Guest Post by Carrie Hane, Founder & Principal Strategist, Tanzen
If you have a website, you probably started with a site map: a hierarchical list of the pages on your site that becomes the main navigation menu.
Menus are very important to websites. They are visible and help the site’s visitors get to the where they want to go. But the information architecture—the IA—of your website is so much more than a menu. Like physical structures, websites and digital products need to have good plans, designs, and construction if they are to last and be useful.
Information architecture (IA) is the system of organization, classification, labeling, and structure used in an information space.
IA is a discipline. A branch of knowledge concerned with the design, construction, and organization of information. It seeks to make sense of large amounts of information. And we have nothing if not vast amounts of information that need to be made sense of.
People can be IAs (information architects). These people specialize in planning and designing information to make sense to other people.
When we talk about the IA, we need to consider the four systems make information findable, usable, and understandable:
Yes, the IA is so much more than a site map or even a menu!
How We Architect Information
As soon as we went beyond oral storytelling and started creating written information, we had to find ways to classify and organize it. Long before we had websites and computers, humans developed ways to make sense of it. Things like:
- Alphabetical lists
- Dewey Decimal System
It helps to think of doing IA as a verb and turning it around and think about how to architect information. How do we plan, structure, and organize it?
Start with intent. What do you want to convey? Then move on to context. Why do people want what you have to offer?
There is your foundation for your plan. Now you need a structure. It needs to make sense to the people who will use your website. It needs to reflect your intent and help your audience achieve their goals so you can achieve yours. All information can be broken into smaller pieces and put back together with distinct meaning. Be deliberate about how you structure your information to create something that is sustainable and doesn’t have to be torn down and rebuilt in a few years.
The classification and organization of things is taxonomy. Get used to this term. It isn’t just keyword tags on web pages. It’s any number of vocabulary sets applied to pieces of information. How you choose to classify and organize things reflects your intent. Your taxonomy is a set of instructions for people interacting with you. (How to Make Sense of Any Mess, Abby Covert)
Now you’ve got to organize it all. A site map is a hierarchy—successive categories. You could also organize things in a sequence—the order in which something happens. You probably have all kinds of hypertext on your website (commonly known as links). They provide connection without putting the items together. It does not change where things are located. Rather it is used to jump between taxonomies. All of those provide ways for people to navigate through your website.
Yes, it helps to make navigation a verb too. Here are all the ways people can navigate through a website:
- Menus (main, secondary/local, utility)
- Contextual links/calls to action
- Social (algorithms based on how users interact with content)
So much more than a site map!
The way you architect your information can either make people feel capable or rather dumb. Think about how you have felt when using a poorly organized and labeled website or product. Don’t make your audience feel that way! Follow the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you’d have done to you. Use your IA to educate people. Create a new level of understanding by categorizing and labeling things in a way that matches users’ mental models. Then show how you think about it, which may be different than they do, but now they are thinking, “ Wow, look at all of these things that are this category!”
What Good IA Does For Your Organization
There’s even more to tempt you to think beyond the site map.
When you look at all these things and optimize your IA, you get:
- Better business outcomes—people aren’t frustrated and so engage and buy more
- Enhanced understanding of your space—when you understand your audience’s mental model and expectations you can fulfill their needs
- Connection—with your audience, across your divisions, and between systems
- Flexibility to change things around—no more tearing everything down and rebuilding every 3-5 years; smart planning means you can make incremental changes constantly
- Ability to scale your business—because you have a solid foundation, you have a path to grow in whatever way makes sense
Now you know that IA is more than a site map and search. You don’t have to be an IA to do IA and have a good IA. If you need to architect information but don’t have the luxury of having an IA handy, you can go just a bit deeper to learn some basic and make big changes. Here are some resources that are easy to digest:
Living in Information by Jorge Arango
How to Make Sense of Any Mess, by Abby Covert
Everyday Information Architecture by Lisa Maria Martin
And if you read this in time, you can sign up for Information Architecture Fundamentals: Make Information Findable and Usable on December 10, 2019, in Arlington, VA (just outside Washington, DC). You’ll learn techniques for doing all of the things described in this post and more.
If nothing else, do me one tiny favor: don’t confuse the IA with the site map any more.
About the Author
Carrie Hane helps organizations create more effective content more consistently by coordinating the people, processes, and technology. For 20 years, she’s been putting together teams and creating processes that stick while untangling information to make it findable, usable, and ready for whatever’s next. She is the co-author of Designing Connected Content. Find her at https://www.tanzenconsulting.com/.