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Imagine yourself in a large outdoor bazaar where you have never been before. It might be a good place to stroll around, but what if you need to buy a specific item? It’s almost like looking for a needle in a haystack – you will soon feel tired and frustrated.
Now let’s get to the airport. Maybe you are here for the first time as well. You see a lot of signs, announcements are heard , and digital screens constantly update routes. Everything is clear to you. You can quickly and easily make a transfer or get to the shopping area to kill some time.
How would you like your customers to feel on your website – like in a bazaar or like at a modern airport?
Just as real architects design the layout of physical spaces, information architects think through the arrangement of content in a digital space. In this post we’ll define what information architecture is, and look at five ways to organize your digital space to create great Information Architecture (IA).
What is Information Architecture?
Information Architecture has its roots in library science and cognitive psychology.
IA is a science of organizing and structuring content in a logical or user-friendly way.You can think of IA professionals as digital librarians, organizing content across the digital product.
The main questions Information Architecture professionals ask are:
- What information should go where?
- Which elements are most important and should be given priority?
Why is Information Architecture important?
We create tons of content: products and services pages, company introductions and news, thought leadership articles and blog posts. But what’s the point in creating all of that – If your audience can’t find it easily?
In the worst cases you’ll see companies where people use Google search to find something on their own website. We know this is wrong, but it happens more often than not..
If you’ve ever collected feedback about your website you’ve definitely heard something like: “I can’t find this”, “I don’t understand how to get there”, “Where was that thing I was looking for”.
And these are the people who gave time to tell you their frustrations, think about all those who just switched to your competitors to find what they need!
Of course, no one initially plans to create bad designs, or try to confuse their audience. But this often happens as a result of poor AI.
That is why Information Architecture is so critical to the success of your organization.
What is great Information Architecture?
Chris How in his talk, “Digital Experiences and Information Architecture” explains how great IA tells a story, creates flow around your website, and encourages discovery.
In simple words it encourages people to use your services, buy your products, and allows your audience to learn from you by easily navigating your digital space.
While we’re surfing the net, we’re basically doing only 2 things – we’re either looking for content or consuming content.
Proportionally, we still have too many people spending too much time searching for the things they need, instead of doing what we really want them to do – buying or using our services.
Today, time might be the most precious resource that we ask consumers to give us. Great Information Architecture helps to give some of this time back and create more value for your brand.
Only 5 Ways to Organize Things
Really…? Only 5? This concept was first espoused by Saul Wurman, American architect, graphic designer and creator of TED Conferences, who had coined the term “Information Architecture” in 1976, well before the Internet existed as we know it today.
The acronym for the 5 ways spells LATCH:
Let’go through each of these with some examples.
Location is a good way to organize things if where they are placed is an important characteristic that carries a certain meaning. These can be maps with interesting places to visit, or medical books where information will be distributed according to the parts of the human anatomy.
Digitally we sometimes see it on festivals websites for example, where you can visually find what is happening at a certain site of the event.
Using the alphabet is quite a common idea at the start. We’ve got lots of content, so why don’t we just sort it alphabetically?
And it has one advantage – In most every country alphabetical order is the same – A to Z. However, No international standard exists on this topic because alphabetization is language-specific, and no two languages written in the Roman script have the same alphabet and orthographic rules.
In addition, there are other problems with this schema we should be aware of. Sometimes when we sort things with the alphabet – we just lose the context.
We can often see it in books and indexes. This is where alphabetical sorting is widely used. Here is an example: In an Italian cookbook translated into English you can find “F” recipes like “Fabulous Smoked Swordfish”. If you were going to research how to cook a swordfish would “F” be the first letter you would pick? And there are many more examples like “Exotic Fruit Salad” or “Provençal Omelets”.
It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use it, but consider that alphabetical sorting could potentially create more problems than it would easily solve.
Time is a great way to organize things that have chronology or sequence. One step to another. If you get the sequence right – it will make sense.
We’ll continue to use online examples such as recipes. You can sort ingredients in order which you’ll need first, and which will go next. And then you can sort preparation methods in order of time.
This may seem quite obvious, to sort things chronologically and help people achieve a goal, but there are still many online outlets that don’t do that where it’s justified.
By category is one of the most common ways to organize things online. Categories are used all over the place in e-commerce stores or in art galleries, for example.
Categories are important because they help people think about information and make sense of it.
But pay attention because they can also be quite cultural. For instance, if you work internationally and do research in different territories, make sure that the way you categorize things is applicable there as well.
Hierarchy is really good when you have a scale, a perceived value or weight, or when you can rank staff. You can order practically anything by hierarchy. That’s why it’s so useful.
Online we typically see it working well for sports tables, pop charts, “best selling”, “most popular”, “lowest price to highest price”. These are things that can be easily programmed by developers, because they have a built-in logic to them.
But you should always check what is actually happening – if you are an e-commerce website and you display your products in order by price, it might not show the products you really want to promote. If you’re just showing best-selling products first, it might be hiding a big part of your other inventory.
So take another close look at your website from the consumers perspective. Re-check the hierarchy and think of what you’re implying to the buyer by the order of the products you’re displaying.
Mix up the LATCH
We’re not supposed to pick only one method. Once you start mixing methods, the LATCH structured architecture becomes really powerful.
As a digital example, we can remember the easily navigable TV streaming services bringing different methods together to allow us to find content in the most convenient way.
Usually we can have a lot of categories such as, alphabetical order, time – to see which episode goes after which, and “most popular” or “you may like” for hierarchy. It helps us to get to the shows that we’re looking for. And for service providers to achieve their goal – views of their content.
But you still have to be careful when clicking around. Sometimes the amount of navigation can distract our attention from the content we’re looking for and make it difficult to find on pages full of optional ways to navigate.
When designing your information architecture, you should always think of what is driving people to the content and what is getting them away from it.
Create meaning with IA
Sometimes you can disrupt the common flow of sorting to create more meaning and change the way the content is perceived.
A poignant example of this is The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC. Usually war memorials put names of the fallen in order of their ranks – from Generals to Privates. But on the Vietnam War Memorial as you approach it, you see the names of the fallen inorder of the time they died.
It tells the story of the war with its information architecture.
Think of the future
Did you know that in Venice house names are ordered not by their location on the street or canal, but by the time they were built? It can be awesome for social historians, but imagine what it’s like for a postman?
When this idea was proposed it may have been genius. But you always have to step back and think of real-world implementation of the organizational structure you’re creating.
Now let’s go to practice. Here are a couple of first steps you can take:
- Try to think of the craziest ways to organize your content – it may help you free your mind to start thinking in creative, new ways.
- Use card sorting. Write down the content you have on cards and give it to your audience. Ask them to sort these cards and tell you what is the most important and what can be dropped out. Try to do it yourself if you can’t talk to your audience now. You can do it on a site level or on a section level. Physically, or digitally in a private copy of your website.
The way you structure your IA is the way you help people achieve and find your content. You may have only 5 ways to do it, but you can always create a mixture of methods. Great information architecture makes sense, applicable for every cultural landscape you are working with and is necessary for your future development.
Let’s discuss your Information Architecture goals
Take a look at your existing IA’s? Do they fit our definition? Are there any places for improvement?
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