How to survive while creating information architecture

What is a value of the site? Nice design? Great colors? Trendy style? All those indicators are visible, but the greatest value of any kind of software is invisible informational architecture.

Informational architecture is a thing that businessmen are strongly interested in because exactly architecture of the site is making e-commerce successful. It consists of many stages that help to place the content in a proper way. IA allows the customer to easily find exactly that thing, he has visited the site for. Informational architecture is everywhere in our life - maps, names and numbers of streets and buildings, navigation signs in a small town or megapolis, plans of buildings,  alphabetical cross-referencing systems used in a dictionary or encyclopedia, links in website navigation, sections, labels, and names of things on a restaurant menu and so on. We are surrounded by navigation architecture. With clear NA we know where we are and what we can do here. Also, we know how to get the place we want to be. IA should help people understand what is around them and find what they are looking for, in the real world, and on the Internet. The great thinker Abby Covert said in a book “How to make sense of any mess”, that AI is:

“The politic of making sense”(1)

Components of IA

IA generates the navigation of a web resource. This is a global concept that goes far beyond of the sites navigating and includes 2 main components:

  1. Identification and definition of a content and functionality
  2. The hierarchy, structure and nomenclature that determine the relationship between content and functionality

To make an order we need to know what the mess is? Is it one product, that can be used in many ways, or is it the countless number of products that are all differently used and should be located somehow to be easily found by users? Every site has its own IA that was created exactly for that business. That is why we need to identify and make a clear definition of content and functionality.

The hierarchy, structure, and nomenclature can be done only after identification stage. Those components aim to organize the content in a most comfortable and user-friendly structure.

Hierarchy answers the following questions:

  • What is most important for user
  • How user relates to content
  • How user flow looks like

Also hierarchy “activates the ability of the brain to distinguish objects on the basis of their physical differences, such as size, color, contrast, alignment etc.” (2)

Flat and deep: when to use each of them?

There are two concepts to organize the content: flat and deep. The flat type has less clicks, deep type - more clicks. Nowadays everybody prefers a flat type because it seems like we are organizing all important things on the surface and the user has quick access. Hm, quick access seems like one of the most relevant features for all products isn`t it? So let`s just use flat type everywhere? But no! Only content can answer the question which type of hierarchy we should use. To make an order we need to learn deeply the object that we are organizing. Content and functionality are so various and high level of usability will be possible only in case when we will have an understanding of content type.

To determine the type of content and to find the best way to organize it, follow these steps:

  • inventory of content (everything that should be organized into a structure/system)
  • content audit
  • grouping information
  • development and improvement of a taxonomy of content
  • creation of descriptive information

Information organization schemes

The menu in your service or platform can be sorted by categories, tasks or it can be built on search. For example, a menu with categories is immediately drawn to the eyes and when we click on each category, we expect to see relevant content in it. Pattern of organization info by task is useful if there is very accurate cases and tasks that your user can solve with your service. For example, if you are a bank, then the tasks can be approximately the following: Deposits, Loans, Investments, Help, Opening an account. If the site is rather complex or almost entirely composed of content created by the users themselves, then you probably should build your architecture on the search (like YouTube or Instagram).

Models of content organization

Content can be organized by time like in your mailbox, where messages are displayed as delivery. Or it can be organized by logical connections. Any social network is an information architecture built on people. The design revolves around a particular person and his relationships with other people. But inside each profile, social network uses categories (photos, friends, places) to organize information.

“Observing your users — via usability testing, analytics, and search logs — can help you understand what problems your audience needs to solve and how familiar users are with your content. This background knowledge is essential to achieving the right balance between a breadth and depth in your hierarchy.” (3)

Information architecture is a hard task to solve and at first you have no idea what to do with all this info and content that you have to build into a clear and pure structure that has its own order and is understandable and able for quick access of users. The success of building process depends on skills of UX designer and his ability to think globally but do not forget the little things. Details are important, but if they are not structured they are just a mess. Informational Architecture is about setting an order. And Navigation Architecture is a plan of the “building”. We need navigation on street not to get lost and be confident in where we are going. We need to know how to get somewhere but also we want to be sure that it will be easy to get back. And of course, if your greatest Informational Architecture has a lack of navigation it means nobody can really enjoy it.

Navigation is a set of user interface (UI) elements that allows a visitor to find and get specific information on a web resource, engage in marketing interaction, make a conversion action.

The main purpose of navigation is to help users find the content and functional elements of the resource (in other words, the "controls" UI), to then motivate the intended action.

“The primary goal of navigation is to help users find information and functionality and encourage them to take desirable actions. Navigation components include global navigation, local navigation, utility navigation, breadcrumbs, filters, facets, related links, footers, fat footers, and so on.” (4)

Navigation is very close to understanding needs of users. It consists of usage priority, placement and pattern. Usage priority is a frequency of application of navigation element. Placement is the concept that argued the placement of an element on the pages. Choosing a type of pattern as a design concept will do the best support to findability and discoverability. There are a lot of patterns as tabs, mega-menus, carousels, accordions, camomile, module tabs, etc. And each of elements has a different system.

Design Patterns of navigation architecture

Tabs: navigation tabs, module tabs.

Content: pagination, carousel, progressive disclosure, categorization, cards, adaptable view, event calendar, favorites, article list, archive, tagging, tag cloud, continuous scrolling, thumbnail.

Jumping in hierarchy: home link, notifications, shortcut dropdown, breadcrumbs, modal, fat footer.

Menus: vertical dropdown menu, horizontal dropdown menu, accordion menu.

Gestures: pull to refresh (5)

Why navigation architecture matters so much?

When a designer is making a design of site he can only approximately guess how a user will get on the page and what page will be first that user will see entering the site. In other words - user is not as logical as your informational architecture and he will never follow the flow without navigation. And if you are a client-oriented business you should make your user feel confident using your site. There is a mechanism to arrange it. It is a you-are-here signaling: logo and branding, navigation change, breadcrumb, contextual cues, visual design changes, steps, headings, window (page) title and URL.

To figure out which way of content and information navigation you should choose for your users you should know how do your users are seeking the information that you are going to represent on your site. Which filters are they using? Which criteria are they paying attention to? How users are making decisions? Yes, navigation architecture is also a part of a human-centered design. And the most interesting is how people are navigating the Web in particular? The answer for all of those questions can be found only while your business and user research. It is a long-term task and it needs high skills of empathy and deep knowledge of human behaviors.

Next article will be about navigation architecture and how to create easy-to-use navigation.

References:

  1. Abby Cover.How to Make Sense of Any Mess. More info here: http://www.howtomakesenseofanymess.com
  2. Information Architecture. Basics for Designers.Tubik Studio.More info here: https://uxplanet.org/information-architecture-basics-for-designers-b5d43df62e20
  3. Kathryn Whitenton.Flat vs. Deep Website Hierarchies.More here: https://www.nngroup.com/articles/flat-vs-deep-hierarchy/
  4. Jennifer Cardello.The Difference Between Information Architecture (IA) and Navigation.More info here: https://www.nngroup.com/articles/ia-vs-navigation/
  5. Design patterns.Navigation. More info here: http://ui-patterns.com/patterns/navigation/list