Information Architecture

What is Information Architecture?

Let’s start with defining information architecture. Simply put, information architecture (IA) is the structure of shared information. It’s the practice – the art and science – of organizing and labelling information so it’s understandable, whether that information is on websites, intranets, online communities, or software.

In a digital workplace, information architecture is critical, because your top priority is ensuring your people can find the information they need quickly, easily, and intuitively.

Now that we know what information architecture ISlet’s look at why it’s important.

Good Information Architecture


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Findability:

Structuring information intuitively for end users

Usability:

In ways of visual design, functionality, and interactivity



One of the central concerns of information architecture is “findability”: structuring information in a way that makes finding it intuitive for users. But what about usability? The distinction between information architecture and usability can be confusing. The two are closely related, but not the same.

 Information architecture forms a foundation for user experience design. An effective information architecture is ONE of several attributes of a usable system. Other factors of usability include visual design, functionality, and interactivity. So, in a digital workplace, the primary focus of information architecture is the structure itself, and secondarily the user interface that represents that structure on the screen.

The benefits of good IA

Good information architecture creates a better user experience. In a digital workplace, satisfying your end user is the top priority. They shouldn’t have to think about where to look for content. It should be obvious, easily searchable, and clearly signposted. 

Done well, information architecture can help you:

  • Increase efficiency – By signposting content effectively and making sure your digital workplace is easy to use and navigate, employees don’t have to waste valuable time. And that leads into the second benefit
  • Improve productivity – Good IA connects related content and surfaces it to the right users at the right time, allowing them to get on with more important things – like getting work done
  • Integrate systems better – By making information easily available to everyone –  regardless of their department, area of expertise, or geographic location –  effective IA breaks down the silos to streamline processes and enhance collaboration across your organization

Crafting your IA Strategy

There are two main approaches to defining an information architecture, and both techniques are useful and valuable:

1. Top-down IA structures

This approach takes all the knowledge you’ve gathered about business strategy and user needs and creates a basic, high-level structure. From there, you work down to create the detailed relationships between content as the architecture deepens.


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Taxonomies – the hierarchical structure of content – are often used as tools for organizing content. In a complex system like a digital workplace, taxonomy also often refers to metadata and controlled vocabularies.

Metadata describes a piece of content and provides a meaningful set of attributes that can be used to further classify it.

A controlled vocabulary is a restricted list of terms used for indexing or categorizing.


2. Bottom-up IA structures

This method focuses on the detailed relationships between content first, examining how the digital workplace can facilitate specific user requirements. Then you consider how the high-level structure will support these requirements.

Bottomdown@2x.pngOne example of a bottom-up organizational structure is the Database Model, which creates a more dynamic experience for users. It allows for filtering and advanced search capabilities, and provides links to related information that has been properly tagged.


Translating Your Strategy Into IA Blueprints

There are two main methods for capturing and defining information architecture. These techniques are aimed at helping your stakeholders visualize the structure and provide feedback at an early stage – before any designers or structural work begins.

Site Mapping

Site maps are quick, inexpensive ways to visually represent how different pages, solutions, and content will be grouped, what order they’ll appear in, and how they’ll relate to one another. They are essentially high-level diagrams of the overall solution structure – but not necessarily of the navigation structure. Site maps can’t be finalized until after page layouts are defined, which leads us to the next technique.

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Wireframing

Wireframes are annotated visual illustrations of page and solution layouts. They communicate solution-level navigation, content types, and functional elements. The annotations are for designers, so they can mock up a visual interface, and for developers, who need to understand the page features and how they’re supposed to work.

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Paper-based wireframes can be a good starting point, but digital versions are often better for collaboration. Once a wireframe starts to have interactive elements – such as clickable navigation – it crosses the line into a prototype, which allows you to test the main areas of your digital workplace before implementation begins.

The next big step: Content mapping

All the research and conceptual design we’ve talked about so far has been focused on a top-down approach to defining a structure that will accommodate your business mission, users, and content. Now, moving into production, you step into the bottom-up phase. Content mapping is where top-down meets bottom-up.

In content mapping, you separate all your content from its existing containers, breaking it down into logical ‘chunks’ that merit or require individual consideration. As you’ll have learned in the content inventory, your content comes from a wide variety of sources and is in a multitude of formats. All this content must now be mapped onto the information architecture. Separating content from containers is essential, because it allows it to be used across multiple pages.

To define your content ‘chunks, ask these questions:

  • Can this document be segmented into multiple chunks that users might want to access separately?
  • What is the smallest section of content that needs to be individually indexed within the particular solution you are implementing?
  • Will this content need to be repurposed across multiple solutions or as part of multiple processes?

 Once you have your chunks, it’s relatively simple to map them onto your solutions.

The dont's of Information Architecture

Here’s some specific advice about what NOT to do when creating information architecture for your digital workplace solutions:

  • Don’t use a sloppy organizational structure
  • Don’t use confusing menu labels
  • Don’t misspell tags
  • Don’t have too many ‘parent’ pages
  • Don’t have endless sub-categories
  • Don’t hide your navigation tools
  • Don’t keep old content that lacks value
  • Don’t use overly restrictive permissioning
  • Don’t duplicate information
  • Don’t organize your content based on departmental silos

Navigation best practices: Get users where they're going, fast

Users should be able to move through your digital workplace without hesitation to reach the digital workplace solutions they need to get their work done without wasting even a minute wondering where to go.

Information architecture and navigation are not the same, of course, since information architecture encompasses so much more. Navigation has been described as the tip of the iceberg that sits on top of the information architecture. To ensure that all your hard work on the underpinning doesn’t go to waste, consider these navigation best practices:

  • Create descriptive, specific navigation categories
  • Use tools beyond just the global nav
  • Aim for minimal top-level categories
  • Include wayfinding cues
  • Enable navigation shortcut (e.g. personalized quick links)
  • Use social filters (e.g. “Most Viewed,” “Latest Comments,” “Top FAQs”)
  • Leverage Mega Menus
  • Enable a powerful global search

ICE '17 Session: Guiding Principles of Information Architecture

Learn the best practices and industry standards for structuring your digital workplace: Information is the core of your workplace. You probably have lots of it and a variety as well. Learn how to create effective site structures, tactical information architecture plans, and the role taxonomy plays in bringing the content to your users in the most effective and relevant way.

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Playbook Tip

  • Structure comes first – make it sustainable by allowing room for growth over time
  • Strike a balance with a structure that’s not too shallow and not too deep
  • Choose a task-based organization scheme to maximize employee learning and adoption
  • Consider all the different types of content (not just text, but photos, videos, slideshows, and more)
  • Simplify tagging and labelling – don’t try to reinvent the wheel
  • Think fresh with content, and archive the old
  • Make important content highly visible
  • Keep design spare and clean, so users can absorb your well-organized content
  • Having departments and permissions is fine, but make the general rule ‘open, accessible content’
  •  Ensure clear and persistent navigation across the entire destination


Key Resources

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Content tracker template

Track you current and new content with this helpful template.

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