Since I started making websites back in 2005 I’ve always cared in Information Architecture. Only at that time I didn’t know it was called Information Architecture.
To me it was a way to deliver content in a better way. I knew that my websites were small and not perfect, I didn’t know much about SEO but I knew I would offer the best User Experience possible!
At that time, websites were not responsive, well coded or well designed. They were not optimized for Search Engines, or social media. Nothing was made easy and networks were still very slow. One click away was sometimes a click too far.
In 2009 I started building E-commerce websites. The way I was working back then surprises me a lot today since I didn’t really use data to back up my wireframes, I didn’t do user flow (at least on paper) and almost ignored Google Analytics. My main focus was SEO. Because at that time in France E-commerce was booming and it was only a matter of time before the market would be crowded and impenetrable.
For years a few of these websites were growing fast and we called it “success“.
When SEO hits a wall, time to do Information Architecture?
Because SEO was so important we based the whole architecture on it. For a few years, it was one keyword per page, and location searches were not based on user history or geolocation. That means most websites had a page for each service, per location, one page per product, two if we had different variations, etc… that participated, in my opinion, in the origin of the mega menu era. You remember these giants navs with hundreds of items? Same with the footers?
We SEO specialists realized that the more pages, the more links, the best ranking.
And then SEO evolved to become more natural, mobile started limiting UI and changing UX, competition skyrocketed… it was time to start doing real Information Architecture.
What is Information Architecture?
Information Architecture is the art of arranging content in a website, ideally to make it easy to access to its visitors. Being an Information Architect is like being Rupert Giles in Buffy but less cool (cause he’s really cool). The reason I make this parallel is because the Information Architect’s role is similar to a librarian role. You have tons and tons of content and you need to figure a system so users can find what they’re looking for.
Following other’s rule used to be good enough. Nowadays, we know that the User Experience is one of the key elements in the success of a website. And even though I thought I was really good at it, I had to learn a bunch of tricks.
Personally, I work on website’s Information Architecture when the client asks for a redesign of an existing website. That means data, lots of data! You might have access to years of users data thanks to Google Analytics. And even though Demographics was probably not enabled, you still have landing pages, pages visited, bounce rate, sources, etc…
Draw the map of the most visited pages and I try to detect patterns. Sometimes it depends on the season, sometimes on the source of traffic, but make sure to determine these patterns, they will influence the future IA.
For example, when I worked on MusicFest Information Architecture I quickly realized that there were three different seasons: Before the festival, during the festival, and after the festival. During these periods users would visit some pages repeatedly and in great numbers, and ignore other content. I created a website architecture that would adapt to each season by offering quick access to these important seasonal pages. On the example below the festival just ended:
In the example above, you can see that information is separated in 5 sections:
- Social Media quick access
- Volunteer/sponsors/login/contact, anything that is NOT public information is there
- The main nav which focuses on user needs: The current festival / General info about MusicFest / The main bands playing and how to audition for them
- A quick view of the current festival place and date with either links or a message based on the time of the year
- a quick access to festival auditions and results, which are in high demand after the festival is done.
It is also made to serve different types of users, with completely different needs but sharing the same screen.
If you take a look at the previous site, you can see that it was doing a similar approach but the same information could be in many different places making it hard to actually know where we are at any point during the visit.
Homepage is not always the landing page
I remember in a previous job hearing a UX consultant showing the new wireframes of the new website. It was a giant arrow going from homepage to product page, from general to specific.
I asked him what happens when users land on another page. People looked at me as if this was a detail without importance that we can deal with later… but our website Analytics said that the homepage was a landing page only 40% of the time. Not even majority.
The morale of this story is that any content should be accessible from anywhere (not necessarily in one click). It should be clear on every page where the user is, what’s above and what’s below in the website’s hierarchy. That way a user can jump from one section to another without losing itself.
Breadcrumbs, for example, are a very simple way to achieve that.
Just like EA, Challenge everything
If you are a web developer or a web designer trying to know how to integrate Information Architecture in your day to day life designing or coding, my only advice would be to challenge everything.
Treat everything as an object: a link, a button, an image, a video, a paragraph, a page, a border-top, a title, etc…
Why would you do that you ask? Because if it’s an object you can see it differently and start challenging the necessity of its existence. What does it do? Does it bring anything to the user? Could we improve that object? Change its location? Its action?
At the end, you should have a custom Architecture that will lead to a custom UX built for your users. It’s the best solution you could offer your visitors, and they will thank you for it.
I recommend to every web designer, web developer and anyone interested in Information Architecture for websites to read the articles below.