Your website is not about you. Yes, it introduces your organization to the world. But ultimately, it exists to connect you to your audience and enable you to meet their needs. So if your content is structured in a way that’s confusing — or your users can’t easily find the information they’re searching for — your website is not meeting its core objectives. The solution? Thoughtful information architecture.
Since your website is your most powerful marketing tool, your information architecture (IA) has the potential to either drive your business forward or significantly subtract from your bottom line. That’s why it’s so important to get it right. Good information architecture gives users a seamless experience that feels natural, intuitive, and inviting. It can even delight your audience and keep them coming back for more of what you offer.
By contrast, bad IA is glaringly apparent. It’s the number one cause of user frustration. So if your audience is abandoning your site prematurely, complaining about poor usability, or contacting customer service for help with basic questions, subpar information architecture is the likely culprit.
There are 5 building blocks of smart information architecture that will help harness your website’s potential. But before you work with your website team to start assembling them, be sure to do the foundational work of defining and understanding your audience’s needs.
Construct Your Site’s Information Architecture With Your Users in Mind
Good information architecture begins with user research and is reinforced by usability testing. But too often, marketing leaders make design choices based on what appeals to them. Or they see a competitor’s website and base architectural decisions off of what appears to be working for that business. Don’t fall into this trap. After all, what if your competitor never conducted user research? How do you know if that website that looks so appealing is even meeting the organization’s needs?
Before you make any changes to your website, be sure to know who your target audience is. Ensure you take time to understand what appeals to them, what challenges they want to solve, and analyze the feedback you gather from internal stakeholders.
For example, when Toyota first tackled designing a minivan for an American market, they had no frame of reference for how to approach their design. Minivans in Japan are very different from their American counterparts. Therefore, Toyota had to find a way to get into the minds of their American consumers and understand their needs.
Rather than design a model based on guesswork, a Toyota executive visited the U.S. to spend time with several American families and see first-hand how they lived their lives. They took what they learned and tailored a minivan to the American consumer. Today, the Toyota Sienna is a best seller — and it’s all because Toyota designed it with empathy and with their target audience in mind.
Treat your website the same way. To meet your business objectives, get into your audience’s heads and learn what drives them to take the actions you want them to take. What brought them to your site? What stage of the conversion funnel were they in when they arrived? And what content will propel them forward on their user journey? Answering these questions is key to driving the leads and conversions you desire.
Assemble the 5 Building Blocks of Information Architecture to Meet Users’ Needs
Once you know what motivates and drives your audience, you can begin crafting your information architecture to meet their needs. Pay close attention to the 5 building blocks that, together, create compelling IA.
1. Content Structure
Your content does not exist in a vacuum. It is interconnected, related, and interdependent. So rather than design one page at a time as if each is its own mini-universe, consider how the content in each area builds on and supports the content all around it. Think through the stories you’re trying to tell and the messages you’re trying to convey. And find ways to create a content structure that invites users to keep scrolling or clicking to discover what’s next. Structured content allows us to present information in different ways—whether that’s in lists, search results, a calendar, a full-page, or on a related page—structured content gives us flexibility in helping information become more findable and usable.
Navigation is how users find available information. Navigation helps users explore your site. Way-finding should be simple and should invite users to scroll from the hero area into other portions of the site that will draw them in. Journey mapping is key to providing navigation that is intuitive and enjoyable. You can’t delight people if they can’t figure out how to get to their destination. Existing and proposed navigation can be tested to see if your audience would likely succeed at a task or find the information they seek. E.g., card sorting and a tree test are very helpful methods of validation.
Most users simply want to find what they’re looking for without having to visit multiple pages on your website. A good search function will offer up exactly what they need, ideally in as little as 2 clicks and 10 seconds. A thoughtful and effective search design requires understanding what people are seeking, while keeping the search interface as simple as possible, without too many decisions or distractions. Your website’s information and your user’s needs can change over time. Search is an area that needs to adapt.
Taxonomy is all about how you categorize information. On the back end of your website environment, metadata labels work in tandem with your taxonomy to strengthen your SEO and help search engines offer up relevant content to potential users. Taxonomy terms are often used to help in certain search filters or provide better context for user orientation when looking at items.
Humans have an uncanny, natural tendency to categorize things. How you categorize things can differ from how someone else does. It is critical to understand the trends and tendencies of your audience’s categorization of information. Card sorting exercises can help create or confirm categorization systems, greatly increasing your chances of information being findable and understood.
Labeling sounds simple, but it requires careful thought and strategy. What you name your menu and navigation elements matters. Labels need to be clear, accurate, and accessible for users with varied needs. Most of all, labels need to be short and use words that your whole audience recognizes. Skip unknown abbreviations and off-putting internal jargon.
Once you’ve assembled the building blocks of your information architecture, test each of the 5 areas to discover what resonates with your audience and what needs to be refined further. This doesn’t have to be expensive or intimidating. Research indicates you only need 5 users in order to obtain the insight needed to create a better user experience. All 5 areas of IA work tightly together. Addressing one area may warrant attention in the other areas, otherwise, things may confuse your audience.
Make Information Architecture a Priority in Order to Improve Your Website’s User Experience
Although IA doesn’t make up your entire user experience, it is a significant part of it. Getting it right is crucial if you want your website to be profitable and successful.
Given the complexity that information architecture demands, it’s best to identify someone on your team who has experience in this arena — or hire an agency partner with skilled information architects who can help. After all, you wouldn’t build the house of your dreams without an architect. You’d want a professionally designed blueprint to make sure no detail was overlooked. In the same way, if you want a website experience that both informs and delights your audience, make sure to devote appropriate resources to bring your architecture to life.