Information architecture cheat sheet – 2020 edition

6 min read optimalworkshopadmin

Information architecture (IA) isn’t the easiest space for a newcomer. The myriad terms and technologies can often be quite tricky to understand on their own – not to mention how they all fit together.

We wanted to help, so we’ve put together a comprehensive cheat sheet/glossary that you can use whenever the topic of IA comes up.

Information architecture

Information architecture is the structure used to organize and label content on websites, mobile applications and other digital environments. At a very basic level, IA determines the paths people take to get to the content they’re looking for and where they might get lost.

IA isn’t actually one “thing”, but a number of different elements:

  • Labels: How information is represented
  • Navigation: How people make their way through the information
  • Search: How people look for information

It’s also the layer upon which you build the design. This means that for your users, they’ll never likely see the IA – but they will feel the effects of the decisions you make when designing it. Your IA should help people find what they’re looking for, regardless of where the IA exists. It’s as important for desktop users as it is for mobile.

Experience architecture

The term ‘experience architecture’ refers to a wider set of practices or terms that includes information architecture. Experience architecture covers IA, interaction design and experience design. It’s similar to how user experience (UX) is just one element under the wider customer experience (CX) umbrella.

Note that just as the field of information architecture has information architects, experience architecture has experience architects; people responsible for planning and executing experience architecture deliverables. Typically, the experience architecture role is quite varied in that it requires expertise in user-centered design, human behavior and interaction design.

User journey

A user journey is basically what it sounds like – the experiences someone has when they interact with something. It’s also most commonly used to describe these experiences and interactions in a software context.

User journeys describe the steps users take to complete a task when interacting with a website or other digital service. For example, for a photo storage app, the user journey may look something like this:

  1. User runs out of storage space for photos
  2. User finds new photos app on app store
  3. User installs new photos app
  4. User creates account
  5. User begins uploading photos from device

Typically, you’d create a user journey in the discovery phase of a project, as you can use this tool to visualize what the users need and to influence wireframe and information architecture development.

Depending on your needs, your user journey may be quite a bit more detailed, with overarching categories ‘before’, ‘during’ and ‘after’ to show where the user is with regards to using the product. You can also add in ideal emotions at each stage.

An image from Nielsen Norman Group of a user journey map.

An example of what a user journey map looks

Wireframing

Chances are if you’re using a website or mobile app, it was a wireframe at some point in the past. Wireframing is essentially a way to design digital applications at a structural level, a way to map out broadly where different elements like content and functionality sit before adding in visual design.

Wireframing is to websites, apps and other digital applications what the rough first sketch of a building is to a finished skyscraper. It’s foundational, yet entirely important to nail down broad strokes ideas before investing more heavily in design.

Why might you produce a wireframe? In addition to using it as a way to prototype ideas prior to the visual design process, wireframes are an important method of getting stakeholders and other teams onboard.

A wireframe example of a webpage.

Here’s an example of a website wireframe

Labeling system

In the world of information architecture, labels represent a relationship between your users and content. The idea behind labels is to communicate information to users without using too much space or requiring much work on the user’s part.

Let’s take a look at an example. ‘About us’ is a label that represents a larger chunk of information. On a website, this could be information about the people who work at the organization, what the office space is like and the work that the organization does. You wouldn’t want to present all of this information to a user on the homepage, so instead, you use a label like ‘About us’ to trigger the user’s association with that term. Once they’ve seen the label, a user can decide whether they want to proceed. In a nutshell, a label should be used to communicate information clearly and efficiently.

Labels are understandably important, and things can go awry when the people designing websites and other digital applications don’t adequately consider the importance of correct labeling. Perhaps more than most other parts of a website, poor labeling is an easy way to spot websites where user needs haven’t been appropriately considered.

Search system

Search is how your users go about looking for the information they require, whereas a search system is essentially a search engine: a way to sidestep the act of navigating through a website and search directly for information. One of the biggest misconceptions when it comes to designing digital applications is that search is the answer to all navigation problems. Search systems are often seen as a way to avoid developing user-focused navigation systems, as the common thinking is that users know what they’re looking for and so will just plug terms into a search bar.

This isn’t actually true, and there’s a great quote from Larry Page that neatly summarizes this argument: “The ultimate search engine would basically understand everything in the world, and it would always give you the right thing. And we’re a long, long way from that”.

Search engines often become bandages for websites with inadequate browsing systems. When considering adding a search engine to a website, consider how much content you actually have. The last thing you want to do is have to maintain a search engine when the browsing experience meets user needs.

When a search engine is appropriate:

  • Websites with large quantities of content (50+ pages)
  • Websites with long, dense pages
  • Any situation where browsing will take significantly longer

Metadata and taxonomies

In the world of information architecture, 2 terms that get thrown around and mixed up more than most others are taxonomy and metadata. Here’s a breakdown of what both of them mean, and how they relate to each other.

Metadata makes content findable and understandable for users and computer systems, it’s data about data. Rachel Lovinger describes it as “information about the content that provides structure, context, and meaning”. Photos typically have significant quantities of metadata attached to them, information like where the photo was taken, the date the photo was taken and the device the photo was taken on. Metadata is particularly important to search engines, helping to surface the right content based on what the user is searching for.

Taxonomies, on the other hand, refer to structures that organize information. Unlike metadata which applies to individual pieces of content, taxonomies help to organize content into hierarchical relationships.

So how do metadata and taxonomies work together? Well, if a taxonomy’s goal is to organize content, it needs terms to be stored as metadata. Christine Benson notes that “a taxonomy organizes information, and metadata describes it”. They’re really 2 parts of the same whole.

Wrap up

Hopefully, we’ve given you a clear idea of some of the more important information architecture terms and how they relate to each other. If you want to start rethinking your own website’s information architecture, there’s no better place to start than with a comprehensive understanding of how your users think the information on your website should be structured. You can read more about one of the best methods for this process, card sorting, right here on our blog.