Understanding Information Architecture: Guiding Users to Their Desired Information in Digital Products
Information architecture is a study centered on structuring information within digital platforms clearly and logically. Its primary goal is to assist users in finding the information they seek, effectively addressing the question “Where is the information I need located?”
This guide will cover all the steps to design information architecture for your project.
- Understanding user goals and creating user personas
- Business objectives and SWOT analysis
- Define, categorize, and prioritize content
- Create a sitemap
- Design navigation system and user flows
- Prototype user flow
- Validate your design
1. Understanding user goals and creating user personas
When creating a product, the most important thing is to understand for whom you design and what people are looking for when using your product. Everyone has their own way of looking for information, and different people need different things.
With this in mind, three questions will help moving forward:
Who’s using the product?
What do they want to achieve?
What do they need to do?
You can gain insights into how your target audience thinks when using a product through research. This can help you sort out the info to match what they need. It’s a good idea to create user personas – think of them like ideal users – and get a handle on their thoughts. You should arrange the info based on how these users think. Ensure users find what they’re looking for right where they expect to see it.
What is a user persona?
User personas are a representation of your product’s user base segments. They act as a benchmark for design and teams to work with to create the optimal user experience. It is a fictitious profile based on the type of people who would be the primary users of your app.
There are four different types of personas:
1. Goal-directed personas
Goal-directed personas are profiles of fictional but realistic users created to represent the goals and behaviors of a hypothesized group of users. They are used in the design process to help understand and address the needs and objectives of your users. These personas are not defined by their demographic characteristics but by their specific goals when using the product or service.
2. Role-based personas
Role-based personas are a type of user persona defined by the specific roles users play in relation to a product or system. These personas take into consideration the responsibilities, tasks, and job functions of the user. They are developed to understand and cater to different user roles’ needs, goals, and behaviors within a specific context or environment. This makes them valuable tools in creating products or services, as they help ensure the end result is suited to its intended users.
3. Engaging personas
Engaging personas are user personas crafted with more personal details to evoke empathy and understanding. These are not just about the user’s goals, roles, or behaviors but include their backgrounds, hobbies, values, and fears. The aim is to create a more realistic and relatable picture of the user, making it easier for the design team to keep the user’s needs and experiences in mind. They help in creating a user-centered design that’s more engaging and effective.
4. Fictional personas
Fictional personas are made-up characters that product designers and marketers use to represent different user types that might use their product, service, or site similarly. These personas are defined by their behaviors, attitudes, and personal backgrounds rather than their job roles or responsibilities. They help the team better empathize with and understand the users, facilitating a user-centered design process.
2. Business Objectives and SWOT Analysis
Once you’ve identified and gained a better understanding of your audience, it’s crucial to link them with the business goals. Whether these goals are pre-established or still need to be outlined, holding a brainstorming session with stakeholders would be beneficial. This way, clear business objectives can be set, ensuring everyone is on the same page.
Conduct competitor analysis.
Your information architecture design should align with your users’ expectations for your product. Analyzing comparable products or services in the market can help you understand these expectations.
A SWOT analysis, an acronym for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats, provides an in-depth understanding of a company’s standing in the market. You can use a SWOT analysis to:
- Comprehend the business environment of a company or product.
- Recognize market voids and potential issues that need solutions.
- Discover market trends that can guide you in shaping your product.
- Acknowledge your company’s internal shortcomings and external risks.
3. Define, categorize, and prioritize content
Shaping up your content.
You really need to get familiar with your product’s content. If you’re dealing with a product already out there, a content inventory spreadsheet is your best friend. You can sort your content by type, description, page level, URL, or keywords.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re working on an existing product or making something totally new; this task calls for teamwork. Collaborate with the Copy/Content and SEO departments, brainstorm, and assemble everything.
With everything in place, you must align with both user needs/goals and business objectives by deciding what to keep and ditch. Card sorting can help define new categories or a better sorting of your products or services.
4. Create a sitemap
Right after the discovery phase, sitemaps are used early in the UX design process. You’ll typically create a sitemap after personas and card sorting.
A sitemap is a visual representation of a website or app structure. It is mainly used by UX designers and information architects as a tool to plan out a website or app, mapping out user journeys and ensuring that content is easy to find and logically arranged. Like a traditional map, it helps guide the design process and provides a smoother user experience.
Think of creating a sitemap like building a Lego structure. The baseplate on which you build everything is like your primary pages, the foundation of your design. Then, you start adding Lego blocks of various sizes. These secondary and tertiary pages give your structure shape and detail.
The sitemap doesn’t need to be fancy; you can use a tab-like structure. A non-complex approach will help when you must communicate the structure to others.
5. Design navigation system and user flows
User flow is a handy tool that outlines how users engage with your product. It defines the steps users take to reach a specific goal from start to finish. Furthermore, it illustrates how the content within your product is interconnected, providing a clear road map of how users will journey from one page to another.
When creating a user flow, having distinct visual stages and trajectories is beneficial. For instance, using the same element, perhaps an oval, to signify the start and end points can simplify tracking the entire flow. Rectangles could represent pages or screens, and the direction of the journey should always be indicated with an arrow. Moreover, you must include a clear symbol for decision-making stages, where the user’s path can diverge based on their choices. This visual cue further enhances the comprehensibility of the user flow.
Initiating the user flow with the “happy path” – the perfect route a user could take to accomplish a task or achieve a goal without facing any issues or errors – is a good approach. This is the ideal journey and provides a foundation upon which to create multiple user flows, considering all potential outcomes. This way, it’s easier to account for every possible scenario and design a more comprehensive and efficient user experience.
6. Prototype user flow
Developing a prototype aims to establish a visual hierarchy of content within each page and examine the links between various pages. It’s crucial to validate that the established visual order assists users in meeting their goals while also boosting your conversion rate.
7. Validate your design
Usability testing is essential to verify that users can effectively navigate your system to complete tasks. To conduct this testing, you should prepare a series of functions, gather individuals in your target demographic, and have them execute the tasks using your design or prototype. I will cover the “How” in another post.
Additionally, it’s essential to establish specific metrics for each task you plan to test. This testing phase will also assist in pinpointing areas where users require more information to make well-informed decisions.