Information Architecture

1. What is Information Architecture (IA)?

IA is the practice of organizing, structuring, and labeling content in a way that makes it easy for users to find what they need within a digital interface. It’s like the blueprint for how information is presented and accessed.

Regardless of what task is being accomplished, here are some of the questions we ask when doing information architecture:

  • What is the flow of users through our site?
  • How does the application help the user catalog their information?
  • How is that information presented back to the user?
  • Is that information helping the customer, and driving decisions?

To answer these questions, the information architect must focus on a number of things: the target audience, the technologies related to the website, and the data that will be presented through the website.

2. Core Concepts in IA

1. Organization

How content is grouped and structured.

  • Hierarchy and Structure: IA involves creating a logical hierarchy for content. It’s like arranging the rooms in a house – you want each room to have a clear purpose and be accessible from the right places.
  • Taxonomy: This is the classification system used to categorize and organize content. It’s like labeling the drawers in a filing cabinet – each category should be meaningful and intuitive.

How users move through the information.

  • Menus and Navigation Bars: These are the signposts that help users move around a digital space. They should be clear, consistent, and easy to use.
  • Breadcrumbs: Think of these as a trail of breadcrumbs that show users where they are in the site’s hierarchy, making it easier to backtrack or understand their current location.


  • Information Labels: This is all about choosing the right words to describe content. Labels should be concise, descriptive, and in the user’s language.
  • Metadata: Behind the scenes, metadata helps search engines and internal systems understand and categorize content.

Enhancing the search experience for users.

  • Search Functionality: If your site has a search bar, IA comes into play here too. Ensuring that the search function provides relevant results and filters is crucial.
  • Faceted Search: This allows users to refine search results by applying filters. It’s like narrowing down a product search on an e-commerce site by price, brand, or other criteria.

Putting users at the center of the design process.

  • User Research: Understanding your target audience is key. Conduct user research to uncover their needs, preferences, and pain points.
  • Usability Testing: Test your IA with real users to identify any issues and make improvements based on their feedback.

3. Key Principles and Models:

  • Hick’s Law: The time it takes for a person to make a decision increases with the number of choices.
  • Gestalt Principles: Understanding how users perceive and group visual elements.
  • Card Sorting: A technique to determine how users categorize content.

4. IA Tools and Techniques

  • Sitemaps: Visual representations of website structures.
  • Wireframes: Sketches or blueprints of web pages.
  • Prototyping: Building interactive models to test IA concepts.
  • Usability Testing: Gathering feedback from users to refine IA.

5. IA in Practice

  • You can explore real-world examples of IA in websites and apps. Take popular websites and dissect their IA structures to understand how they enhance user experience.

6. Resources for Deepening Your Knowledge

  • Books: “Information Architecture for the World Wide Web” by Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville is a classic.
  • Courses: Consider online courses or workshops in UX design and IA.
  • Communities: Join UX and IA communities to exchange ideas and learn from experts.

1. Core Concepts

1.1. Organization


1.1.1 Information Hierarchy:

  • Think of information hierarchy as a tree structure where content is organized from broad categories down to specific details. This hierarchy helps users understand the relationships between different pieces of information.
  • For example, on an e-commerce website, the hierarchy might start with broad categories like “Electronics,” then drill down to “Smartphones,” and further to “Apple iPhones.”


1.1.2. Content Chunking

  • Content should be broken into manageable “chunks” or sections. This makes it easier for users to digest information.
  • In a blog post, for instance, you might have headings, subheadings, paragraphs, and bullet points to break up the content into readable chunks.


1.1.3. Navigation Patterns

  • How users navigate through your content is a crucial aspect of organization. Common navigation patterns include top navigation menus, sidebars, and footer menus.
  • These menus should reflect the content hierarchy and make it easy for users to move between different sections of a website or application.


1.1.4. Consistency

  • Consistency in organization is key to providing a seamless user experience. If users learn how one part of your website is structured, they’ll expect similar structures elsewhere.
  • For example, if your blog always places the publication date at the top of each article, users will come to rely on that consistency.


1.1.5. Accessibility

  • Ensure that your organization is accessible to all users, including those with disabilities. Proper labeling and use of headings can assist screen readers in conveying the structure of your content.
  • Additionally, consider how keyboard navigation and other assistive technologies interact with your organization.


1.1.6. Cross-Linking

  • Cross-linking involves connecting related content by including links within your text. This helps users discover relevant information without having to rely solely on the navigation menu.
  • For instance, in an article about photography, you might link to related articles about camera equipment or photography techniques.


1.1.7. Card Sorting

  • Card sorting is a user research technique where participants organize content into categories that make sense to them. This can provide valuable insights into how users naturally group and organize information.
  • You can use the results of card sorting exercises to refine your information hierarchy.


8. Mobile-Friendly Organization

With the increasing use of mobile devices, it’s essential to consider how your organization translates to smaller screens. Responsive design and mobile navigation patterns are crucial in this regard.

1.2. Navigation

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1.2.1. Types of Navigation

  • Global Navigation: This is the primary navigation system that appears consistently across all pages of a website or app. It typically includes links to essential sections or categories, like the homepage, About Us, Contact, and major product/service offerings. Global navigation sets the overall structure of the site.

  • Local Navigation: Local navigation is context-specific and appears within a particular section or page. For example, within an e-commerce product page, local navigation might include links to related products, reviews, or additional product details.

  • Breadcrumbs: Breadcrumbs show users their path through a website’s hierarchy. They’re especially helpful when users want to backtrack or understand where they are in the overall structure.

  • Footer Navigation: The footer often contains links to secondary pages, legal information, and social media links. While not as prominent as global navigation, it provides additional avenues for exploration.

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1.2.2. Navigation Patterns

  • Top Navigation: A horizontal menu bar at the top of the page is a common choice for global navigation. It’s usually where users first look to find their way around.

  • Sidebar Navigation: In some designs, especially for content-heavy websites or web apps, a sidebar on the left or right may house navigation links. This pattern is effective for providing quick access to subcategories or filters.

  • Hamburger Menu: On mobile devices or minimalist designs, a hidden menu behind the iconic three-line “hamburger” symbol can save screen space. Users tap the icon to reveal navigation options.

  • Tabbed Navigation: Tabs are often used to switch between different sections or views within a single page or app. Each tab represents a distinct area of content.

  • Mega Menus: These are expanded drop-down menus that display a large number of navigation options when users hover over or click on a category. They’re useful for websites with extensive content.

Information Architecture/Core Concepts/Navigation

1.2.3. User-Centered Navigation

  • Navigation should align with users’ mental models and expectations. The labels and structure should be intuitive and reflect how users think about the content.

  • Consider user personas and their goals. Different user groups may have varying navigation preferences and needs.

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1.2.4. Responsive Navigation

With the prevalence of mobile devices, responsive design is crucial. Navigation menus should adapt to smaller screens gracefully, often through techniques like collapsing the menu into a mobile-friendly format.

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1.2.5. Accessibility in Navigation

Ensure that navigation is accessible to all users, including those with disabilities. This involves providing clear labels, keyboard navigation support, and compatibility with screen readers.

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1.2.6. Search and Navigation Integration

Navigation and search functionality should complement each other. If users can’t find what they need through navigation, they should have a robust search option as a fallback.

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7. A/B Testing and Usability Testing

Regularly test your navigation structure to see how users interact with it. A/B testing can help you compare different navigation designs to determine which one performs better. Usability testing provides valuable insights into how real users navigate your site.

1.3. Labelling

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1.3.1. Clarity and Consistency

  • Labels should be clear, concise, and easily understood by your target audience. Use plain language whenever possible to avoid confusion.
  • Consistency in labeling is essential. If you use a specific term or label in one place, try to use the same label for similar content or actions throughout the interface. This helps build a sense of familiarity for users.

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1.3.2. User-Centered Labels

  • Labels should reflect how users think about the content or actions. Consider user research and personas to understand the terminology your target audience is likely to use.
  • Avoid industry jargon or internal terminology that might be unfamiliar to users.

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1.3.3. Information Scent

  • Information scent refers to the clues provided by labels that help users anticipate what they’ll find when they click on a link or button. Effective labeling should provide a strong information scent.
  • For example, a label like “Read More” on a blog post teaser provides a clear information scent that clicking it will reveal more of the article.

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1.3.4. Contextual Labels

  • Labels should make sense within the context in which they appear. They should provide users with a good idea of what they can expect when they interact with that element.
  • For example, a “Checkout” button on an e-commerce site should be labeled as such when a user is viewing their shopping cart.

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1.3.5. Descriptive Labels

  • Labels should accurately describe the content or action. Descriptive labels help users make informed choices.
  • For example, instead of a vague “Click Here” link, use a label like “Download PDF” to indicate exactly what will happen when the link is clicked.

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1.3.6. Navigation Labels

  • Navigation menus and links are a primary area where labeling is critical. Use labels that reflect the content or category they link to.
  • If a label is too long, consider using shortened versions or icons, but ensure that they remain easily understandable.

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1.3.7. Testing Labels

  • Usability testing can help you evaluate the effectiveness of labels. Watch how users interact with your interface and pay attention to any confusion or hesitation caused by labeling choices.
  • A/B testing can also be used to compare different labels to determine which ones perform better in terms of user engagement and comprehension.

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8. Localization and Multilingual Considerations

If your audience spans multiple languages or regions, consider how labels may need to change to accommodate different languages and cultural preferences.

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9. Accessibility in Labeling

Ensure that labels are accessible to all users, including those who rely on screen readers or other assistive technologies. Provide alternative text for non-text elements like images and icons.

1.4. Search

Search is essential for helping users find specific information quickly and efficiently within digital interfaces. Whether it’s a search bar on a website, an app, or even a database, effective search functionality is like having a knowledgeable librarian at your disposal.

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1.4.1. Types of Search

  • Keyword Search: This is the most common type of search, where users enter keywords or phrases into a search box to find relevant content. For example, searching for “smartphone reviews.”

  • Faceted Search: Also known as filtered search, this allows users to refine their search results using filters like categories, dates, or product attributes. It’s often used in e-commerce and content-heavy websites.

  • Natural Language Processing (NLP): Advanced search engines use NLP to understand the user’s natural language queries. For instance, you can ask, “What are the best restaurants nearby?” instead of using keywords.

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1.4.2. Search Design

  • Search Bar Placement: Typically, the search bar is placed prominently at the top of a webpage for easy access. On mobile devices, it may be hidden behind an icon (e.g., a magnifying glass) to save screen space.

  • Search Button: Make sure there’s a clear “Search” button or an easily recognizable icon to initiate the search. Users should understand how to start the search process.

  • Auto-Suggestions: As users type their query, provide auto-suggestions that help them complete their search more quickly. These suggestions are often based on popular search terms or previous searches.

  • Search Results Page: When users submit a search, they should be taken to a dedicated search results page. This page should display relevant content along with clear navigation options to refine or sort results.

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1.4.3. Relevance and Ranking

  • Search engines use algorithms to determine the relevance of search results. Factors like keyword matching, user behavior, and content quality play a role.
  • Consider offering options to sort results by relevance, date, popularity, or other criteria to accommodate different user preferences.

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1.4.4. Advanced Search Features

Provide advanced search features like Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT), wildcards, and filters to empower users with more precise control over their searches.

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1.4.5. Mobile-Friendly Search:

On mobile devices, design the search interface to be user-friendly with features like predictive text, voice search, and a keyboard optimized for touch screens.

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1.4.6. Analytics and User Behavior

Analyze search data to understand what users are looking for and whether they’re finding it. This can help you improve search functionality over time.

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1.4.7. Error Handling

Plan for scenarios where users enter incorrect queries or encounter no results. Provide clear error messages and suggestions for refining the search.

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1.4.8. Accessibility in Search

Ensure that the search functionality is accessible to users with disabilities. This includes providing keyboard navigation support, appropriate ARIA attributes, and a visible focus indicator.

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1.4.9. User Assistance

Include a help or tips section to guide users in using the search effectively. Explain any advanced search options and operators.

3. Key Principles and Models:

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3.1. Hick's Law

  • Principle: Hick’s Law, also known as Hick-Hyman Law, posits that the time it takes for a person to make a decision increases logarithmically with the number of choices or stimuli presented.
  • Application in IA: In IA, Hick’s Law highlights the importance of simplicity and minimizing cognitive load. When designing navigation menus or interfaces, offering too many choices can overwhelm users and slow down decision-making.
  • Guidance: Designers should aim for clear and concise navigation options, grouping related content, and using hierarchies to reduce the number of choices users face at any given point. Effective labeling and information organization can also simplify decision-making.

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3.2. Gestalt Principles

  • Principle: Gestalt psychology explores how humans perceive and group visual elements based on specific principles, such as proximity, similarity, closure, and continuity.
  • Application in IA: Understanding Gestalt principles is crucial for designing interfaces that users find visually cohesive and intuitive.
  • Proximity: Elements placed close together are perceived as related. In IA, this can be used to group related items in menus or content sections.
  • Similarity: Similar elements are perceived as belonging together. Designers can use this principle to create consistent visual patterns for navigation elements.
  • Closure: Users tend to perceive incomplete shapes as complete. This can be used to guide users’ attention or suggest interactivity.
  • Continuity: Elements aligned in a straight line or smooth curve are perceived as related. It can help create a sense of flow in interface design.

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3.3. Card Sorting

  • Technique: Card sorting is a user research technique used to understand how users categorize and organize content. Participants are given a set of cards representing content items and are asked to group them in a way that makes sense to them.
  • Application in IA: Card sorting is invaluable for designing information hierarchies, navigation menus, and content categorization that align with users’ mental models.
  • Open Card Sorting: Participants create their own categories and group content items accordingly, providing insights into how users naturally organize information.
  • Closed Card Sorting: Participants are given predefined categories and are asked to sort content items into those categories. This method helps validate existing IA structures or category labels.
  • Hybrid Card Sorting: Combines elements of open and closed card sorting to gain a comprehensive understanding of user preferences.

Guidance for Card Sorting in IA:

  • Conduct card sorting sessions with representative users to ensure insights are applicable to the target audience.
  • Analyze the results to inform information architecture decisions, such as menu structures, category labels, and content organization.
  • Card sorting can be performed in-person or remotely using specialized software tools.