A Guide to Information Architecture UX

If you want to ensure all the content on your site is logical and easy for users to find, you need to understand the role of information architecture in UX.

Information Architecture

The science that designers and developers use to structure and organize content to make the user experience (UX) better is called information architecture (IA).

This article will help you understand why IA is critical for e-commerce sites, how IA and UX fit together, and the elements and principles that make up the framework of information architecture.

What Is Information Architecture?

Information architecture is the practice of organizing content effectively. The primary job of an information architect is contributing to a positive UX and maintaining a competitive edge by making sure content is exactly where it needs to be on a website.

UX designers use IA to ensure users can find the information they need and navigate between screens with minimal effort.

The process of IA involves extensive research, careful planning, and usability testing to ensure content is logical and easy to find, so users don’t have a negative experience.

The Importance of Information Architecture

As consumers, we expect to find what we need easily when we land on an e-commerce website. When we can’t, we’re likely to click away and go to a competitor.

Your customers expect to find the solution to their problem with minimal effort when they come to your site. If finding that information is slow or complicated – or if your site is disorganized – there’s a risk they’ll leave and go somewhere else. Once gone, it’s difficult to bring them back, and that’s why information architecture is so critical.

Every negative user experience due to poorly-planned content can lead to lost sales, which can drag down profits and hurt your bottom line.

High-quality information architecture and UX design can also help you:

  • Reduce marketing costs
  • Improve your site’s reputation and SEO ranking
  • Reduce the cost of direct support calls and emails
  • Increase employee productivity

An information architect’s job is to create a UX that allows the user to focus on the task they want to complete – not finding their way around the site.

What Is the Difference Between UX and IA?

Are user experience (UX) and information architecture (IA) the same?

No. These terms are related but are not the same thing.

IA is the blueprint of the overall design structure that designers use to generate wireframes and sitemaps of the project. UX designers then use these wireframes and sitemaps to plan navigation on websites.

The field of user experience focuses on how a user thinks and feels while using a website. The goal of UX design is smooth, efficient, accessible, pleasant user experiences – and creating positive user experiences involves far more than just setting up a logical content structure.

IA is the foundation of the UX process, opening the door to all other aspects of user experience design. That is why every competent UX designer should have IA skills – and it’s a component of many UX courses.

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The 4 Primary Components of Information Architecture

In their groundbreaking book, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, IA pioneers Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville established four main components of information architecture: organization systems, labeling systems, navigation systems, and searching systems.

1. Organization Systems

How will you make sense of the content on your e-commerce site? Your organization system makes the connection between different pieces of information and creates an intuitive framework that helps the user easily navigate and understand your products’ features and benefits. There are three organization systems: sequential, hierarchical, and matrix.

Sequential structure

When you use a sequential structure, you organize content to guide the user through specific steps, taking in only the most essential information they need at that moment. This structure is often used for e-commerce websites, where users need to progress from one task to another to make a purchase.

Sequential structure works well, in part, because it avoids giving the user too many choices, so they don’t become overwhelmed or frustrated.

Hierarchical structure

Hierarchical structure, also known as tree structure, organizes content so that broad categories are at the top and more specific subcategories are beneath the main categories. This type of visual structure communicates the importance of each piece of information by displaying them in a ladder of relevance.

Matrix structure

Matrix structures allow users to choose their own path on a website. The users get access to all the information, in the form of buttons and links, and they get to decide where to go next and what task to tackle next. With a matrix structure, you provide the user with all the possible features and directions of your site instead of guiding them down a pre-set path.

2. Labeling Systems

Labeling systems help users find content using simple words or phrases.

A designer’s job is to create labels that express a lot of data in just a few words, following principles of effective UX writing. For example, a website’s “Contact” page triggers associations in the users’ heads about phone numbers, email addresses, and physical addresses of stores. The label “Contact” unites that information and places it in one section of the site so users can easily find it.

3. Navigation Systems

Navigation is the set of techniques that guides users through your e-commerce website so they can successfully interact with the interface to fulfill their goals. Therefore, the navigation system is how users move through content on a site.

The navigation design on your e-commerce site should be as simple and straightforward as possible, while still providing the relevant information for the user. Picture your navigation as a series of roads that takes the user throughout your site.

Your e-commerce site navigation will be based on your product categories, so it needs to be carefully planned to avoid confusion and frustration that could lead to abandonment.

4. Search Systems

Users will use the search bar on your site to look for products they’re interested in – so you need to make sure your search results pages present appropriate and relevant content. Also, consider how the information in your search system will be presented to users to ensure easy and intuitive navigation.

The layout and structure of your search engine results page are critical elements of your IA. When search UX leads to a “dead end” instead of a path to find relevant products, it’s a direct cause of abandonment.

The 8 Principles of Information Architecture for E-Commerce

During the information architecture process, designers focus purely on the structure of information on your e-commerce site. The designers gain an understanding of the functionality of the site and get a complete inventory of all the content that the site includes.

After that, the designers and user experience architects can begin optimizing the IA using these eight principles:

1. The Principle of Objects

Content is made up of objects that have attributes, lifecycles, and behaviors.

An information architect needs to understand the nature and structure of the objects they’re working with to organize the content. This process is similar to object-oriented programming, where programmers create objects called Classes based on templates.

On your e-commerce site, you have objects like information pages, product pages, and category pages. You might organize several information pages under an “About” menu, or offer users additional content based on what they are currently reading (for example, adding an “Other customers have also looked at” section that links to relevant products).

2. The Principle of Choices

When users have too many choices, it can overwhelm them and lead to abandonment. On your e-commerce site, effective IA ensures pages offer meaningful choices to users.

You can help users choose a path when navigating product categories by including intermediary category pages.

3. The Principle of Disclosure

When users navigate a new site, they use what they already know to predict what will come next. This helps ease uncertainty and empowers users to decide if they want to dig deeper.

On your e-commerce site, show a preview of the information users can find if they click again to dig further into your site’s content. For example, users of e-commerce sites look at product lists, filtering tools, and sorting capabilities to determine how easy or difficult it will be to browse the site’s catalog – so providing a good experience with those features is important.

4. The Principle of Exemplars

An “exemplar” is something that serves as an example or model. Research shows that human brains think about categories as networks of good examples. On an e-commerce website, showing representative examples of the items within a category (rather than providing descriptions) is the best way of communicating that category’s contents.

For example, does your homepage provide enough examples of the types of products your company offers? Can your visitors (especially new users) easily infer what type of site they’ve landed on? If not, you may want to optimize your site for this principle and provide more examples.

5. The Principle of Front Doors

At least 50% of your website’s visitors will encounter your site through an entrance other than your homepage, so each page needs to let users know where they are and what they can do next.

Highlight your user’s current scope by using breadcrumbs and make sure the search field design is prominent in the site’s navigation area on every page.

6. The Principle of Multiple Classification

There is no one “right way” for people to look at the information on your site, so it’s critical that you provide a number of different classification systems to guide users through the process of finding content.

Improve the UX of the product categories on your site by avoiding over-categorization, promoting important product filters, and providing sub-sub-category links below each category.

7. The Principle of Focused Navigation

Keep your navigation as simple as possible, and don’t mix things that belong in different groups. Over 30% of the sites we examined in our recent benchmarking survey nested their entire product catalog inside a single main navigation item, which negatively impacted user experience.

On desktop, keep product categories visible in the top level of the main navigation without hovering, and when on mobile, keep them visible immediately after opening the main navigation.

8. The Principle of Growth

However large your site is today – you must assume that your content will continue to expand over time. Plan ahead so your website can scale with you as the content grows.

Improve Your UX with Information Architecture

Efficient and effective information architecture helps users understand your products enough to decide if they want to make a purchase – good IA and outstanding UX go hand in hand.

Get clear recommendations for information architecture and user experience design when you sign up for Baymard Premium. With over 550 guidelines distilled from over 71,000 hours of usability research, you’ll know exactly how to optimize your IA so you can boost your conversion rate and keep your customers happy.

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Instantly get the report plus Baymard’s UX research insights by email