Structuring for Success: The Nuts and Bolts of Information Architecture and User Experience
Information Architecture, or IA, is the science of endowing content with structure, labeling, discovery and navigation tools that contribute to improved User Experience, or UX. Thinking about Information Architecture and User Experience is the best way of making sure the true value of content will be realized and any visitor-related goals can be achieved.
Every site visit is an activity whose contours are shaped by the way pages are laid out, connected, and offered up through searching or categorization. The user experience of any given visitor will, therefore, be influenced just as much by these structural factors as by the quality and usefulness of content itself.
Just as content can be refined or refocused to provide more value to users, so can the architectural side of things be addressed in ways that contribute to deeper, more rewarding engagement, improved conversion rates, or other positive outcomes. The Key Principles of Information Architecture and User Experience that allow for this can be broken down along four basic lines.
- Organization: Whether with a single page or across dozens of them, every site embodies decisions that were made about the organization of content. Information that is well organized will make it easier for users to realize their goals with whatever might be needed next always being close to hand. Information that is badly organized will be frustrating to engage with, as natural patterns of inquiry are disrupted by disjointedness and a lack of useful structural direction. Effective organization emphasizes things that are important and valuable and relegates other elements to places of lesser prominence.
- Navigation: Moving from one page to the next is as much a part of the overall user experience as is diving into a particular article or post. Navigation designed with the real needs of users in mind encourages more natural, rewarding movement around a site, taking engagement beyond the boundaries of a single page. Navigation reflects organization and enhances it, linking strategically defined and laid out collections of information in ways that improve their accessibility and overall value.
- Identification: Pages, posts, and other storehouses of information are also defined and related to one another conceptually. Distilling the essence of any informational resource into particular concepts through the appropriate usage of tags, labels, categories, or indexes opens up another way for users to pursue their goals. Useful identification of information adds another dimension to the overall user experience such that it becomes easier to pursue new realizations or dive more deeply into a particular topic.
- Discovery: Even the best-designed categorization schemes and indexes will often fall short in the light of particular goals. Giving users the ability to discover information on their own terms with a search facility fills in the gaps and can even become a primary means of access. Not every site will merit such a system, and making sure any system put into place will be rewarding to use should always be a priority. Allowing for easier discovery also leads to the accommodation of unusual or unanticipated usage patters.
Two Tools That Clarify the Issues
- Website Wireframes: A wireframe design abstracts away from content and some aspects of visual design, representing the architectural aspect of a site more clearly as a result. Whether in terms of highlighting the structural, on-page experience of a single destination or by making it easier to think about the navigation flow a particular IA encourages, a wireframe will often bring clarity to what might otherwise be a confusing situation.
- User Personas: Every experience is a subjective one, so understanding the typical subject must be a priority as well. Researching and thinking about what the members of an audience are most likely to seek, value, and feel comfortable with can help fill in the rest of the equation. While there are objective, established principles that can be used to inform any particular IA, building accurate user personas will contribute to an improved understanding of how particular decisions will influence the resulting UX.
A site embodying a thoughtful, considered IA will deliver an improved UX as a matter of course. That means visitors will be more engaged and come away with more of value, making them more likely to return. A well-designed IA will also contribute directly to other goals by encouraging navigation patterns that result in higher conversion rates or discoveries feeding even more engagement. What matters the most, in any case, is taking the structural side of things seriously and viewing every related decision in light of how it will affect the experiences of actual users.