Information Architecture: Enhancing the User Experience

Defined as ‘the structural design of shared information environments’, information architecture focuses on bringing the principles of architectural design to the online world.

Just like the blueprints of a dream home or the outline of a well-written article, good website structure organizes information in a way that enhances the user experience and delivers pertinent information as quickly as possible.

In fact, most website visitors only become aware of information architecture when it is poor and stops them from finding the information they require.

Read on for more details and a case study. As usual, you can leave us your feedback at the end of the post…

 

Why Is It Important?

Even an optimized site with sleek design and compelling copy can fall flat without sound information architecture.  If prospects can’t navigate easily through a site, chances are they’ll get lost, feel frustrated, and leave to never return. And you can forget about converting them to customers.

For example, Starbucks offers two free hours of Wi-Fi in their cafes with your registered Starbucks card, but the actual process of registering and getting online is so confusing, it’s enough to send you to the competition. While most cafes give you a simple access code, Starbucks makes you jump through endless hoops to use this supposedly convenient feature.

Even though Starbucks is a hugely successful enterprise, missing the mark with this small function of their website is enough to make them lose possible revenue from the big draw of free Wi-Fi.  This example shows how navigation can directly affect conversion rates.

 

Information Architecture for the Ego vs. the Client

Just like web copy, information architecture should be customer-centric. When developing copy for a website, businesses tend to get caught up in themselves, writing what they want, rather than what visitors might want or need to read.

A visitor might be interested to learn about a business, but they mainly want to know what the business can do for them.

The same principle applies to site navigation. Rather than organizing information the way upper management prefers, navigation should be based entirely on how the website visitor needs to find that information.

This goes beyond organizing the information on a website into a coherent structure. You’ll need to know how potential customers will behave when they come looking for that information.

 

Case Study – Vancouver Bike Repair

For example, a recent Google search for Vancouver bike repair yielded several top results, including a bike shop called Bicycle Sports Pacific. However, a visit to their site gives the impression that bike repair is not actually one of their main services, since the term is nowhere to be found along the top menu. In fact, a link titled ‘Repair/Maintenance’ is buried far down the page on the left and leads to the bike maintenance products they offer – a dead end for someone looking for bike repair services.

A few scrolls down the homepage reveals a short blurb describing their bike repair service. It starts with the sentence ‘We specialize in expert bike repair’, but nothing on the site supports that claim. One would think that perhaps Bicycle Sports Pacific is not the place to go for bike repair considering that information relating to this service appears to be low priority on their website. There are no details on the types of repair services they offer or their rates.

A visit to Bicycle Sports Pacific’s Vancouver location, however, reveals that bike repair is actually one of their main services, with nearly half of their store space devoted to repairs. You would never know this from visiting their website. In fact, their website looks more like someone is trying to demonstrate how knowledgeable they are bikes in general, rather than giving someone looking for bike repair services the information he or she needs.

A much better example of customer-centric navigation is demonstrated in The Bike Doctor website. The tagline on the site reads ‘It’s fun + easy!’ and they’re right! The most pertinent information is arranged into easy and intuitive sections along the top and side menus. The homepage features a clickable thumbnail of their repair rates, and even a special promotion offering a $5 discount on your spring tune up when you mention their website.  SOLD!

These two businesses are essentially the same – they both offer bikes and bike accessories for sale, and also bike repair services, but their sites couldn’t be more different in terms of navigation. The Bike Doctor’s site is simple and broken down into clear sections, while the Bicycle Sports Pacific site offers endless information on cycling in general and how to choose a bike, while leaving one of their main services inadequately covered.

 

Doing It Right the First Time

Building a site that serves the needs of your potential customers starts with thorough research. You will need to know why they will visit your site, what information they will need, and the fastest, most intuitive way to deliver that information.

But how do you know how the user will behave? How do you organize everything into an intuitive structure? Here are some research tips:

1.  Get to Know the Audience
A good copywriter thoroughly researches the target audience before writing quality, customer-centric content, and your preliminary site navigation research should be no different. Get to know the audience by observing their behavior.

How can you do this? Ask a group of current or potential customers to provide information on what they do in a typical day. This can be in the form of a questionnaire or journal. You may also want to observe them in person to get a first-hand, unedited experience.

This background information will give you insight into the behavior of people who will likely visit the website, the type of information they’ll need in order of priority, and which information can be cut out.

2.  Develop Hardcopy Prototypes
Now that you have a better idea of the information you’ll need to include, you can break it down into categories. Print out sections under each category on separate sheets or cards, and give them to the same sample group to organize into a logical structure.

This process will give you further insight into the way your site visitors will want to find information, with common organizational patterns being the ones you’ll want to implement.

3.  Test Digital Prototypes
Build a very basic site according to your hardcopy research findings. Invite the sample group to come in and use the test site to find information they’re interested in, or to complete a desired task (sign up for a newsletter, fill out a form, etc.). Monitor them to track challenges and frustration, as well as wins. Ask them to note and discuss any difficulties they had during the process.

You can use your research findings from this step to make improvements and finalize your structure.

 

Other Helpful Tips

Aside from the information you collect during your research, here are some other points you should keep in mind when building a well-structured website:

  • Ensure visitors know exactly where they are at all times by providing a visual cue (i.e. highlight the word ‘home’ when they’re on the home page).
  • Ensure global navigation includes only the most important categories your visitors will need to access quickly (extraneous global buttons can lead them into unnecessary corners).
  • Not every site needs an FAQ page. Technically, if you’ve done enough research, and built an intuitive site structure that delivers what your visitors are looking for, it reduces or eliminates the need for frequently asked questions.


Written exclusively for WDD by Rick Sloboda. He is a Web Copywriter at Webcopyplus, which helps businesses increase online traffic and sales with optimized web copy. He speaks frequently at Web-related forums and seminars, and conducts website content studies with organizations in Europe and the U.S., including Yale University.

How information architecture has impacted your sites and how do you use this principle?

  • http://www.behance.net/leventegaal Levi

    Thank You Walter!!! Excellent article again!!
    Let me tell you guys, there is a very similar type of book from John Assaraf: The Answer. Very-very helpful!!!! Just read it!!! :)

    Levi

  • http://www.techs24x7.com techs24x7.com

    Hi,

    This is nice infromation regarding information architecture. It’s really helpful to us.

  • http://www.crearedesign.co.uk/ Jarkko Sibenberg

    I find myself searching my way through sites I have visited dozen times before. Logging in to an online bank sounds easy but can be a struggle if the structure has been made stupidly complicated. I’m not going to change my banks just because of that, but every time I have to log in, I get slightly nervous about whether I ever make it to my destination or not. Everything shouldn’t be linked directly to everything else. In a sea of links you easily get trailed off.

    Another quite major flaw bugging me is hiding away the contact information. That just can’t be very healthy for the business.

  • http://www.psyched.be/wordpress Darkened Soul

    Another example of how important it is to get to know your audience and that your SEO-skills deliver the goods much needed for a great user/internet experience.

    And of course we all know that if we want to sell apples we don’t show pictures of bananas…

  • http://www.worldcupskive.com Rachel

    Interesting article, thank you.

    I tend to rely on intuition rather than the research stages you describe – a good content manager should be able to put themselves easily into the shoes of the customer. I think the third step – testing digital prototypes – is the most important of the 3 though, as it will pick up on things that you might have missed.

  • http://www.twitter.com/jcianfrone Jason

    Brilliant post!

  • http://www.dominion79.co.uk Steven Wilson

    Top article..

    I think it’s worth mentioning that the process of research and testing should carry on long after the website has gone live.

    Use Google analytics and setup user goals and monitor them. The more traffic you have the better you will be able to tweak the site. Is the sign up for a service too long? .. Would it be better if it was spread over two pages? .. Should the pages be numbered?

    • http://blog.webcopyplus.com/ Rick Sloboda

      Thanks — great point, Steven! Web development is indeed a continuous process.

    • Phoebe King

      Good point. Monitoring and revising are a big part of the process, aren’t they?

  • http://AlchemyUnited.com Mark @ Alchemy United

    Short, sweet and to the point. Nice job.

    Two things to add:

    1) I always mention to clients that the key is empathy. That the site – or their whole business for that matter – isn’t about them, it’s about the people (i.e., target market) they are trying to attract. Sometimes they hear me. Sometimes they do not.

    2) I have to disagree about your point on an FAQ. Yes, you do your homework/research but that’s for a given moment in time. I think we’d all agree that the more contemporary approach is to consider a website (if not the brand itself) an endless work in progress. If a site’s guests expect an FAQ (see previous point) and there is no doubt going to be a need going forward to plug information holes then an FAQ is a must-do. Better to have an FAQ than a bounce, right?

  • http://sexidesign.com Melody

    Nice thorough article, way to utilize the case study. This is why I hate mystery meat navigation, it makes user unable to know where they are and how to get to where they need. A perfect way to ruin user experience.

  • http://www.ate5.com Jordan Walker

    The planning phase of development can be argued the most important.

  • http://www.ericawashere.com/ Erica St. John

    I am in the middle of re-designing a commercial site and these tips are great! Thank you!

  • http://www.sametomorrow.com/blog adam

    Good post and I agree that the work of I.A’s are quite important in helping out the user experience.

  • http://prodigalconcepts.com/ rod rodriguez

    Very useful information, especially the part about writing for the visitors instead of writing for ourselves, considering that were writing for someone else gets easily lost in the process and we end up talking to ourselves… getting to know the audience is a very good point/

  • http://www.squiders.com Web Design Kent

    Wow, couldn’t agree more… have been banging on about logical structure to clients for ages, I don’t know how many times I’ve said “If your visitor can’t find what they want quickly, they’ll go elsewhere”

    Great article

  • http://www.blueoceanwebsolutions.com DK- Website Design Delhi

    Case study was good but overall article was too short. Little more elaboration with some examples would have been helpful.

  • http://MELIJOY.FREETOSERVE.INFO Melissa joyce

    Such a very useful posting .Thanks for sharing these one…

  • http://www.immersivemedia.co.uk Website design Surrey

    spot on article, hopefully I am going to incorporate your thoughts on a project I am working on currently.

  • http://www.michaelsaathoff.com Michael Saathoff

    awesome article!

  • http://www.infopunta.com Punta del Este

    Good article, specialy the “the Ego vs. the Client”

  • Phoebe King

    Great article! I retweeted it immediately.

    But why was it so difficult for me to find/follow the author on Twitter? I spent 10 minutes fumbling around trying to locate Rick Sloboda on Twitter, when a link could have done the job in a single click!

  • http://wildanr05.student.ipb.ac.id/ wildanr05

    I’m kind of new to the term “Information Architecture”. is it have any relation with usability?

  • http://www.kaplang.com/blog Michelle

    Great post :)

  • http://www.tyronbache.com/ Tyron Bache

    Cool post, covered some basics and more in depth points and I liked the case study, thanks.

  • Ronaldo FS

    Just the kind of article I was looking for. Nice read and insight. Great to have a case study for a deeper understanding and ‘real-world’ approach.
    Thanks!

  • http://ff-webdesigner.de ff-webdedsigner

    Well said. I’d recommend this article all my englsih speking customers – it’s terrible to see how many waste their positions by using the wrong words.

  • http://hectoronline.info austin web designer

    this website is amazing I am new in the field but learn something new keep it up

  • http://www.orangegrovedesigns.co.uk Louisa

    Great article – it’s always good to be reminded of these things.
    However I also believe that a good web designer should be able to intuitively encompass well structured IA into any website. For larger websites this research process needs to be thorough, but on a general level you should structure a site the way your instinct tells you best, so as to replicate the instinctual process a user would follow.

  • http://arieff06.student.ipb.ac.id arieff

    Hi,

    This is nice infromation regarding information architecture. It’s really helpful to us.

  • http://arifr06.student.ipb.ac.id ardhan

    I think it’s worth mentioning that the process of research and testing should carry on long after the website has gone live.

  • http://tric06.student.ipb.ac.id utari

    great post, very inspiring..nice

  • http://www.parse3.com Parse3

    Great tips on website information architecture. I totally agree with Rule #1…If you don’t know your targeted audience..don’t build the website. Better to do it right the first time!!

  • http://www.dundas.com Martin E

    Knowing the target audience is critical. Of course, it is also important to target the right audience when it comes to visualization!

  • http://www.impact-webdesign.net/ charlotte web design

    I wanted to say that it’s nice to know that someone else also mentioned this as I had trouble finding the same info elsewhere. This was the first place that told me the answer. Thanks.