The 8 principles that guide information architecture (IA).

8 Minutes

Ahh architecture. We marvel at the beautiful design and structural engineering of buildings and bridges all the time. But how often do we stop to think about the architecture of a website?

The truth is, good architecture on websites often goes unnoticed – as it should! A well-constructed information architecture creates a smooth, effortless user experience. It’s only when a website has a poorly organized, overwhelming or confusing architecture that it becomes blatantly obvious and a major overhaul is needed.   

In this article we’ll take a closer look at what information architecture is all about and how it impacts your users and your organization. Plus we’ll go over the underlying principles that lead information architects to the promised land. 

“You know I’ve always wanted to pretend to be an architect.”

– George Constanza

IA and sitemaps, what’s the difference?

Information architecture and sitemaps are closely connected in that they work together to label and organize the pages on a website. Ultimately, their shared goal is to intuitively guide users to find the information they’re looking for.

Information architecture is the foundational plan (or blueprint) for how a website’s content will be organized, labeled, and interconnected. It encompasses all the research, strategy and UX thinking around user goals and challenges. Plus it takes stock of the site’s different content types and the relationships between them.

A sitemap is essentially the outcome of the information architecture. It’s a holistic visual representation of the website’s structure, outlining page priorities, hierarchy and more. You can think of it this way: IA is like a recipe that outlines the ingredients while a sitemap is the finished meal.

Here’s what guides good IA.

Taking on a website’s information architecture can seem like a daunting task, especially for a site that has a large amount of pages. It can sometimes feel like trying to de-tangle a massive ball of yarn and not in the way that’s fun for cats. Thankfully, there is a set of principles developed by information architect Dan Brown that provides some practical guidance for designing a website’s architecture.

1. The principle of objects
This first principle is related to how we think about and group content on a high-level. In this case, as an ever-evolving set of objects with distinctive attributes and desired outcomes. Each content object has its own unique purpose and is meant to influence users in different ways. It can be long or short, copy-rich or visually-driven. Some content is meant to inform and educate, while other content seeks to inspire action. Viewing content in this way (according to its defining characteristics) is key to classifying and grouping content.

2. The principle of choices
As we’ve learned from the paradox of choice, too much choice can be overwhelming for users. This principle encourages us to be somewhat ruthless in designing navigation systems. By limiting the amount of choices to what is essential for users, we help them to process information more efficiently so they can focus on the tasks they came to the website to accomplish in the first place.

3. The principle of disclosure
This one could also be called the principle of sneak previews. It’s about making sure users know what to expect when they dive deeper. Closely related to the second principle, this means presenting users with just enough detail so they get a sense of what’s next, without experiencing info overwhelmed. Practically speaking, this could mean incorporating bite-size descriptors, helper content on hover, or at-a-glance summaries. 

4. The principle of exemplars
Just like it sounds, this principle means incorporating examples to describe what content lives within different categories. Featuring examples within the website’s architecture to represent content can be an effective way to provide users with quick wayfinding and easy scannability. Think icons or featured images within a mega menu or suggested text within a search field. These kinds of examples help to guide users on their path.   

5. The principle of front doors
We can’t know exactly how users will interact with a website until they actually start using it. This means we need to make some assumptions – one of these being that up to half of all users will arrive from a page other than the homepage. Since we can’t always rely on the homepage to do the heavy lifting, each and every page needs to be able to be the front door, ensuring it’s intuitive for users to make their way through other areas of the site.

6. The principle of multiple classifications
Providing different ways for users to explore content is key to creating a user experience that feels personalized. A prime example of this is website’s with robust resource hubs. Some users may want to explore resources related to a specific topic or resource type, while others just want to see the latest or trending content. Including multiple classifications gives users more control and puts them in the driver’s seat.  

7. The principle of focused navigation
Sticking to this principle means grouping similar items within the same menu. Or in other words, not grouping content or pages that don’t belong together. This one sounds straightforward but often requires careful consideration as the website continues to grow – which leads us nicely to the final principle. 

8. The principle of growth
Enterprise-level website’s are meant to grow. This needs to be kept in mind when developing the site’s architecture. As the organization evolves and expands, how will this impact the website? While not every outcome can be anticipated, asking the right questions up front can help to create an architecture with the flexibility to be scalable and accommodate future needs.  

Here’s what to avoid in your IA. 

Information architecture often starts out simple enough. But as an organization evolves, more products/services, features and voices get added to the mix. As you can imagine, this can cause a previously streamlined and well-organized navigation to get out of control. Suddenly the principles guiding good IA go out the window.

These are some of the most common pitfalls we’ve seen across information architecture before we get a chance to rethink and refine it:

Info overload – When anything and everything under the sun starts to get jammed into the navigation, we run into choice overload and users don’t even know where to start. That’s when support emails start flowing in, or worse, they just move on to a different site.  

Unclear language – The naming of menu items, pages and microcopy within a navigation is something that can be underthought but it’s hugely important. This isn’t the place to be overly flowery or verbose with language. The simpler and clearer, the better. 

Lack of hierarchy – When everything within a site’s architecture is of equal importance, nothing is important. Size and placement of items within the navigation can help make it clear to users what the priorities are.   

Us first – We commonly see organizations putting their own priorities ahead of the user’s. Information about the organization is certainly important but it shouldn’t be put ahead of the needs of users.  

The north star is addressing user needs.

The eight principles mentioned in this article provide excellent guidance. But ultimately, it’s critical to keep coming back to the unique needs of your users. Are they coming to your site looking for something specific, or are they there to explore. Are they doing research, or are they ready to take action? Have they been here before, or is this all new to them?

Designing meaningful information architecture takes this all into consideration to create the best possible experience for users. If we can properly group, limit and prioritize information on websites, there are a myriad of benefits for users. It keeps them focused, helps them find relevant info quickly, and most importantly, limits their frustration leaving them with a positive overall impression. 

Why it matters to your organization.

Simply put, better information architecture leads to better user experience and that’s better for your organization. The right information architecture will help to keep people on your website for longer and increase their chances of converting. It reduces redundancies which is better for SEO and gives you a greater shot of being chosen over competitors. Plus, it can reduce support costs from users who reach out because they can’t find what they need.

Does your site need detangling?

If you sense that your website’s information architecture has become unnecessarily complex, it’s likely time to rethink and reorganize things. You understand your organizational needs better than anyone. But having the support of an objective expert who’s skilled in architecting streamlined and intuitive solutions can be a huge help.