Information Architecture Requires Research, Data & Empathy

Posted on: 04/11/2013
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It’s easy to overlook things that are critically important until they start failing. Just like we don’t notice the structure of a house until it’s in question (“Hmm, should I be walking on this?”), a site’s information architecture typically goes unnoticed until it fails to do its job (“Why can’t I find what I need?!”).

Information architecture (IA) can be defined in a number of ways. For the big nerds out there, check out this brief history of information architecture.

My oversimplified definition goes something like this: IA is the process of making things understandable and accessible. It establishes order and intuitive paths to information. IA is an invisible thread of logic connecting humans to the information they need. The layer on top that brings IA to life is design.

What does IA mean for brands?

A site’s architecture shapes how people unfold a brand’s value. It guides users through content and messaging based on hierarchy of needs. And it shapes how users learn about a brand’s offerings, products and services.

Most importantly, a site’s architecture demonstrates the brand’s focus on serving people, not just themselves, by seamlessly connecting users to the information they need—quickly, easily and without gimmicks.

Steps to get started:

Every project is different, but let’s focus on an enterprise site redesign as an example. You’ve already conducted user research (hopefully in some form, qualitative and quantitative). Depending on scope, timeline and budget, the next steps in process may look something like this:

Step 1: Embrace the chaos. Prepare to be overwhelmed with information and confusing nomenclature.

This is when I recommend fixing yourself a bowl of ice cream. (Optional.)

Step 2: Conduct a content audit and site architecture analysis to understand the depth and breadth of information that already exists. Map it out. Get to know the information you’re working with. Tease out relationships. Even the tiny stuff in the footer? Dig in. There are gems of knowledge everywhere.

This is when you build context and identify gaps and dependencies in the site’s structure and content. The chaos will slowly turn into manageable madness.

Step 3: Perform an analytics analysis to understand existing paths through content. It’s important to tease out how people currently behave on the site to understand where improvements may be needed (and what’s working well).

This is when patterns surface. Ask lots of “Whys?” and dig for hypotheses in user research, bridging connections between patterns of behavior to what you know about user needs and the current architecture. You can infer a lot from analytics, but you constantly have to ask yourself: Are these analytic patterns showing me which content people actually want/need, or are users being driven to this page for other reasons, whether or not it’s what they’re looking for? (e.g. promotions, confusing navigation or mislabeled drive-to links) Also ask:  What are users NOT doing?

Now that you’re equipped with knowledge of the site’s content, existing behavior patterns and user research, you can begin mapping together a new IA.

There’s an important requirement for this process: putting on your armor of empathy to keep users at the center of IA decision-making. User research fuels empathy. I also apply some basic assumptions.

Three assumptions to help evoke empathy:

Assume users have a raging headache. Then ask yourself, “Am I making it worse?” When I have a headache, complex thinking turns the clamp around my skull two notches tighter. Users shouldn’t need to invest an abundance of time or brainpower to make sense of where to find stuff. (In fact, they won’t. They’ll split.)

Assume users are running late. Then ask yourself, “Is the path to critical information well marked with queues, or is it laden with time-eating obstacles?” Unnecessary clicks, making sense of directionless buzzwords and digging through sub-section upon sub-section all add up to time wasted.

Assume users don’t care about your brand. This is the safest assumption because it’s likely a fact. The people you want to influence most (future customers) have no reason to care about your brand. Yet. So ask yourself, “Does our product taxonomy only make sense to the brand team?” Are you speaking to potential customers or just sippin’-and-spittin’ the company Kool-Aid? Speak their language, not yours.

Good IA is a catalyst for engagement.

The purpose of a website is to welcome people into your brand’s story and inspire them to explore what you can do for them. It’s the front line of engagement. Remember that your site architecture is the quiet guide that clears the path for exploration.

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