Within the UX industry, there are myriad terms and concepts you’ll need to understand in order to get your job done.
One of the most common you’ll come across is information architecture (IA).
What is it? How do you find it? How do you research it? And how do you create it?
We’ve compiled an extensive directory where you can find authoritative content from information architects all over the world.
You’ll find this resource useful if:
- You’re new to UX
- You’re a writer, intranet manager, designer, marketer, product owner or content strategist
- You want to further your knowledge of information architecture
How to get the most out of this guide:
- Bookmark it and use it as a learning resource
- Share it with colleagues, students, teachers, friends
- Read it and share some of the basics to create an awareness of IA and UX in your workplace
- Check the health of your current IA with our handy checklist.
Read on to learn all the ins and outs of IA including topics for beginners, those with an intermediate skill level, and some bonus stuff for you experts out there.
What is information architecture?
Information architecture is the system and structure you use to organize and label content on your website, app or product. It’s the foundation on top of which you provide the design.
"How to make sense of any mess" - This book by Abby Covert is one of the quintessential introductory resources for learning about information architecture. It includes a great lexicon so you can understand all the jargon used in the IA world, and shows you how to make sense of messes that are made of information.
Information architecture is the way that we arrange the parts of something to make it understandable. Here are some examples of information architecture:
- Alphabetical cross-referencing systems used in a dictionary or encyclopedia
- Links in website navigation
- Sections, labels and names of things on a restaurant menu
- Categories, labels and tasks used in a software program or application
- The signs that direct travelers in an airport
- We rely on information architecture to help us make sense of the world around us.
"Intertwingled" - A book written by Peter Morville that discusses the meaning of information architecture and the systems behind it.
We dabbled in everything from coding to content, but specialized in helping our clients to structure and organize websites. There wasn’t a name for this work, so we called it 'information architecture'
"The Understanding Bee" - This discussion with Abby Covert, Dan Klyn, Marsha Haverty, and Peter Morville at the IA Summit covers some interesting points about IA. When IA should be introduced to people as a topic? How can we ensure future generations have a good understanding of IA? Is IA a discipline or a skill? A good recording to put on in the background, otherwise you can read the transcript further down the page.
Yipee-IA: All You Need To Know About Information Architecture In 10 Minutes
This informative and fast-paced talk by Chris How at UX Brighton provides a quick overview of what information architecture is and explains ways things can be organized. There’s also a fun exercise at the end!
"What we mean by meaning: New structural properties of IA" - What is the meaning of ‘meaning’? How do you define and uncover meaning? A recorded presentation (including full transcript) with Marsha Haverty discusses these very concepts and delves into structural properties of IA and how to use them as design tools in real projects. Marsha’s slidedeck presentation for the IA Summit 2015 is also included.
The nature of meaning is flow. Flows have properties. Meaning has viscosity, or ease of flow. Meaning has texture depending on what facets of information are participating in the flow; meaning is subject to permeability in what it’s flowing through.
"Give a hoot! Mapping (and caring for) the semantic environment" - Information Architect Jorge Arango explains why we must consider the semantic environment that we will be designing for before we even begin work on the design. This presentation from the IA Summit 2014 explains what the semantic environment is, how to avoid polluting the semantic environment, and what an information environment is.
In general semantics, language is considered a distinctly human ability, one that sets us apart in the world.
Because we have language, we can learn from the past. Language is central to what we are. It has enabled us to build and learn and grow from each other and from people who came before us. You could argue that some animals are capable of simple language.
In other words, the words that we use to describe and categorize things have an impact, not just on how we see the world, but on how we shape it.
Everyone makes information architecture
- A UX Picnic with Dan Ramsden
Dan Ramsden took some time out of his busy schedule to chat to us about what he thinks information architecture is. He also discusses the differences between making information architecture and being an information architect.
Ways of understanding information (and how to design for them)
Information seeking behaviors
"Four modes of seeking information and how to design for them" - How do your users approach information tasks? Everyone can be different in their information seeking habits and patterns, so it makes sense to do your research and take a deep look into this. In this article, Donna Spencer explains the four different modes of seeking information: “re-finding”, “don’t know what you need to know”, “exploratory” and “known-item”.
The most important issue is not whether you notice a mode of seeking information that fits into one of these categories, but that a range of modes exist. Observe how your users approach information, consider what it means, and design to allow them to achieve what they need.
"10 information retrieval patterns" - This article by Joe Lamantia discusses various mode-based information retrieval patterns, and also provides a handy link to an earlier blog about goal based information retrieval. A helpful read to better understand the different types of information retrieval patterns. It’s an oldie, but still a goodie and relevant!
"How to spot and destroy evil attractors in your tree (Part 1)" - People can get lost in your site due to many different things. One that’s easily looked over is evil attractors, which appear in trees and attract clicks when they shouldn’t. This can confuse people looking for certain things on your site. This article by Dave O’Brien explains how to find and get rid of these evil attractors using tree testing.
Anyone who’s seen a spy film knows there are always false scents and red herrings to lead the hero astray. And anyone who’s run a few tree tests has probably seen the same thing — headings and labels that lure participants to the wrong answer. We call these 'evil attractors'.
Defining information architecture
Ontology, common vocabulary
"Metadata in the cross-channel ecosystem: Consistency, context and interoperability" - Adam Ungstad’s presentation from the IA Summit 2013 explores three types of metadata and how it’s used, what cross-channel experiences are and the information and interactions that can happen within them.
Metadata enables consistency, context, and interoperability in the cross-channel ecosystem by managing, describing, and exchanging information objects. Metadata is information about information objects.
An example of a cross-channel experience is buying a physical book from Amazon. You can order a book through a website, but Amazon can't send you a physical book through the website. Amazon needs to actually cross channels for you to complete your objective and send you a book through the mail.
"What we talk about when we talk about ontology" - What does the word ‘catalog’ mean to you? What you think it means could be completely different to someone else. In the business world, it’s important that words and their meanings are considered. This article from David Peter Simon discusses ontology, why it’s important, and how to put it into practice.
Ontology continues to grow in relevance in the business world.
Establishing—or tuning—an ontology isn’t as scary as it sounds. It just takes a concerted conversation around the meaning behind the words we choose to share together.
"The Accidental Taxonomist" - This book by Heather Hedden provides a definition of taxonomies and the different types out there, the skills needed to become a taxonomist, and how to design taxonomies for humans versus automated indexing.
In one sense, taxonomy work, as the practice of naming and organizing things, is an ancient art. In another sense, it is a thoroughly modern one, taking on new and more challenging characteristics as organizations and human societies have become more information intensive.
For present day information management, the term taxonomy is used both in the narrow sense, to mean a hierarchical classification or categorization system, and in the broad sense, in reference to any means of organizing concepts of knowledge.
"Language is infrastructure" - This IA Summit 2014 presentation by Andrew Hinton discusses how language is an important piece of infrastructure and part of our environment, the importance of labels and their meanings, and the role taxonomy plays in different kinds of environments.
Language has a real, tangible effect on the work we do, and the organizations for whom we do it. How can that be? It’s because language functions as a real part of our environment.
Labels are like Tardises. Innocuously small and mundane on the outside, but immensely powerful, mysterious, and huge on the inside. Labels carry with them much of what the world is to us. They allow us to rearrange the world and move whole universes of meaning with a breath or a scribble.
The relationship between information architecture and content
Content inventories and audits
"How to conduct a content audit" - Before you begin a redesign project, you must perform a content analysis of your existing website or app to get an idea of the content you already have. This article (and accompanying video) from Donna Spencer explains the basics of a content audit, how to perform one, and why people conduct them. As a bonus, Donna has included a downloadable content inventory spreadsheet that you can use for your own project.
"Content analysis heuristics" - Before you get started on an information architecture project, it’s a good idea to first analyze what you already have. To do this, you use content analysis heuristics. In this article by Fred Leise, you can learn how to conduct a qualitative content analysis, and what each of his heuristics entails.
"The anatomy of a content model" - Lacey Kruger’s presentation at the IA Summit 2015 discusses why content models matter, how to define and design a content model, and includes a real-life example of a project she worked on. You can view the full slideshow from her presentation here.
A content model is, for the purposes of this talk, a document defining the structure of each content type and the user experience for content authors and editors within a CMS or content management system. It's the backend technical side of the website, which a lot of times we as designers don't think a ton about.
"Content types: The glue between content strategy, user experience, and design" - A lecture and slideshow presentation from Hilary Marsh at the IA Summit 2016 that explains the importance of creating a good understanding of “content types” so people can all be on the same page. Hilary discusses content lifecycles, workflows, relationships, and includes a handy checklist so you can easily identify content types.
"Object-oriented UX" - When you’re designing a new page, website or app, many people look to a content-first approach to design. But what if you’re working on something that is mostly made up of instantiated content and objects? This is when it’s useful to add object-oriented UX to your design process.
It took me about about a year to retrain myself to truly think mobile first, but today, I do so even when designing desktop-only software applications. To me, mobile first simply means forced prioritization. It means think about layout later. Start with a single column ‘design’ (also known as a list), and force yourself to prioritize content and functionality with sequential ranking.
OOUX is not a new end-to-end process; it’s a new ingredient to add to your current process. It adds clarity, simplicity, and cohesion — to how you design, and to the products you release into the world.
Ways of organizing information
"Classification schemes — and when to use them" - How do you organize content? Should it be in alphabetic order? Sorted by task? Or even grouped by topic? There are many different ways in which content can be grouped or classified together. But which one works best for your users? And which works best for the type of content you’re producing? This article from Donna Spencer discusses some of the different types of classification schemes out there, when to use them, and which projects you can use them for.
Research for information architecture
Every successful design project involves a good dose of user research. You need to be able to understand the behavior, thoughts, and feelings of people.
Here’s an overview of the different types of user research you can conduct for information architecture projects.
"Testing taxonomies: Beyond card sorting" - After you’ve created taxonomies, the next step is to test it all. But what are the best methods to test taxonomies? This IA Summit 2015 presentation by Alberta Soranzo and Dave Cooksey discusses four different methods you can use including delphi card sorting, online grouping, click path studies and usability testing. You can find the slideshow here.
Testing helps you know that the work that you've done for the taxonomy, which we're going to drive and experience, is actually going to make the user happy.
Taxonomy is about logic. I don't mean thinking logically. I mean a logical abstract structure that is divorced from any UI or any content management system. We spent a lot of time getting that structured down in order to tag content in the content management system and to drive and experience. Taxonomy is concerned with concepts, which we described with terms, which we set up in relationships. It's extremely abstract.
"Tree testing: A quick way to evaluate your IA" - When do you need to run a tree test on your IA? And how do you do it? This article from Dave O’Brien runs through a project he worked on, the research methods his team faced, and the results they received. He also shares a few lessons learned which will serve as handy tips for your next tree test.
Tree testing has given us the IA method we were after – a quick, clear, quantitative way to test site structures. Like user testing, it shows us (and our clients) where we need to focus our efforts, and injects some user-based data into our IA design process. The simplicity of the technique lets us do variations and iterations until we get a really good result.
Tree testing also makes our clients happy. They quickly ‘get’ the concept, the high-level results are easy for them to understand, and they love having data to show their management and to measure their progress against.
"Tree testing 101" - If you’ve never conducted a tree test before, our Tree testing 101 guide will fill you in on all the basics to get you started. This guide tells you when to use tree testing, how to set your objectives, how to build your tree, and how to run a study in our tree testing tool Treejack.
Tree testing tells you how easily people can find information on your website, and exactly where people get lost. Your website visitors rely on your information architecture — how you label and organize your content — to get things done.
Tree testing is useful whenever you want to find out if the labels and structure of your information on your website, intranet, or product is easy to understand. You can get valuable insights at all stages in the design process, whether you’re starting from scratch or making a few tweaks to a website you already have in place.
"Card sorting 101" - A guide we put together to explain the basics of card sorting and how to use this method for information architecture. Learn about the three main types of card sorting, how to choose the right method for your project, and how to interpret your card sorting results.
Card sorting is a well-established research technique for discovering how people understand and categorize information. You can use card sorting results to group and label your website information in a way that makes the most sense to your audience.
"How to pick cards for card sorting?" - An article on our blog that explains which types of cards you should include in your study, and how to write your card labels so that your participants can clearly understand them.
Labels need to be short enough so that participants can quickly read the card, yet detailed enough that participants can understand what the content is.
"Choose between open, closed or hybrid card sorts" - A section from our Knowledge Base that explains what you need to know about running different kinds of card sorts. Learn what’s involved with open, closed or hybrid card sorts and which one best suits the project you’re working on.
In an open card sort, participants create their own categories by dragging cards into groups that make the most sense to them.
In a closed sort, you create pre-defined categories, and participants will sort the cards into those categories.
"Why card sorting loves tree testing" - Another article from our blog that explains the relationship between card sorting and tree testing and how you can use the two research methods together for your projects.
When designing an Information Architecture, we start with a collection of loosely related content and work tirelessly to create an information structure that ‘works’ for as many of our users as possible. What we need is a simple way to validate our ideas so we can use our concepts developed through card sorting and refine them based on research and testing. We need a way to find out if our IA is actually going to work.
Want to check the health of your current IA?
Download our checklist and get started!
Advanced concepts in information architecture
IA in a world of algorithms
"Let’s hear it for the seams" - This interactive presentation from Dan Willis and Livia Labate at the IA Summit 2015 discusses why we should avoid hiding seams in cross-channel systems, and instead focus on designing and creating them better.
When people are talking about today, 2015, mostly, when you hear somebody proudly talking about how they've crafted a multi-cross-channel experience, what they're really saying is they took a message and they found a way to squeeze it out into multiple places, like a meat grinder. That's not the experience we're going to talk about.
"Responsive information architectures" - As technology progresses, we’re seeing more and more kinds of digital devices on the market. In this presentation from the IA Summit 2014, Andy Fitzgerald discusses the relationship between different elements that make up an information system, and how to create a strategy for designing information systems across various digital touchpoints.
Responsive information architecture: An information design strategy that allows for the expression of a specific meaning across multiple and independent contexts.
IA and XML / microcontent
"The battle for the body field" - We’re seeing more kinds of devices in the market, which means the content we create must be flexible to live in these different places. At the IA Summit 2015, Jeff Eaton discusses how to apply the lessons of XML and DITA with modern database-driven web CMSs.
The content that everyone is working with and producing needs to be flexible enough to live in all places without having to reinvest in reproducing every one of those channels.
The second thing that's needed is more efficient reuse across different campaigns, across time. A story that may have been perfect two years ago needs to be flexible enough to be folded into a new series as adjunct information, stuff like that. The ability to use things across time spans needs to be there.
"Atomizer: Microcontent and the future of IA" - Digital experiences are changing. And as such, the way information architects need to adapt and accommodate the needs of the newer, richer experiences. Bram Wessel’s presentation at the IA Summit 2015 discusses the trend of microcontent, and how the discipline of IA can help organizations can meet the demands of this new trend.
We've gone from macro content elements with a little bit of metadata to micro content elements each with a lot of data. This includes many sets of metadata about content itself, and many related sets of data all with, if you're lucky, only slightly different taxonomic structures, all of which must be integrated with the data a CMS needs to distribute content to the appropriate context by the appropriate means.
Thanks to Kristina Halvorson and a host of others, we've realized that the content blob, you know what I mean, that unlimited free text body field in every CMS where most of our content ends up. That blob is bad practice, and within the blob there are actually all kinds of content elements that should be structured themselves. Those structural units have always been there, but the difference is that now, due to the proliferation of contexts, they are better managed individually.
Cognitive science for IA
"The art and science of the pre-attentive variable" - The mind is a very powerful thing, especially when it comes to processing information. This IA Summit 2015 presentation by Debra Gelman discusses how to identify and analyze the effectiveness of pre-attentive variables when designing new and existing experiences.
What is a pre-attentive variable anyway? I'm glad you asked. This is my non-dictionary definition. A pre-attentive variable is a visual characteristic of an element that people notice before they notice that they're even noticing.
"The pop-out effect: How to improve choice through information architecture" - At the IA Summit 2016, Stefano Bussolon and Luca Rosati discussed the paradox of choice, choice overload, and how to improve the way people make choices through information architecture.
Finding is the first step in decision making (findability). Making a choice is the second step (choosability). Information becomes knowledge if it helps an agent to take a decision.
Choosing can be a difficult task. Doing great information architecture can be a difficult task. Great information architecture help the people to find out what they really desire.
IA at scale
"Web-scale IA using linked open data" - The web is a massive place, and making sure objects of information remain findable across the network on many different devices is paramount. But how can this be done? At the IA Summit 2014, Mike Atherton discusses the world of linked open data and why it’s important to make content readable for robots and future-friendly.
[Content modeling]...begins the design process, not from interface design, but from the bottom up, with an abstract mental model of the real world things and descriptions of how those things inter-relate. Because knowledge doesn't like to be constrained into neatly stacked boxes and arrows, it's wild and it's untamed.
"Data sets you free: Analytics for content strategy" - So you’ve implemented a content strategy. How do you know if it’s effective? How can you show the value of your work? This IA Summit 2014 presentation from Jonathon Colman explains what you should measure, how to measure it, and how to report your findings.
If we really value something, it's built into our goals, it's built into those targets we're trying to hit. Really, the way we measure our values is through our actions, and then the impact that those actions have. No matter what we're doing, designing, building an information space, writing, advertising, no matter what sort of work, we're looking at actions and the results of those actions. What we measure by doing that, our data, that shows the progress we're making. Hopefully, we're starting out at point A, we have a goal for point B, and what we measure helps chart our journey along to point B.
IA and SEO
"Information architecture for SEO" - When you’re organizing content on a website, you really have two audiences: people and search engines. So how do you make sure you’re doing a good job for both? In this “Whiteboard Friday” from Moz, Rand Fishkin talks about the interaction between SEO and IA, and some best practices involved with organizing your content for both audiences.
IA is designed to say, ‘Hey, we want to help web users accomplish their goals on the website quickly and easily.’ There are many more broad things around that, but basically that's the concept.
This actually is not in conflict at all, should almost never be in conflict, even a little bit, with the goals that we have around SEO. In the past, this was not always true, and unfortunately in the past some mythology got created around the things that we have to worry about that could conflict between SEO and information architecture.