, the enrichment of data through metadata (data about data) and controlled vocabulary (synonyms to the actual search term).

If I want to create an information architecture, where do I start?

A successful IA connects the context of the website (business objectives, policy, sponsors etc), the users.inside (tasks, needs, experiences etc) and the content (document types, data types etc).

A good information architecture focuses on the needs of its users. What content is relevant to them? What kind of information needs do they have? What search behaviour is typical for them?

Think about yourself. What information needs do you have and what would you search for on your website? Would you search for very specific information, such as opening hours, or rather for a general group of information, such as different offers on an item?

Since you can only answer this question, if at all, for yourself, you should not look at the development and maintenance of an IA in isolation, but embedded in an organisation’s content management strategy. Here it is essential to distinguish from the popular term: “Content-Management-Systems (CMS)” for e.g. WordPress or Drupal systems.  This is why one usually speaks of Content Strategy (CS).

Typical CS questions are:

  • Which target group do I want to address?
  • What information needs do my target groups have?
  • What primary and secondary messages do I want to convey?
  • Which contents do I need for this?
  • Text, images or videos?
  • How do I address them – e.g. formally aloof or personally chummy?
  • What procedures are to be established to record, maintain and, if necessary, delete content?
  • Who or which role is responsible for which steps of these processes?
  • Which tools (e.g. templates) must be provided for efficient work?

From the answers to these superordinate questions, the basis for design decisions, e.g. with regard to structure, search and navigation for the IA can be derived.

Since IA development is inseparably linked to CS, I would like to discuss this separately in one of the following articles.