Behind the Scenes of a Website: Information Architecture

Information architecture: without it, your website would fall apart (literally and figuratively). Information architecture (IA) is the blueprint to your website; it defines goals, creates a foundation for design, and establishes a clear and well-documented plan for your next steps. All aspects of a website stem from the IA, including navigation, form, function, interaction, and design. So how does one go about shaping an effective IA process? The best way to think about it is in terms of an iceberg, as shown through's graphic. You have all of these underlying "steps" that make up the base with the surface being what the users actually experience and see.

IA Iceberg

 At the base of the iceberg, you have the IA Research. IA Research is the start of a solid foundation, and is a fundamental step in forming a successful information architecture. If you do not do some basic research to find out who is coming to your website, and why, including the target audience, then you might as well throw in the towel right then and there. Knowing the basics of who your users will be is half the battle. You wouldn't want to be creating a site for computer parts and have a frilly froo-froo design. Research also coincides with defining your site's goals and the general purpose of what you want to accomplish with your site.

Next on the iceberg you have the IA Strategy. After you have thoroughly researched and thought through the basics of your site, you need to create a strategy for how you want to employ your site. This can be as simple as deciding how to host your site, type of domain(s), platform(s), etc. and as complex as how you want your users to access/interact with the information.

Then you have the IA Management. Once the groundwork is laid out nicely, and you are familiar with your website's purpose, it is important to determine the processes and rules required to implement and sustain the effectiveness of your site's IA. This includes the process of making sure content is current and up to date, forming a schedule to produce content and the actual implementation of content.

After IA Management comes Information Relationship. Defining the information relationship is crucial to ensure that the targeted information is flexible and can accommodate for changes. That means that content should be able to relate to other chunks of information and content (blogs, newsletters, RSS feeds, etc), while also taking into account future growth (i.e. going mobile).

Finally, we get into the surface of the information architecture process. This is the part that clients and users alike see, understand, and interact with. Without the examination of purpose and users, as well as the foundation that supports this visible portion, none of the websites you know and love would be possible.

Information Organization is essential to a user friendly navigation system, including relevant information for what a user would be searching for. This information organization includes (but is not limited to) content sources, vocabulary, classification of terms, and formally grouping information.

Finally, the thing that most people think of when it comes to information architecture: navigation. When building out an IA, you need to think about how people will use the site to find the information they are looking for, how they will search, get from one place to the next, and so on and so forth. Navigation can include menus, lists of topics/categories, related items, structured listings or identification of key areas.

As you can tell from these steps, one cannot hope to just write copy, put it onto their website and assume people will find it. An effective information architecture is vital to allowing users to quickly, easily, and naturally find your content. Just remember, although these steps sound obvious, information architecture is really about what's not obvious. There are a lot of processes and steps that go into creating the bells and whistles you see on a site. Next time you go to a site that has a great user experience, or that you overall just enjoy, take a step back and appreciate all of the thought and effort that goes into what you see and experience!