Information architecture is probably an unfamiliar term if you don’t work in the tech industry. However, it’s actually something most people experience on a daily basis.
Often referred to as IA, information architecture is the practice of arranging the parts of something to be understandable. Whether this is through websites, apps, software, catalogues, signs, maps, or even the physical places where we spend time, we constantly access information through structured systems.
Information Architecture in the Analog World
Imagine you’re arriving at the airport to take a flight to Hawai’i. You’re probably looking for signs (digital or physical) to help you navigate through the airport, to tell you the status of departing and arriving flights, to identify which terminal you are in, and to direct you to your gate. These signs are information architecture.
Another example of information architecture is library card catalogs.
Before computers, card catalogs helped us sort, organize, and find materials in the library. Every card had a purposeful place. It told library visitors how to find a book on a particular subject, or with a specific title.
Information Architecture on the Web
Catalogs and paper maps are the analog IA to the apps and websites we use today. Our need to structure and access information hasn’t changed — it’s just the way we go about it that’s different.
With the advancement of technology (and the resulting “information overload”), it has become even more important to consider how to communicate information.
When it comes to your website, user experience (UX) designers put a lot of effort and care into how information is presented so that it’s easy for visitors to understand and navigate. They imagine how users will navigate a website so that when the site goes live, users don’t have to think too much.
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For any website to be considered user friendly and productive, the information architecture has to be so intuitive that the user is actually unaware of it.
The 3 principles of information architecture
- Ontology: the establishment of particular meanings. For example, in an online grocery store, what happens when you search for “apples”? Many different varieties of apples, including different products (apple sauce, apple juice), might appear. All of the apple options might be sold individually, or bundled in a bag. Ontology is the strategy of labeling different items, which is important for your site when organizing smaller parts into larger systems.
- Taxonomy: the structure, or the way parts are organized to accomplish specific goals. In an online grocery store, items are usually organized in ways that make searching easier, aligning with our mental models of where items should be stored in a physical grocery store. The online grocery store will probably be organized by departments. Someone looking for apples will likely search under the “Produce” tab.
- Choreography: how meaning (ontology) and structure (taxonomy) fit together and interact with each other within a specific context. When designing an online grocery store, an information architect or UX designer might consider these questions: Would this person be more likely to search for apples under “Produce” or “Seasonal Fruit”? Why might they be searching for apples? Is there a recipe with other food items that they need? Do they buy apples frequently? Is the person using a computer or mobile app? Might their experience of buying groceries change if their physical context changed?
Good information architecture = conversions
The interplay of the three components of information architecture is important. If one gear doesn’t work, the whole machine won’t function properly.
For example, if your website categorizes products into intuitive groupings (taxonomy) on your site, but the labeling of these groupings does not immediately make sense to users (ontology), users will have a hard time navigating your website and choosing a product they want to buy. This means they might leave your site without taking any action.
If your goal is to get users to buy something from your website, information architecture helps designers prompt conversions by deciding just the right amount of information to release to users at each stage of their journey. What do users really need to know about apples before they decide to buy them? What information do they need to access during checkout?
Using the principles of IA, a designer will determine the right balance of information to present. As a result, you’ll see more happy customers on your site, and returning to shop again.
Information architecture case study
Want to see a real-life example of information architecture at work? Find out how Forge and Smith effectively used the principles of information architecture to increase conversions on the Sitka Physio & Wellness website.