How to Get Your Website’s Information Architecture Right (Hint: It Starts With Your Users)

Sep 19 2023

Ever tried cooking in someone else's kitchen? You often have to search through all the drawers and cabinets because you don't know where they keep things. Frustrating, right? 

Now, think about your organization's website. Is your site organized in a way that only makes sense to your internal stakeholders? Or does it cater to your users' needs and expectations? You may know that your organization’s equivalent of a cooking utensil is in the drawer next to the stove, but does your audience?

Structuring your website in a way that makes sense to your audience is what information architecture (IA) is all about. Your website is often the first point of contact for your prospects to learn about your organization and determine if you’re equipped to meet their needs. And if users can't find what they’re looking for quickly and easily, they’re likely to go elsewhere. 

That means mastering effective IA isn’t merely a luxury. It’s an absolute necessity. Here’s how to get it right.

Build Your Website’s Information Architecture on a Firm Foundation

There’s not an architect alive who would design a beautiful new home and then stand by while it’s built on shifting sand. No matter how perfect the design may be, without a firm foundation the house will collapse. The same goes for your website's IA. In this case, your user needs and your overarching website goals are the two-pronged foundation upon which your site should be built.

Prioritize User Needs Over Stakeholder Demands

When it comes to effective information architecture, less is usually more. But many organizations get into cycles where they keep adding more (and more…and more) to their websites in response to the needs and demands of internal stakeholders. 

Rarely do organizations remove anything. And rarely do they stop to consider the impact on the overall user experience.

This leads to a cluttered website that creates more confusion than clarity.

Therefore, before you do anything, stop to consider your audience. Who is your website actually for? What questions are users asking? What tasks do they need to complete? And what does their ideal user journey look like? 

The answers to these questions should inform every decision you make about your IA — now and in perpetuity. 

afpm case study
AFPM consolidated multiple microsites into a single site with relevant content to deliver personalized information for their users.

Align Internal Stakeholders Around Your Website’s Business Goals

To prevent the scenario described above, it’s essential for everyone in your organization to understand why your website exists. This involves asking two important questions. 

What are you trying to accomplish through your website? And what are your measures of success?

One way to get everyone on the same page is to hold a workshop with team members across departments to define and prioritize your business goals. When internal stakeholders understand that meeting your audience’s needs is important precisely because it allows you to achieve your overarching business objectives, they’ll be more likely to support your IA decisions and ongoing content governance efforts

7 Tips to Create a User-Focused Information Architecture

So, how do you go about building an information architecture that meets users where they are and takes them where they need to go

It begins with putting yourself in your users’ shoes — and getting inside their heads. 

It might feel natural to design your IA from the inside of the organization out — e.g., structuring it based on your org chart or key initiatives. But in reality, you need to design it from the outside in.

Here are seven strategies to see IA from your users’ point of view.

1. Conduct User Research and Testing

Before making changes to your website's IA, test your existing structure to understand exactly what’s working and what’s not. Yes, you may be tempted to throw your current site away and start from scratch. Don’t. (At least not yet.) Having users navigate your site and provide feedback will help you uncover the bad parts, preserve the good parts, and design a new site map that resonates.

To get a full picture of what users need, you should plan to conduct both qualitative and quantitative testing. That’s because the most reliable research is that in which qualitative findings inform quantitative ones — and vice versa. 

Qualitative testing 

Qualitative testing is focused on narratives (e.g. moderated user testing, exploratory interviews, and open-ended questionnaires). A great place to start is to interview a handful of key users about their general experience to see what comes up. Ask them about their opinions of the site and/or have them complete common website tasks to observe the challenges they experience. And don’t worry — you don’t need hundreds of users at this stage. Research shows that conducting qualitative testing with just five people will uncover 85% of your usability issues.

However, if your website serves numerous user groups with distinct needs, it’s important to conduct testing with each group.

Your goal is to achieve saturation in your qualitative study — the point where the themes emerging from the research are fleshed out enough that conducting more interviews won’t provide new insights that would alter those themes. So put simply, once users stop pointing out novel issues or challenges, you can feel confident you’ve learned what you need to learn. Then, by scoring the results — like the number of issues you found — you’ll produce hypotheses and questions to test via quantitative testing.

Quantitative testing

Quantitative testing is focused on measuring and prioritizing (e.g. multiple choice surveys, tree testing, card sorting, A/B testing). Here, you’ll focus on answering “How many, how much, and how often?” and you’ll need larger sample numbers to produce statistically significant data. 

Quantitative testing should be performed by at least 50 users and involve exercises like:

  • Tree testing. This involves providing users with a handful of information-seeking tasks in a tool like Tree Jack that racks their every click to see how hard it is for them to complete each task.
  • First-click testing. By presenting testers with an existing page and asking them where they would click to find the answer to your set of questions, you can learn if areas that seem obvious to you make sense to your audience. 
  • A/B testing. This involves presenting two options to your users to see which one works best. From there, you can eliminate the options that are more likely to trip users up or slow them down.

By conducting surveys, interviews, and focus groups, you can also gather suggestions and ideas directly from your users and incorporate them into your IA. 

2. Consider Users’ Mental Models

Mental models represent a user's expectation of how something should work based on their past experiences. Your IA should align with these models to ensure your website meets user expectations. The more your IA matches up with users’ mental models, the more intuitive your website will be to navigate.

Think back to our department store example. No one would expect to find inventory arranged by color. And your users may not expect to find your information organized the way you’ve arranged it. 

Again, conducting user research and testing is the best way to understand the mental models that are in play when users interact with your site.

3. Simplify Your Navigation

Navigation encompasses the global, local, contextual, utility-based, and supplemental wayfinding items designed to guide your audience to information. And though navigation can be complex, it should appear simple. 

Journey mapping is key to providing intuitive and enjoyable navigation so users can complete the tasks they need to finish or find the information they’re looking for. Tree testing and first-click testing can give you quick insight into which elements of your navigation are working and which are not.

4. Tap Into the Power of Smart Taxonomy

Taxonomy is all about how you categorize the content found on your site. But again, the way you think topics should be organized can differ greatly from how your users think those topics should be organized. 

To make sure you’re creating categories that feel like second nature to your audience, invite users to participate in card sorting exercises. This involves having participants group topics, content, and information into buckets based on what they think belongs together. It’s a simple way to test whether or not your taxonomy makes sense to your users — and to create one that works.

5. Use Straightforward Language When Labeling 

Along the same lines as taxonomy, labeling plays a key role in helping your audience navigate your website effectively. To that end, labels should be simple, clear, and free of jargon, acronyms, and “inside language.” 

Using fun, snappy, or cute labels might seem like a good way to capture your audience’s attention. But in reality, it’s the fastest way to confuse and frustrate users.  

User testing can help you land on the words and phrases that resonate most with your audience and eliminate the ones that fall short.

6. Evaluate Search and Findability

Another thing to keep in mind when designing your information architecture is that not everyone enters your website by way of the homepage. They might end up on a landing page because they clicked on a paid ad. Or they might find themselves on a microsite as a result of a Google search. No matter where they land or how they got there, will these users be able to find what they’re looking for? 

To ensure you’re giving these users what they need, take a look at Google Search Console to see the exact words and phrases that are bringing people to your site. Then, take a look at your internal search functionality to make sure it’s delivering accurate, up-to-date information that will keep users moving in the right direction.  

Optimizing the search experience is a key part of leveling up your overall IA.

7. Point Users to Related Content

Information architecture should be the perfect marriage between your users’ needs and your business goals. As such, your content shouldn’t merely answer your site visitors’ existing questions. It should also help them discover new information about your organization that leads them down the path you want them to go.

Therefore, once you start filling in your new IA with real content, consider how to point users toward related content that will spark their interest and compel them to explore further.

Ashland University makes it easy users to quickly find content. View the case study: 

Keep Your Audience at the Center of Your Website’s Information Architecture

Information architecture is about so much more than menu navigation. It’s about creating an end-to-end user experience that’s positive, compelling, and intuitive.

And though your varied internal stakeholders may all want a piece of your website, building good IA requires you to remember one crucial fact. Information architecture is not for your organization. It’s for your users. 

Keeping your users’ needs at the forefront — and engaging in user testing each step of the way — is the best way to create a website experience that contributes to your business’s overall success.

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