Information Architecture- a Useful Concept or an Overhyped Buzzword?

You probably must have heard of UX Design? User Experience or UX Design is one of the buzzwords you get to hear when discussing websites and applications.

But what you never really get to hear of, is the term ‘Information Architecture’.

Corporate giants including Facebook, Google, etc. have used this very concept in easing their UX. And it is evident how it has proved to be profitable over the years, given their market share and brand reputation.

As a concept, it is seldom given credit to; although it forms the very matrix of a successful UX design. So what exactly is ‘Information Architecture’? Let’s take a look.

We, as human beings, tend to form emotional connections with our surrounding objects at mainly three levels: Visceral, Behavioural and Reflective. Addressing the human cognitive ability at each level evokes appropriate emotions, thus resulting in a positive experience.

So what are they?

  • Visceral emotional design is used for determining the very first reactions we have when navigating through a website that mainly deals with aesthetics and look-&-feel.
  • Behavioral emotional design constructs the usability of the website, its intuitiveness, and performance. At this stage, we build an overall justified perception of the website.
  • Reflective emotional design is all about our ability to reflect on the values of using a particular website in our day-to-day lives, or simply how a website makes us feel while using it.

A structurally sound website or application is the result of good information architecture. The optimum content arrangement ensures better understanding and navigation on the user’s end. It forms the very foundation of a seamless UX design, similar to how a building’s foundation determines the rest of the construction.

So What’s The Value Offered By Information Architecture?

source: https://www.handp.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/iStock-520289888.jpg

We all know the importance of content when it comes to web design. For without it, a web page is just a jumble of words. People always want access to maximum information within the least possible time.

When people get lost in search of the desired information, they immediately leave the website/app. And once you lose your customer, it’s extremely difficult to bring them back.

As an entrepreneur, you’d never want this to happen, even in your worst nightmares. After all, customers are the key determinants of your success. And information architecture specifically addresses this problem.

So How To Build A Seamless Information Architecture?

source: https://www.pexels.com/photo/gray-nails-beside-beige-wooden-planks-and-hammers-1598213/

You must be thinking of a wide array of technical jargon. But broadly speaking, there are mainly 2 principles:

  • Library Method
  • Cognitive Method

While these might appear intimidating to lay, readers, there’s nothing really complicated about these technical sounding words.

Library Method

source: https://www.pexels.com/photo/blur-book-stack-books-bookshelves-590493/

Also known as library science, this technique is used to classify and categorize information. Also, it helps in creating essential metadata so that it is easily found in the future whenever needed.

Cognitive Method

source: http://www.moeto-zdrave.life/bagerat-1/

This concept has its roots in cognitive psychology (a field of study that examines different activities in our mind and how it reacts to external stimuli). You’d be surprised to know that most UX designers use this technique to deliver an effective user experience that leaves a lasting impression on the user’s mind.

The web content is structured according to the possible reactions the users would have when interacting with it. This again is divided into several subsections:

Gestalt Method

Source: https://public-media.interaction-design.org/images/courses/course_9–square_thumbnail.jpg

It is derived from the Gestalt School of Thought, which states that the mind tends to see things not as discrete events, but as integral parts of a greater whole. It determines how the mind responds to the multitudes of events in relation to each other.

Go the Gestalt method helps UX designers to study and make use of our tendency to unify and categorize things based on their similarities.

Mental Method

Source: http://www.zigmadda.com/images/zmda/home%20page%20-%20slider%203.jpeg

It works on the assumptions and expectations a user have before interacting with a website or application.
For example, when someone visits a website/application for the first time, he/she expects the Contact, Services and About Us tags in a specified position.

Altering which, can subconsciously disappoint the user on their very first visit. The effect might not be a conscious one, but psychology proves that subconscious elements do surface at some points in our lives. The same can happen with your users.

Cognitive Load Method

Source: https://flslawyer.com/wp-content/uploads/Memory.jpg

The term “Cognitive Load” refers to the amount of information we can process at a given time. Too much information puts considerable pressure on the viewer’s psyche.

Your web page/app page should be minimalist enough to reduce the cognitive load, but at the same time provide enough details to satisfy the user. You should arrange your content keeping these two things in mind.

There are certain principles you should consider while building an efficient information architecture. These principles determine the success rate of IA and direct the design process in the right direction.

Let’s go through the seven IA principles that form the building blocks of a good UX design:

1. Object Principle

source: https://www.pexels.com/photo/assorted-plastic-figures-1619844/

This principle treats content as living organisms.

The contents are viewed as animate objects with individual life cycles. As an information architect, you should analyze the different attributes and behaviors of every content on your webpage.

Think of this as a computer programming, where every information is classified into discrete units.
Similarly, your contents are like the templates, and the architectural process provides the underlying framework.

Under this principle, you should ensure:

  • Your content has an internal structure that is both consistent and recognizable.
  • Your content provides a discrete set of behaviors

2. Choice Principle

source: https://www.pexels.com/photo/man-in-gray-suit-playing-chess-1080845/

While offering plentiful choices has its own significance, you should always try to keep them as task-specific as possible. As mentioned earlier, too much information increases cognitive load; same with choices.

Barry Schwartz in his book “The Paradox of Choice” points out how too many choices can overwhelm a user. An increasing number of options makes decision making an exhaustive task. Hence, keep it simple and clean whenever you have to offer options to your consumers.

3. Disclosure Principle

source: https://www.holdingredlich.com/intellectual-property-exemption-from-competition-l

You can use this to display the minimum information required to spark a user’s interest in that particular topic. The user will read the briefing and will eventually go from the preview to the details or further information. They’ll get a fair idea of what awaits them, should they click on the detail or read more button.

This principle makes the user anticipate more details, in case they are interested in the briefings.

As remarked in Universal Principles of Design; “Information provided to someone not interested or willing to process is as good as noise.”

Be good with your content here, since it will play a vital role in stimulating a user’s interest. Sometimes it can even trigger the consumers into becoming potential conversions for your product.

Hence, it is one of the most crucial of all principles under IA methodology.

4. Example Principle

We tend to picture every concept we’re introduced to.

Definitions don’t suffice when it comes to real understanding. And what serves this better than examples right? Yes, examples assist us in visualizing a definition, explanation, concept, etc.

Users are no different.

Whenever they’re navigating through a specific section, provide them the corresponding examples to clear off any doubt just by visualizing the product or service you’re setting as examples. This will ensure a better UX, hence fetching more conversions.

5. Side Door Principle

source: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/sidedoor/id1168154281

Often, people in search of answers, land on a particular section of a website not through their homepage, but from other platforms. This means, you have to design every section of the website in such a way, so that these side-door viewers get the desired answers as well as be interested to navigate through your homepage, service section, contacts, etc.

This no longer comes as surprise, since even popular website owners have people landing on different sections of their websites from different platforms. This side door principle helps you to create a subconscious urge in your users to know more about your website and willingly get converted as potential customers.

6. Multiple Classification Principle

source: http://t-advance-media.com/column/

Users have their own ways of looking for information.

Some prefer browsing, while others prefer using the search button.

The mental models and motivations are diverse across user minds. But you have to ensure that it is balanced out on both ends.

Multiple ways of the information search are beneficial to the user but don’t get carried away. Too many ways, as mentioned earlier, will only increase the cognitive load. The options should be optimum in quantity, as well as minimally numbered to ease user navigation across the web pages.

Failing to abide by this technique can harm your market opportunity, as no user likes to be overwhelmed by the multitudes of information. Hence they might opt for some other website/application for the solution they are seeking. Multiple classification techniques enable you to retain your users.

7. Growth Principle

source: https://www.pexels.com/photo/photo-of-person-holding-black-pen-990818/

Every website has its own content, the volume of which increases with time.

So the website/application needs to designed in a way to accommodate the ever increasing amount of content.
This rapid increment is a direct result of innovation in servers/cloud storage facilities and platforms providing more effective and convenient ways of publishing digital content over the web.

This exponential proliferation of content often becomes challenging for designers. But at the same time, it is only innovation that drives change and development, so it’s foolish to resist the trend. Instead, use this as an opportunity to develop your website/app to create infinite space for future content.

And it is surely possible. While it is challenging to create limitless physical space, you can easily provide an ocean of digital space for endless streams of upcoming information.

So What’s Your Role As An Information Architect?

source: https://www.pexels.com/photo/architect-architecture-artist-blur-268362/

By now you must have realized that Information Architecture forms the very backbone of a good UX. It isn’t visible to the end users, but it is the matrix on which the interface is built. So what will be your defining role as an information architect?

You have to structure your content for better navigation and readability. The architecture has to be such, that it delivers high-end UX in the market. Easier the navigation, more the conversion rates. You have to make it as user-friendly as possible so that they get maximum results within minimum time.

Higher volume of content makes it challenging for a designer to build a seamless IA. You have to put in extra effort in case you’re dealing with a website with a higher volume of content.

All in all, you’re work will involve:

  • Research
  • Hierarchy
  • Navigation
  • Labeling
  • Taxonomies

Research

source: https://www.pexels.com/photo/pie-graph-illustration-669621/

Understanding user needs are crucial to building a successful IA. Hence, the research part. You’ll understand how users gain access to information on a website. So how to go about it? You can go for user interviews to directly know their expectations when navigating a website.

Hierarchy

source: http://innovative-theory.jp/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/hier.jpg

You need to create a proper content hierarchy in order to keep it well directed and patterned for user navigation. No user prefers random arrangement when it comes to finding the desired content.

The hierarchical structure helps them to follow easy steps and ultimately find what they’re seeking. You too, like every successful website owner should make sure your website has this element embedded in it.

Navigation

source: https://www.pexels.com/photo/smartphone-car-technology-phone-33488/

While hierarchy helps in the structuring part, good navigation ensures the fluidity of information. Every available option when clicked should provide smooth navigation through pages/information/data/etc. The user can easily get frustrated if the process is too slow, lagging or full of resistance.

Labeling

source: https://www.pexels.com/photo/several-assorted-color-tags-697059/

Labeling plays an important role in informing users on what lies beyond a particular option/button. Good labeling clarifies to the user, what he or she will find once they click on it.

For example, using “About Us” conveys far better on company details than if we use “General Information”. So you have to be very specific on what you’re trying to portray when processing the labels.

Taxonomies

This will help you arrange your content based on similarities. As mentioned earlier, people tend to categorize things by their commonalities; web content is no different.

This will help you arrange your content based on similarities. As mentioned earlier, people tend to categorize things by their commonalities; web content is no different. A user always seeks out patterns for better understanding. Taxonomy helps you to cater to this need by systematic categorization of contents, thus delivering better UX.

So what are you waiting for? Get started with your IA endeavor already!

A version of this post was previously published on uxplanet.org and is republished here with permission from the author.

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