Information Architecture Design: A Product Discovery Step

Article by:
Anna Polovnikova
14 min
What is information architecture all about? When should you take care of it, and who is responsible for its creation? Keep reading to learn all the IA basics.

In UX design, creating information architecture is like drawing up blueprints for a building that show the pipe paths or electric system schemes. Unlike UX wireframing, it goes beyond just mapping out how the pages look. It defines how users move through an app or site. Just as architects plan every detail of a house, from structure to plumbing, designers outline the hierarchy, navigation, and features of a digital product.

But making information architecture doesn't mean purely listing the features. It's a detailed process, and handling it during the discovery stage is surely an information architecture best practice. Let's dive into how it's done and why you should take care of it early on.

What Is Information Architecture?

Think of information architecture (IA) as a roadmap for a product. It lays out its structure, features, and hierarchy. Similar to how a roadmap helps you navigate from point A to point B, IA guides designers and teams through the product. It shows teams where everything is and how it connects. Like a roadmap, IA is essential for:

  • planning new routes (features);
  • understanding existing paths;
  • ensuring everyone stays on track.

The process starts as early on the left as possible and lasts during the entire product development life cycle and journey.

Need an example? Imagine a local library website that uses great IA to make finding books easy. With clear menus and search options, users can easily explore different genres and authors. They can also see book reviews and availability to decide on their next read. Without a doubt, a clearly organized website and physical library layouts give users a smooth experience online or in person. This makes borrowing books and discovering new reads a joy for everyone.

The example may sound simple to implement until you start thinking about the variety of labels a single book can have, as well as any other piece of content. Spoiler: digital products are no different.

Why Is Information Architecture Important?

Clear product structure is a treasure map for users, and this is one of the main reasons why information architecture is important. Let's find out why you shouldn't neglect this task.

Benefits of Information Architecture

Firstly, it leads users to the information they're searching for quickly and efficiently. Thus, user experience gets better along with the conversion rates. Businesses also benefit from it by retaining more users over time. So, ultimately, IA yields a greater return on investment.

Moreover, a well-crafted IA can work wonders for a website's visibility in search engine results. Effective content organization and appropriate labels boost a site's ranking, drive more organic traffic, and increase its overall online visibility. You get more eyes on the product, which can again translate to more opportunities for engagement and conversion, helping your business or startup marketing strategy become stronger.

But the benefits of IA don't stop there. IA is a cornerstone of a good product or MVP design for a reason. It aligns cross-functional teams and makes sure everyone understands the product's goals and requirements. This cohesion lets teams create more relevant and meaningful content.

In practical terms, a well-designed IA can make the difference between a clunky, confusing user experience and one that's smooth and enjoyable. It can give businesses a competitive edge by:

  • improving processes;
  • reducing duplication efforts;
  • enhancing knowledge sharing;
  • minimizing reliance on extensive documentation;
  • lowering the costs of finding and accessing data.

Who Is Responsible for Information Architecture Design?

So, who's in charge of building a thoughtful IA? Well, it's a team effort, but there are some key players.

First, we have an information architect. They're the ones who figure out how everything should be structured, what features go where, and how users will navigate through the product.

Then, there are designers. They're the ones who take the IA blueprint and bring it to life. They work on UX discovery and then make sure everything looks good, works smoothly, and is easy for users to interact with.

Depending on the size and scope of the project, there might be others from the team structure involved, too. Developers, content creators, product managers — they all play a role in shaping the IA in one way or another.

Everyone brings their own expertise to create an IA that's functional, user-friendly, and intuitive. Because at the end of the day, that's what it's all about — making sure users can find what they need quickly and easily.

When to Work on Information Architecture Design

Since IA assumes much planning and defines a good share of the product's overall look and functionality, it's not surprising the work should be done as early as possible in a project setting.

When's the right moment to dive into information architecture design? At Upsilon, we go for it at the project discovery phase.

Before you hit the road, you need to figure out where you're going, how you're getting there, and what stops you'll make along the way. This is a description of the project discovery phase in a nutshell.

During this phase, you are gathering all the information you need to kick off the project on the right foot. You're talking to stakeholders, conducting market research, understanding user needs, formulating the product problem statement, and outlining project goals.

IA is a part of the discovery process because it helps you map out the structure of your product. By figuring out the best way to organize information and features, you're ensuring all vitals like feature prioritization are taken into consideration, setting yourself up for success down the road.

So, it makes sense to work on information architecture right from the get-go, during the project discovery phase. It's the foundation that everything else is built upon and you want to get it right from the start.

Want to ensure that your project discovery isn't a waste of time?

In just 2 weeks, Upsilon can deliver detailed feature descriptions, user stories, wireframes, prototypes, information architecture, tech stack, and more so that your development kicks off from the right note!

Let's talk

Want to ensure that your project discovery isn't a waste of time?

In just 2 weeks, Upsilon can deliver detailed feature descriptions, user stories, wireframes, prototypes, information architecture, tech stack, and more so that your development kicks off from the right note!

Let's talk

Major Information Architecture Components

We can now say what is information architecture. It is about the product's logic and usability in general. As we go deeper, we can clearly define four major components of it:

  • Structure and organization
  • Labeling
  • Navigation
  • Search

Let's look through each of these components of information architecture, their purpose, and what tools or approaches exist to work with them.

Components of Information Architecture

Structure and Organization

It means how you arrange content and features in a way that makes sense to users. In this respect, you have to mind the:

  • users (their needs, behavior, experience, etc.);
  • content (data types, volume, and so on);
  • context (business goals, resources, how the user interacts with content, etc.).

Taxonomy is another thing you think about here. Coming back to our library, it's where you categorize books by genre, author, or topic. In digital terms, it's arranging content in a logical hierarchy and making it easier for users to navigate.

You can also apply the card sorting method to how you organize things. Imagine asking people to group similar items together in a way that makes sense to them. This method helps designers understand users' mental models and preferences for organizing content.

Another widely used approach to organization is breaking down your content into bite-sized pieces, akin to splitting a long article into paragraphs. It helps users process information easier and find what they need without feeling overwhelmed.

Finally, with this approach, you build a sitemap. It's the blueprint of your website, showing all its pages and how they're connected that we mentioned in the beginning.

Labeling

Technically, labeling is a tool for organizing things. This is like putting signs on things so you know what they are. In IA, labeling uses clear and descriptive language to help you and users understand what they're clicking on or reading.

It is possible with metadata. These are like tags attached to each piece of content that provide descriptive information. Just as a book's metadata includes its title, author, and genre, digital metadata helps users understand what they're looking at.

You would also not want to be confusing and ambiguous. Controlled vocabulary helps with this. It's a standardized language for your content. It ensures consistency in labeling and navigation by using predefined terms to prevent confusion and make the UX intuitive.

Another way to label things is by leaving information scent. Imagine breadcrumbs leading you through a forest. Information scent provides cues or signposts that guide users and let them know they're on the right path.

Simple content tagging that you might see in every media today is a part of this component, too. It's like attaching sticky notes to your digital content with keywords or tags. This makes it easier to categorize and retrieve information, especially in large databases or websites.

Navigation Systems

It includes menus, links, and buttons that guide users through your product. Imagine a menu that unfolds like an accordion and reveals multiple layers of navigation options at once. It’s called mega-menu. It allows users to jump directly to their desired destination without going through multiple pages.

There's also faceted navigation. Think of this as shopping with multiple filters on an e-commerce site. It allows users to refine their search results based on specific criteria, such as price range or product category.

Again, information scent. Just like animals follow a scent to find food, users follow cues or indicators to navigate through a website. These could be highlighted links, clear buttons, or visual cues that guide users along their path.

Search Systems

Here, you're making sure users can quickly and easily find what they need, whether it's through a search bar or filters.

Information retrieval is the first thing effective search features focus on. Search functionality should let users quickly locate specific information within a system, save their time, and effort.

Saving time means the search is actually relevant. Imagine searching for "best pizza" and getting results for sushi restaurants. Search relevancy ensures that users get accurate results based on their queries.

It also means the search can assume what the user wants before they type the entire thing. Similar to predictive text on your smartphone, autocomplete suggests search terms as you type. It speeds up the search process and reduces the likelihood of typos or misspellings.

We've already mentioned search facets, or filters on a search engine results page. It lets users narrow down their options based on specific criteria such as date, location, or category. They help users refine their search results and find exactly what they're looking for.

Information Architecture Principles

What are the main principles that apply to information architecture universally? In 2006, Dan Brown, an American UX designer, defined 8 principles of information architecture that we stick to today.

8 Principles of Information Architecture
  1. Principle of Objects. Content isn't static — it's alive. It has its own characteristics and behaviors. Information architects need to understand each piece before organizing it.
  2. Principle of Choices. Users shouldn't feel overwhelmed with options. Keep it simple, with just enough choices to get the job done without causing confusion.
  3. Principle of Disclosure. Only show users what they need when they need it. Too much information all at once can be a headache. Give users what they need to make decisions without overwhelming them.
  4. Principle of Exemplars. Instead of just describing things, show examples. Icons or images can make navigation easy by creating a visual language everyone understands.
  5. Principle of Front Doors. Users might not always start on the home page, so make sure they can find what they need from any page they land on.
  6. Principle of Multiple Classification. Everyone's different, so provide different ways to find things, like menus and search bars.
  7. Principle of Navigation. Make it easy for users to move around your site with clear, consistent navigation tools, breadcrumbs, and other tricks.
  8. Principle of Growth. Design with the future in mind. Your site or digital product will evolve over time. Make sure it can handle new content without getting cluttered.

These principles are the golden rules of product information architecture. They help teams create digital spaces that work for everyone. Keep them in mind and use these eight steps to set up the first information architecture initiative.

How to Design Information Architecture: 8 Steps

A guide to design information architecture is simple and straightforward. Here's a simple walkthrough of what you can do.

Designing Information Architecture in 8 Steps
  1. Figure out what you want your digital space to achieve. Understanding its purpose helps lay the groundwork for everything else.
  2. Dive into what your users want and need. Surveys, chats, and testing can give you valuable insights into how they interact with similar digital products.
  3. Take stock of what's already there. Look for competitor strengths and weaknesses so you can build on the good product and fix what's not working.
  4. Use fictional characters representing different users. Creating user stories and personas helps you imagine how they'd use your digital space and what they'd want from it.
  5. Organize your content logically when working on your information architecture, like sorting books on a shelf. This is the most important step, so make sure everything's easy to find and makes sense.
  6. Check out the rough design sketches to see how things might look and work. You can even take a look at product prototypes, as they help catch any hiccups early on.
  7. Get feedback from everyone involved. Whether it's users or team members, hearing different perspectives helps make things better. It's always a good idea to get feedback before investing in development.
  8. Keep track of decisions and plans. Documenting how things are organized and labeled helps keep everyone on the same page.

Although these steps to follow as you design information architecture are straightforward, but the actions will take effort. From the mentioned above, you can see that they require diverse expertise from marketing to interactive design and development.Go through them gradually and take as much time as needed for the information architecture process to be effective. Soon you'll be on your way to creating an IA that makes navigating digital spaces easy for everyone involved.

Information Architecture Best Practices

While you think about the eight information architecture principles described above, keep in mind that there's much knowledge collected since Brown made them up in 2006. Look through the list of the best tips based on what we've seen in the IA process so far:

  1. Focus on how things are structured, not just their order. The homepage stays the same, but everything else can change. Think about how people move around beyond the homepage to make a logical setup.
  2. Make sure every step in the user journey makes sense. From signing up to clicking buttons, keep things logical to make the UX meaningful.
  3. Blend IA with the overall user experience process. IA isn't separate — it's part of a bigger picture. Do research, gather info, and make models to decide on the IA layout.
  4. Think of yourself as a mapmaker. Just like mapping land, designing IA means thinking about different things like how users behave and make choices. Design with users in mind and shape the IA to fit them.
  5. Be ready for things to change. Products change, people's needs change, and designs change, too. Aim for being able to adapt rather than being perfect.
  6. Hierarchy construction isn't top-down. Building information architecture top-down can be tough, especially for new projects. It's like assembling a car part by part instead of starting with the roof.
  7. Visual hierarchy adds context. It emphasizes what's best about a product. Imagine an online bookstore featuring a limited-time discount on best-selling novels. Highlight this deal in the visual hierarchy. Thus, users will be more likely to notice and engage with it.
  8. Use sitemaps for clarity. Highlighting top navigation throughout the product, as seen on many university websites, further enhances clarity.
  9. Engagement points matter. Effective IA should uniquely display engagement points. Achieve it through simple legends and key phrases.
  10. Take advantage of the hierarchy of shapes and colors. Incorporating shapes, colors, and other visual elements effectively conveys hierarchy. Even without color, strategically placed text snippets make major interactions understandable.

And let's not forget about artificial intelligence. In the IA design process, Large Language Models (LLMs) like ChatGPT help with research by quickly analyzing large amounts of content and performing sentiment analysis. They also assist in modeling by suggesting categories and relationships between concepts. For instance, in production, LLMs could potentially generate UI-level components and layouts based on existing web pages and app screens.

So, embrace these tips and take a look at how some companies already get the most out of their IA!

A Few More Information Architecture Examples

There are things that users expect and cannot unlearn. Such as, we can clearly imagine the most common scenario of an online purchase:

  1. Search
  2. Add to cart
  3. Review
  4. Pay
  5. Track the order

It will be at least risky to come up with an entirely different process. Let's review more examples of such cases, and what to better focus on in making IA for different website types.

Information Architecture Example

E-commerce Website

Again, imagine you're browsing a popular e-commerce website like Amazon. The IA here is carefully structured to help users navigate through a vast array of products effortlessly. You'll find clear categories like Electronics, Clothing, and Home & Kitchen, each with subcategories for further refinement.

Additionally, intuitive search functionality allows users to find specific items quickly. The IA diagram for Amazon or a similar product would depict this hierarchical structure and showcase how products are organized and interconnected within the platform. You can keep this in mind if you decide to create a marketplace.

Social Media Platform

Consider the IA of a social media giant like Facebook. The IA here revolves around user-generated content, connections, and interactions. The main navigation typically includes sections like News Feed, Messenger, Groups, and Marketplace. Within each section, users can further explore content, messages, and community discussions.

Mentioning more examples of information architecture for socials, Pinterest nails personalized searches perfectly. With guided search and related pins, they help users discover exactly what they're into. Any specific query like "wedding in the woods ideas" will lead to both general boards and boards dedicated to furniture, color schemes, and other details.

An information architecture diagram for Facebook or Pinterest would illustrate how user profiles, posts, comments, and other elements are interconnected to foster navigation and engagement and improve vital product performance metrics.

Mobile Banking App

For a mobile banking app such as Chase Mobile, the IA focuses on providing users with easy access to essential banking features and services. The main navigation often includes tabs for Accounts, Transfers, Payments, and Settings. Within each section, users can perform various actions like checking account balances, transferring funds, and paying bills.

An IA diagram for Chase Mobile would outline the flow of interactions, from logging in to completing transactions, emphasizing a secure user experience.

Travel Booking Website

Consider a travel booking website like Expedia. The IA here is designed to help users plan and book trips with ease. The main navigation typically includes tabs for Flights, Hotels, Car Rentals, and Activities. Within each category, users can further refine their search based on preferences such as dates, locations, and price ranges. Additionally, features like saved searches and recommended destinations enhance the user experience.

Another information architecture example of a booking app is Airbnb. Finding homes, experiences, or restaurants is quick with a straightforward menu. There's also a map option for those who already know the area. It means Airbnb considers that different users search differently.

One more real-world example of IA can be seen on the website of Cruise America - an RV rental company. They've simplified their navigation to allow users to easily choose between if they want to buy or rent an RV. In addition, they've also added locations for those who want to rent an RV in their city to enhance the user experience.

An information architecture diagram for such apps would illustrate how different travel components are organized and interconnected and guide users through the booking process from start to finish.

Educational Platform

Imagine an online learning platform like Coursera. The IA here revolves around providing users access to a vast library of courses and educational resources. The main navigation includes tabs for Subjects, Courses, Certifications, and My Learning. Within each category, users can explore topics, enroll in courses, track progress, and earn certifications.

An IA diagram for Coursera would showcase the hierarchical structure of subjects, courses, and learning paths to illustrate how users can navigate through the platform to achieve their educational goals.

Content Management System

For a content management system like WordPress, the IA is focused on helping users create, manage, and publish digital content. The main navigation typically includes tabs for Posts, Pages, Media, and Settings. Within each section, users can create and edit content, upload media files, and customize website settings.

An information architecture diagram for WordPress would outline the flow of content creation, editing, and publishing.

Keeping users at the center is the motto of these platforms. And here's a list of great software that assists in creating the most user-centric products of all time.

Best Information Architecture Tools to Use 

We've collected top product information architecture software along with their best use cases and standout features. Feel free to save this compilation.

Information Architecture Tools

1. Lucidchart

Opening the list of great information architecture tools and techniques is Lucidchart. You can use it for collaborative IA design and diagramming.

Best features:

  • collaborative real-time editing;
  • extensive shape library;
  • integration with popular platforms;
  • detailed revision history.

2. Axure RP

The Axure RP tool is best for prototyping complex IA structures and interactive wireframes.

Best features:

  • dynamic interactions;
  • conditional logic;
  • comprehensive documentation;
  • integration with design tools.

3. OmniGraffle

The OmniGraffle software allows the creation of detailed IA diagrams with a focus on visual aesthetics.

Best features:

  • customizable stencils;
  • grid and alignment tools;
  • diagram templates;
  • export options.

4. Miro

Miro is best for collaborative brainstorming and ideation sessions for IA design.

Best features:

  • infinite canvas;
  • real-time collaboration;
  • built-in templates;
  • integration with third-party tools.

5. Adobe XD

Noting another information architecture tool, you can apply Adobe XD for creating interactive prototypes and user flows with a focus on design consistency.

Best features:

  • responsive design;
  • interactive components;
  • repeat grid;
  • collaboration and sharing.

6. MindMeister

The MindMeister tool is best for creating hierarchical IA diagrams and mind maps for brainstorming and conceptualizing ideas.

Best features:

  • hierarchical structure;
  • real-time collaboration;
  • export options;
  • integration with task management tools.

7. Whimsical

The Whimsical software allows collaborative IA design with a focus on simplicity and ease of use.

Best features:

  • intuitive interface;
  • collaboration features;
  • version history;
  • built-in templates.

With less manual effort, you can use the tools to set up the IA design process and make up your first user-centric digital experiences.

Need a hand with product development?

Upsilon's team can be with you all the way from the discovery phase and information architecture to developing an MVP and then scaling your product.

Talk to Us

Need a hand with product development?

Upsilon's team can be with you all the way from the discovery phase and information architecture to developing an MVP and then scaling your product.

Talk to Us

A Summary of Information Architecture Design

Summing up, information architecture guides users through websites and apps. It's a team effort involving designers, developers, and stakeholders to ensure users can easily find what they need. By sticking to principles like object-oriented thinking and user-friendly choices, designers create IA that just makes sense.

Tools like Lucidchart and Adobe XD make the job easier. They help teams build digital experiences that users love. Yet, either way, it makes sense to think this through during the earliest stages of product creation.

If you're in search of pros who can help you handle the discovery phase (do research, choose a tech stack, create information architecture, select top features, make wireframes and prototypes, give a project estimation, and more), Upsilon's team will be glad to assist! We can help you kickstart the project from the right foot with a two-week discovery phase and provide MVP development services if you'd like us to bring the product to life, too. So, reach out to discuss your needs! 

FAQ

1. What is information architecture in UX?

Giving a short information architecture definition in UX design, it refers to schematically organizing and structuring a digital product to ensure that it's user-friendly. This regards content, labels, sitemaps, and navigation.

2. Why is information architecture important for user experience?

Information architecture organizes content in a way that helps users navigate digital products easily. Without good IA, users might feel lost and frustrated. It leads to a poor experience. For example, a well-structured website with clear menus and intuitive navigation enhances user experience by making it effortless for visitors to find what they're looking for.

3. What does an information architect do?

An information architect is the master planner of digital spaces. They design the structure and layout of digital products, websites, and apps. It's their job to create blueprints for how information will be presented and accessed by users. For instance, an information architect might map out the flow of a mobile app, determining where buttons should go and how screens should connect to provide an intuitive user experience.

4. What are the types of information architecture?

There are several types of information architecture, but the main ones include:

  • Hierarchical
  • Sequential
  • Matrix organization

Hierarchical IA arranges content in a tree-like structure, with main categories branching out into subcategories. Sequential IA guides users through a linear path, like a tutorial or a step-by-step process. Matrix IA organizes content in multiple dimensions. It allows users to navigate based on different criteria simultaneously.

For example, an e-commerce website might use hierarchical IA for product categories, sequential IA for checkout steps, and matrix IA for filtering search results.

5. Which information architecture methods work best?

The best information architecture methods depend on the project's specific goals and requirements. However, some common approaches include:

  • Card sorting
  • User interviews
  • Usability testing

Card sorting involves asking users to group content into categories. User interviews provide insights into user needs and preferences based on real feedback. Usability testing allows designers to evaluate IA prototypes and identify areas for improvement by observing how users interact with the product. Each method has its strengths and can be used alone or in combination.

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