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January 24, 2024
Information Architecture: The Whats, Whys, and Hows
What is Information Architecture?
Good information architecture (IA) is the backbone to any good user experience (UX). It is the layout and structure of content and information in a user interface, an arrangement of small parts that makes things more understandable and navigable as a whole. Without well-designed IA, users could easily become lost and frustrated. They may have to work harder to find what they’re looking for – if they even can.
As UX designers and information architects, our goal is to help users complete their tasks through a simple and relevant path. We want to understand the audience’s needs and the content they are looking for. Using organizational schemes, labeling, navigation, and search components, a well-designed information architecture will guide users in their journey while allowing them to reach their destination in the fewest number of clicks and with minimum cognitive load. In other words, they shouldn’t have to think!
Why Do We Need Information Architecture?
When a user enters a website or opens an app, they have a reason for being there and are looking for something particular. In this case, findability is key – users should be able to easily find content or a feature that they assume is present.
Unless a user is very determined to find content that is not easily found – and the vast majority of users are not – they will quickly leave and try to find what they’re looking for elsewhere. In fact, poor findability through a website or app's navigation is one reason – if not the biggest reason – for user frustration.
Needless to say, if a user is unable to use a website or app to achieve their goal, it’s time to rethink the site’s structure.
Taking Inventory, Auditing, and User Testing: The First Steps to Creating a Strong IA
Before beginning content organization in an IA project, there are a few things that need to happen. First, we have to take inventory of all the existing content and create an organized, detailed list. Then we need to conduct a content audit on everything we found to determine its quality and relevance – what content is performing well and what should be updated or removed? On top of businesses re-evaluating their goals and reviewing older content, this is largely determined by SEO performance, which we can use Google Analytics or other performance tracking tools to find.
Once all the content is on the table, how does an information architect make sure that pages and content are organized and labeled in the most intuitive way possible? There is no one correct answer for every user because not all users will think the same way, but it is possible to discover how most of the target audience thinks by conducting user testing.
Using a variety of testing methods, we can determine how our users would group information into different categories, what terms make the most sense for the category names, if certain categories should be merged or are outliers, and much more.
Putting User Testing Results to Use with Grouping and Labeling
Once user research is complete, it’s time to organize the content.
First, how are we going to group the content into different categories? There are several grouping principles we could implement, the most common being by topic (what the content is about) or task (what the user can do with the content). Some content may fit into multiple categories, but utilizing this polyhierarchy should be done with careful consideration and only in circumstances where there is no clear pull for one category versus the other.
Once the content groups are defined, the next step is determining how to best label the different categories, subcategories, and other items in the IA. This task is a big deciding factor in findability and user comprehension.
We want the labels to use familiar language, terminology the audience will easily understand. The labels should also be specific and concise. If a word or phrase is too ambiguous, it will be difficult for the user to know what content is under that category. If there are extra, unnecessary words or repetitive language across multiple labels, it can create additional cognitive load for the user – it’s more content they have to process to comprehend what they are seeing.
Creating Meaningful Relationships with Structure
With content groups defined and all items clearly labeled, we now need to create a visual representation of how this information will be organized by mapping out the structure of the website. The categories we created grouped content together in a meaningful way. The structure will take those relationships and give the user a way to navigate through them by defining the pathways and hierarchies between items within and between the content groups.
To start, we must decide what and how many navigation items will be immediately visible to the user. Each of these top-level categories should be distinct to clearly guide the user to the correct section or subsection of the website.
Having more top-level navigation items – a broad hierarchy – can sometimes make it easier for users to navigate rather than having a select few with more deep-level pages, but this approach needs to be handled with caution. Having too many main categories may become overwhelming and crowd the menu, making it difficult for users to figure out where to go. For very large websites, it may make the most sense to have separate navigation sections once the user gets deeper into the website hierarchy.
Another item to consider is whether or not all the pages or content should be found directly from the navigation. In certain cases, some content should only be found after accessing previous information on the website. This refers to the difference between hierarchical structures and sequential – also known as linear – structures. Linear structures should be utilized for sequential, interactive experiences such as purchasing or customizing, but not to an extent where it might block users from exploring or comparing other content.
For example, when purchasing a plane ticket, users need to choose a flight before starting the checkout process. Then, while checking out, they must make some decisions, such as upgrading the flight or selecting add-ons, before paying for the ticket. Users would not be able to get to this payment page from any link on the site because they must complete those extra steps and know what they’re paying for before making a payment is possible.
Analyzing the Finalized Result
In an ideal scenario, your audience should be able to find the content they’re looking for and achieve their goals easily and with confidence. This creates a good experience for your website visitors and encourages return visits and engagement. Think of IA as the framework of your website – devoting the time to build a thoughtful foundation that supports your audience’s needs will result in a pleasant experience and greater success for users. On top of that, it can improve ROI through increased leads and conversions and lower costs for website maintenance and support.