The 8 Principles of Information Architecture

The eight principles of information architecture were proposed by information architect, UX designer, consultant and speaker Dan Brown. These principles are a great starting point for creating or assessing the structure of your own site and it is worthwhile quickly going through them and defining what they mean.

First things first, though, what is information architecture?
Information architecture (IA) helps us organise content so that it’s easier to understand. Ideally, well-structured information architecture makes navigation simpler and easier for visitors to find what they need and use it to achieve their goals (what they want from you or your website). Check out this case study to see IA in action.

Information architecture exists in websites, apps, digital products, intranets, online communities, and all kinds of digital spaces—it also applies in the physical world: in libraries, museums, shops, and more.

There’s an art and a science to delivering the best performing IA, which typically boils down to system and structure, expert organisation, and logical, rational labelling.

Do you know what your users really want?

The first step in understanding how to design robust architecture is to understand your users. When users find the information they need, and it feels effortless for them, more often than not, it’s down to good design and IA.

Understand your users’ needs: Before making any design decisions, it’s essential to understand what your users need from your platform. Yes, you have needs that must be satisfied too, but with better visitor management and a higher-quality user experience, it’ll be easier to sell, drive, and make your conversions.

Label, label, label: Clear, concise, and definitely not confusing, labelling is key to providing users with an experience they don’t have to think about. Don’t use terms that you think are clever or fun if they’re going to slow down your visitor’s process and progress in finding what they need.

Don’t put too much trust in your search bar: Although your search tool is one of the critical assets for finding information, don’t assume that’s all you need. Most users are drawn to conventional navigation first, so make sure it provides users with a straightforward system to track down the content they need.

Be prepared to scale: Your business or operation is a growing entity, and so is your website, product, or platform. Make sure your IA can grow (or shrink) with you when you need it to. An out of the box product is fine for plenty of applications, but always ensure your system includes functionality that allows you to add and delete elements at every level.

Simplicity is the key: Clean, clear, easy-to-follow navigation is one thing, but the same should go for your content. Overly long pages with huge text blocks will repel your visitors, so split information into easy to consume paragraphs, sections, and lists, each with their own clear labels, helping visitors jump straight to where they need to be.

It’s often better to split those huge heavy pages into smaller, easy to consume articles. Then, your visitors won’t feel so overwhelmed if they don’t have to face something akin to War & Peace to find the golden information they need.

Dan Brown’s 8 principles of information architecture

Brown, an expert in the field for over 20 years, developed eight principles to help designers make the right decisions when creating their build strategies.

1. The principle of objects

This principle means viewing content as a living thing, with its own lifecycle and featuring behaviours and attributes. The architect needs to define and understand the nature of these when embarking on a structure.

2. The principle of choices

Create pages that offer meaningful choices to users, keeping the range of choices available focused on a particular task and, therefore, relevant to the user. Too many options can be worse than too few as users can become bogged down, and even paralysed with indecision is overloaded with choice.

3. The principle of disclosure

Only show users what they need to decide if they want to delve further. Once they appreciate the nature of the option they can pursue it or not as desired.

4. The principle of exemplars

If some of the category options are not self-explanatory use some exemplars of the content to show users what they will be accessing. Images can be especially useful and expressive in this context.

5. The principle of front doors

Not all users will enter your site at the home page so don’t construct your site for just those that do. Give people who arrive at other pages the chance to view useful information and navigation aids from wherever they come on board and try to make your site accessible from wherever they land.

6. The principle of multiple classification

Provide different ways for users to search the content on your site. Using search and top-level menus are two ways of doing this, but some users might wish to browse or move through the hierarchy so make sure your information architecture meets their need.

7. The principle of focused navigation

Keep your navigation aids consistent. Make sure your menus relate to the same areas and don’t mix subjects and confuse the user. If you are producing a menu of product types don’t drop other services into it or if the menu is for navigational purposes don’t include functional or marketing items.

8. The principle of growth

The content you start off with will only be a small fraction of the content you will acquire so your site needs to be scalable. Give it room to grow and develop organically and by addition.

How to develop information architecture considering Dan Browns information architecture principles

The following systems will define your information architecture:

  • Organisation
  • Navigation
  • Labelling
  • Search

To get the best from each, you need to make a plan that delivers your business and users’ needs in simple, clear steps.

1. Define your goals

To create a system that delivers for you and your visitors, you need to know what each party needs. Setting clearly defined goals makes communication with your teams easier, ensuring everyone is on the same page and building a structure that delivers for everyone.

This could be a simple, easy-to-interpret step, or it could take several rounds of research utilising team talks, focus groups, questionnaires, and interviews.

2. Audit your information

With your goals defined and a clearer idea of how you might deliver them, you need to consider how your existing content is already working for you. Is it providing valuable information that gives visitors precisely what they need? Or is it outdated, incorrect, irrelevant, or overly complicated?

It’s the perfect time to ‘Spring clean’ your content, stripping it back to the best performing beneficial pieces.

3. Organise your existing content

Once you’ve narrowed down your content to the useful, informative, and relevant pieces and edited or brought them all bang up to date, it’s time to organise them into your newly defined structure.

Categorising and organising your content into related sections should help reveal any gaps in your information or weak areas you can strengthen. Reorganising the existing content can also show which categories are your best performers and which ones need work, bringing them to the same level.

4. Adapt to your users’ needs

With categories and content in place and clear, defined goals, it’s time for your users to help you track down the gaps you couldn’t spot on your own.

Designers often create user personas to understand their users better, considering specific needs they may have overlooked. Alternatively, user testing, surveys, and performance monitoring are more direct methods that highlight problem areas, delivering insights into healthy improvements.

5. Analyse all information

With the data you’ve gathered during your research, from your users and testing, it’s time to make it count. Talk to your teams, designers, and if necessary, go back and talk to your users again. Your information architecture will evolve with your business, so staying in contact with users at every phase of the practice is essential.

For the first development and delivery of your architecture, it’s essential to gather as much data as possible before building to ensure the first blocks you put in place are solid enough to support the rest of the platform.

6. Building your information architecture

Now it’s time to design your system. Take all of the data and present it as clearly as possible, organised and labelled, with several locating methods, for users to find what they want from any entry-point.

Tips to make the most of your IA

  • Explore input from every angle: sales, marketing, support, reviews, and more—they’re all areas where you can understand what both parties need from the system.
  • Identify your consumers and find out what they really want.
  • Clearly define and document your goals and deliver them with regular communication, so everyone can follow the same plan, avoid confusion, and arrive at those objectives as effortlessly as possible.
  • Use the relevant testing systems for your platform. Don’t leave anything to chance or make assumptions that aren’t backed by reliable data.
  • Evaluate each step to ensure it fulfils its objective. If it doesn’t, rectify the issue before moving on to the next step.
  • Make sure all sub- or microsites are connected and integrated well. If there’s a chance that your users could get lost or drift away from the main platform, then re-evaluate and rectify.
  • We suggest that all designers and architects test often and early. There are all kinds of testing options available at each stage that deliver peace of mind, factual data and routes to more successful outcomes, so use them. Information is power; for you, your users, your designers, teams, and architects.

If you would like to know more about the eight principles or feel you would benefit from discussing your site architecture with an expert why get in touch at hello@ux247.com.

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