Any organization with an aspiration to thrive (not simply survive) in the new normal, understands that importance digital transformation. But at the heart of a successful digital transformation is a commitment to delivering satisfying digital experiences – for end customers (e.g. consumers), partners and employees. And in order for people to feel satisfied, they need to know where they are, how to get around, and how to complete their tasks. The foundation for a satisfying digital experience is information architecture (IA). Katarzyna Suwała, User Experience (UX) Designer at ITMAGINATION, explains the importance of information architecture to the UX and UI Design of digital products (websites, mobile apps, enterprise software).
What is information architecture (IA)?
There are four main components of information architecture. They are:
- Organization schemes and structures – The way information is categorized and structured.
- Labeling systems – How information is represented.
- Navigation systems – How users browse or move between sections, content, pages, etc.
- Search functions – The ability for users to find what they are looking for via ‘search’.
Why is information architecture important?
A thoughtfully considered, well-structured information architecture helps users to easily navigate and interact with digital products (websites, mobile apps, enterprise software, interfaces on machines, etc.). A solid information architecture prevents users from getting lost or confused and should help users to complete intended tasks in the shortest time possible, with the least possible frustration or friction along the way.
Furthermore, for many organizations, the digital experiences they provide – say a corporate website – are the main way for existing and potential customers, employees and investors to learn about the organization or its services and products. In this way, the information architecture of the corporate website is a reflection of how the company and its portfolio of products and services are structured. The way it is built and the degree to which it makes life easier for visitors could positively or negatively influence decisions by potential customers, employees or investors to do business with the organization. In this regard, information architecture of digital experiences is crucial to brand building and brand strength.
How to build a strong information architecture
To build a strong, logical information architecture, UX & UI consultants and designers need to first understand who they are building for and adopt the view and needs of the user. Depending on the nature of the tool and its purpose for an organization, this can vary. Examples include:
- For a mobile banking app, the likely end user will be individuals who make use of the app either as private individuals or as owners of businesses or as entrepreneurs.
- For a web-based CRM solution or integration, the users are likely to be sales or business development professionals from within the organization.
- For an online trading tool, the user base could include private individuals (customers), employees of partner or customer organizations and even employees from the organization that owns the product.
- For industrial machinery, there might be a control panel that operators need to interact with – via computer or dedicated device – in order to use the machine.
Understanding that different products have different types of users and, in some cases, more than one type of user, is an important first step in constructing a fit-for-purpose information architecture.
Here are some other rules that can be applied universally to building information architectures:
- Keep things short and simple, wherever possible. Use short and intuitive names for labels, section names and content types. Ideally, these should follow (or be verified against) common or industry standards. In this way, users are more likely to see terms and labels that they already know and browsers with in-built translation tools (e.g. Chrome) will have an easier time rendering translated versions of your digital experience.
- Build user familiarity with patterns and consistency. By keeping your information architecture logical and consistent (across pages and sections and with use of page or section templates), you put users at ease and give them confidence (and thus increase the likelihood of satisfying outcomes).
- Make sure users know where they are within the structure of a tool or service. This helps users to feel comfortable, to understand the broader context of what they are doing and to easily navigate within the service. Breadcrumbs within websites, apps and even business tools can be useful, especially if, for example, a user has arrived at a page or specific interface from outside the tool (e.g. a link from social media to a blog post on a website).
- Allow room for evolution. Most digital experiences will evolve over time. Factor in your organization or product roadmap and consider whether your information architecture can evolve suitably to reflect this.
- Consider the complexity of your architecture – adding more levels might enable you to include everything you want (and meet internal organization ‘needs’), but will this deeper structure be understood well by users or will it set undesirable precedents that might need to be corrected in the future?
- Consult authoritative sources. The importance of digital experiences and strong information architectures to support them has risen rapidly in recent years. Not every company has the capability to build these architectures in house. Consult specialized sources (e.g. external partners) and consider boosting your knowledge with resources like ‘Information Architecture for the Worldwide Web’ by Peter Moreville and Louis Rosenfeld, which will help you better understand the importance of information architecture, understand some of the options available to you (e.g. commonly adopted structures such as hierarchical, sequential, matrix and navigational) and enable you to contribute to meaningful conversations about information architecture in your business.
Information architecture as an essential part of UX and UI Design
Information architecture is a key part of designing a satisfying user experience. A strong information architecture will enable users to quickly and intuitively find familiarize themselves with the digital environment and to find what they are looking for and complete their desired task. Often, organizations and their designers jump straight into designing interfaces and try to fit architecture into the process later on. Or, they design and build first versions, thinking that an architecture can be reverse-engineered into the product. This can cost large amounts of time, money and customer satisfaction.
In short, companies should see information architecture as:
- One of the fundamental first steps on the way to building a satisfying user experience.
- Not simply a design task – it involves input (or at least validation) by many different stakeholders.
- A strong indicator of an organization’s digital and organizational maturity.
Information architecture should not be underestimated.
Information architecture and UX design with ITMAGINATION
ITMAGINATION advises on, builds and maintains digital products for some of the world’s leading brands, rising startups and industry disruptors. We provide UX and UI services for many international brands and understand the importance of satisfying user needs – whether they’re external customers, employees or partners. If you want to build information architectures that serve as solid foundations for satisfying user experiences, get in touch with ITMAGINATION.
Learn it. Know it. Done.
Author: Katarzyna Suwała, UX Designer