When talking about user experience (UX), it’s a mistake to condense the domain into the concept of “making things beautiful and easy for the end user.” In reality, optimal UX in product design deals a lot with underlying data, workflows, and component interaction – what’s known as information architecture (IA).
Would you build a house without architectural plans? If you slap all the components together without a clear blueprint in place, it might look and function as intended but it’s not going to be the optimal solution for the project – and there could be problems that need fixing once built, while building, or later on down the track.
The same goes for product design and information architecture. Information architecture, or IA, is just as critical to a well-built product as architecture itself is to creating a house.
UX vs UI design: Where does IA fit into the picture?
We’ve covered previously the difference between UX and UI (user interface) design in our How to Start a Career in UX Design guide:
UX definition: “UX designers aim to create experiences that are straightforward, smooth, and allow a user to complete a desired task easily (and pleasurably.)”
UI definition: “UI design mainly focuses on the sensory experience of a user; UI designers must craft the visuals, sounds, reactions and interactions to make the experience as simple and pleasurable as possible.”
A clear example of the difference between the two is a workflow for a user to achieve a task correctly in fewer clicks (UX), or amusing waiting screen messages for users while loading elements on a page, such as you get with Asana or Discord (UI).
The UX workflow would need an underlying optimised decision tree (an information architecture component), whereas the UI waiting screens would need a series of sketches or ideas, without any underlying structure necessary.
In essence, UI is one specialised component of UX. If your product manager or product management team doesn’t understand the difference it might be time to raise some concern!
Information architecture in UX design
While the term UX design can be used to describe optimising the user experience of any type of product, it’s typically a user-facing tech solution – such as an app, website, or IoT device.
Wired’s 2010 piece, Information Architecture Tutorial – Lesson 1 still provides a relevant description of what IA encompasses, albeit with a website design bent:
“It is the blueprint of the site upon which all other aspects are built – form, function, metaphor, navigation and interface, interaction, and visual design. Initiating the IA process is the first thing you should do when designing.”
The UX Collective says that good IA:
- Results in a structure that makes sense and is easy to navigate
- Focuses on organising and labelling websites so that users can best find what they’re looking for
- Depends on the interplay between the meaning of the product’s elements (ontology), the arrangement of its’ parts (taxonomy), and the interaction among its parts (choreography)
And that “on a practical level, this means making decisions around organisation, labelling, search, and navigation.”
Having an underlying information structure, flows, and relationships between data (before building a beautiful looking and “feeling” product) ensures the processes and paths the user takes to navigate your product also feel natural and pleasurable.
UX IA can even involve things you may not think of, such as linking of categories and subcategories in a logical structure at the URL level.
Fundamentals of IA for digital design
The drivers behind your underlying IA will include:
- Company brand identity
- Goals for the project
The architectural approach itself depends on the content, context, and user.
- We can use Library Science, by “grouping (categorising) the pieces of content which are similar or the functions which has the same behaviour and later assigning them the values or the names (cataloging) to find easily in the future.”
- We can use Gestalt Principles for visual design, with “some of the rules like principle of similarity and proximity… to organise an information in a proper grouping and unified manner.”
- We can leverage a user’s existing Mental Models, that describe what a “user is already perceiving in (their) mind while reading or seeing a particular thing which is familiar to (them).”
When designing information architecture, you need to think about what your user is familiar with in similar products, grouping strategies, how much content and functionality to display at once, and about the minimum paths to end results when designing your data collections, navigation, and display of elements. It can pay to think like a developer.
Always make sure to conduct user research to ensure that your theories line up with real-world expectations.
Reaching your product design goals with IA
To be effective, product design goals need to be quantifiable. This means that if we set a goal for UX design it needs to be measurable.
Some examples are:
|Product design goal||Measurements|
|Easy to use||User reaches the desired information using the least-cost path (the least amount of clicks).|
User does not try to use mobile gestures that the app design doesn’t accommodate.
User time to complete tasks vs. team time to complete tasks.
|Attractive interface||Applying continuity in styling across screens, workflows, and degree of content displayed.|
User rates colour scheme, layout, etc. highly on a scoring system.
|Repeated use of product||Tracking user interaction across a day/week/month/etc.|
Tracking uninstalls or latent users vs active users.
|Help at the right time||Usage of tool tips.|
Time spent in help pages vs using product.
Use of other customer service avenues.
|Being an exciting product to use||Referrals from users.|
Social media mentions.
Customer onboarding vs leaving after trial period.
Optimised IA can help you score better under your measurements for product design goals. By making changes or A/B testing IA, you can really see how these affect your scorecard.
How top Australian companies achieve product design goals with IA
“I like to spend most of my time at the beginning of the process, establishing a solid, understanding-based foundation upon which I can explore and build solutions. Ultimately, if I don’t fully understand the problem, the solution will not be appropriate for it.”
As for the audience part of the IA puzzle, she reminds UX developers, “We will rarely be our own customers! They will be out in the wild somewhere, operating in their specific contexts. We can’t assume what works for us will work for them, especially if we’re not aligned by target demographics. For example, if we’re creating an augmented reality product for teenagers to decorate their rooms, we can’t assume things we like (if we’re older folks) will match what teenagers like. ”
This requires study of the demographic for their expectations and desires from product interaction, or to “consistently check assumptions with research-derived insights.”
Burton’s advice for the budding UX developer is “learning to step outside of ourselves and consider the needs of a person or group of people we’re unfamiliar with. I encourage you to go forth and build those empathy muscles!”
Award-winning digital transformation organisation, Cognizant, doesn’t just help companies implement DevOps practices to speed software development – there’s also a team dedicated to helping clients with their Experience Design Strategy.
Abhishek Iyer, Senior Manager explains how the UX process is approached at Cognizant: “Research shows that we thrive when empowered and feel in control of our own situation. We generally start with understanding our target audience and then splitting them into various personas. Once we have the personas, then we recruit users and put them through a series of activities and questions. And by the end of it, we get to a place where we understand our users deeply and formulate strategies to build a product that is intuitive and empowering.”
Iyer gives a nod to ensuring product evolution for the best results for business: “Information architecture and navigation play a pivotal role in product design. They have to be carefully planned, workshopped, tested and rewired every six months over the lifecycle of the product development.”
And his advice for fellow UX and IA specialists? “Design for emotion. Emotional design is a great way to make your users feel special and drive loyalty.”
WooliesX is the new digital department at Woolworths, bringing together the organisation’s digital, eCommerce, data, and customer arms into one. With such a large company, you can bet that there’s plenty of work being done behind the scenes with IA in UX to help outshine the fierce competition.
Vee Mercado, UX Designer, Digital Experience is involved in the ongoing digital transformation with the company, specifically “designing towards efficiently assisting our in-store team to satisfy our customers through our digital tools and processes in place.”
She talks about where their product IA structures are born: “The complexity lies in helping our team anticipate our customers’ needs – sometimes it’s as simple as making the button on the screen easier to access. The most important design principle is to empathise with the end user first, and always. Other principles will naturally follow to creatively shape ideas that meet their needs.”
Mercado herself is also involved with UX projects in the wider community.
“I actively seek such organisations out at hackathons and volunteer job posts where they could benefit from a UX designer. Some seek me out these days but I can only handle one pro-bono project at a time!”
Collaboration and sharing experiences can lead to big things later down the track, or even immediate exciting opportunities or ideas.
Mat Rutherford, Head of Experience at Pureprofile is leading the charge in reimagining this innovative consumer insights platform, going through “the process of rebuilding our holistic platform experience including the consumer facing web and mobile apps, to be user-centric and absolutely focussed on the experience.”
As he puts it, “We want to make sure we are, and remain, a design-led company by putting our users first.”
The process involves “techniques such as interviewing, archetype creation, storyboarding, card sorting, user flows and content mapping (to) allow us to discover what our publishers, administrators and consumers are actually trying to achieve at any given moment.”
Rutherford’s tips for UX design principles include:
- Keeping it as simple as possible.
- Asking what is the primary objective on any interaction, and making it as easy as possible to achieve that.
- Deciding what’s needed and what needs to get out of the way.
- Minimising cognitive load and reducing decision-making time (although sometimes you want to slow users down, for instance when making a transaction).
- Never leaving users with a dead end – ensuring they can easily fix or undo/redo actions.
- Making (the) system flexible so newbies and pros can use it as they see fit.
- Being trustworthy and credible – eliminating uncertainty and assuring users.
- Providing consistency with navigation and organising information to forge stability, reliability and predictability – without being a slave to it.
- Delighting and creating an emotional connection.
Ready to get started on great IA in UX product design?
This is one field that is primed and ready for new talent. Perhaps it’s time for a move from graphic designer to UX designer, software developer to IA specialist, or UI to UX? Maybe you’re even ready to step into the customer advocate role as a product owner? Check out our UX job listings and see where your skills could be put to use at some of Australia’s top companies.