One of the biggest mistakes we see people make when it comes to their websites is not prioritizing information architecture. While the design aspects of a website are fun, glamorous, and ultimately vital to the success of your site, it’s important that you don’t jump straight to the design and forgo the important process of building a solid information architecture and understanding the purpose behind your site and its content.
What is information architecture (IA)?
Information architecture is essentially the application of information science to web design, which takes into consideration issues of classification and information retrieval.
Ultimately, information architecture is all of the planning that goes into how your site content is organized and arranged. Information architecture includes the scientific and creative thought processes that go into the assembly of your site from the ground up to support usability and findability.
At Sanmita, we like to begin our Discovery process by understanding your goals and your site’s existing and future content. We look for the best possible way to arrange that content, and organize the information into pages and content types. It is our mission to make it effortless for your users to find the information they are looking for.
Why a Well Thought Out IA Matters
Think of it this way: You wouldn’t dare ask an architect to build you a house willy-nilly without specifying how many and which rooms you want, would you? No! You’d probably explain to him or her that you want three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a large kitchen because you really enjoy hosting family gatherings. Also you’re quite the chef, so you want there to be enough room for that stone pizza oven you’ve been dreaming about.
An architect can build you the perfect space, but not without first knowing how you’ll be using that space. Once your architect understands your needs, he or she can create the optimal space for you. If you’ve put enough time and thought into this process, you probably won’t be outgrowing this house anytime soon.
Similarly, an information architect organizes your content to make it easy to access and navigate. It’s not until your home structure is complete that you can begin to fill your home with furniture, appliances, decorations, clothes… people! Your website is the same. Once you know what information you want, where you want it, and how it will relate to all the other information on your site, you can begin to think about your design.
Information Architecture is an essential component of the Discovery process
Information architecture is the first of many steps needed to move a design of a website from the conceptual stage into physical and virtual reality. Essentially, defining the information architecture is a way to gain a sense of control over your website content, which could probably be organized in hundreds of different ways. It’s important to keep your target audience(s) in mind during this process, as they’ll be the ones using your website most often.
In an article titled, “Understanding Information Architecture via My Bookshelf,” Josh Anderson explains that “there’s more to consider than just the titles themselves: the arrangement of the books, their wear and tear, the placement (or absence) of bookmarks sprouting from their pages…” You can have the same exact books as someone else, but arrange them differently to send a different message, or allow the user to uncover information in a different light. As field pioneer, Richard Saul Wurman articulated, “the creative organization of information creates new information.”
It’s crucial for mission-critical websites, like those of higher education and government institutions, to have an effective information architecture because the user base is heavily dependent upon the website. If your site is confusing or dysfunctional, it will have a serious impact on your operations and ultimately negatively affect your reputation. Remember, prospective students are a key audience in higher education. Your website is usually the first impression you’ll have the opportunity to make on them. Make sure it’s a good one!
What does an Information Architect do, exactly?
An information architect describes how the site is organized, how information relates to each other, and how users can progress through the site towards their desired goals. The information architect will often work with a design team, as the design of your site and the organization of your content has a lot more to do with each other than you would think. They will also work with your technical team to ensure the designs have been executed in an effective way.
In reality, an information architect deals not only with information, but also functionality. User experience design is not far removed from information architecture and determining how to best support your user base. This is why information architecture deliverables usually go hand-in-hand with wireframes and functional requirements.
How to get started
This isn’t rocket science. If you want to get started on understanding and streamlining your site’s information architecture, we can help.
The first thing you’ll want to consider is what you hope your website to accomplish. In other words, what is the goal of your website? Remember, your goals will determine the organization and priority of certain website elements. In our example of a college website, you would want to be sure to include main or mega menu navigation to the ‘Admissions’ and ‘Academics’ sections of your site at the top of every page so prospective students can clearly find and access the information they need to decide whether they’d like to attend the school.
Next, you’ll want to understand the current state of your website content, i.e. what content is relevant, what can be merged with other content, and what can be safely removed. You can then analyze that information to get a clearer understanding of how your content should be best structured. To help you with this process, we created a free content audit template that’s available for download here.
Once you’ve defined the top goals of your site and taken a hard look at your content, ask yourself the following questions:
On what basis did you produce your current information architecture?
If you can’t answer this question, your site currently has a fundamental flaw. You’ll want to go back to the drawing board and make sure your site has a strong structure backed by reason. When in doubt, turn to Google Analytics, competitor data or industry trends to help you get the basics down for your vertical and target market.
Have you validated your information architecture?
Have you shown your existing information architecture to your target audience to see if you’re on the right track? Ideally, feedback should be a part of your production plan from the very beginning when you’re looking to release a new website or feature. It’s not only a useful marketing activity to manage your online reputation, but also may help you find other areas that need improvement. The earlier you ask for feedback, the easier it will be to correct any problems that exist.
Can you go into the details of your information architecture?
If you know you want to support six links in the main menu, can you describe what those six links will be? What will be included on these pages? Go even a few levels deeper.
Here at Sanmita, we provide you with a hierarchical view of your site’s content during what we call a Discovery phase. This means that we show you what will appear on each page and where these pages will be located in terms of navigation. When we do this, we consider the existing information architecture of your site, as well as your present and future needs, analytics, and competitive data.
The benefit to working with Sanmita is our extensive experience in technology and higher education. We’re highly specialized web designers, developers and strategists delivering open source solutions to higher ed, nonprofit and government institutions. We can anticipate your needs and challenges and deliver more successful end products in less time and at less cost than the leading competitive providers.
Contact us today for a free consultation. We look forward to working with you.
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