What is information architecture? Do I need it?

You need information architecture just as surely as a home builder needs a blueprint.

Using information architecture to map out a new website
Outline your site’s topics. Nerdy boxes are totally optional.

Most sites benefit from professional information architecture, or IA (I always start a new or redesigned site with IA). Taking the time to do it up front brings clarity to the site development process and a better user experience once you’ve launched the site. But you don’t have to be a web pro to use the principles of information architecture to better organize your site.

If you can organize your thoughts into a main idea with supporting points – think “term paper” – you have what it takes to start crafting the basic architecture for your site.

When it’s time to start working on your new web site, temporarily resist the temptation to think about colors or imagery or anything else visual. Instead, get out a sheet of notebook paper and put your company or site name at the top. This is your main idea, in term paper verbiage.

Next, list three to five things you’ll need to communicate to visitors about that main idea. If you have more than five, consider whether some of the points should actually be grouped into sub-points of a larger idea. Usually, the points you’ll need to communicate will correspond to navigation elements.

Streamlining the number of points and using thoughtful organization makes navigation a snap for visitors.

Depending upon the depth of information, a supporting point could translate to a single page, or an entire section with its own supporting points. Your site’s purpose and function will likely dictate some of the pages you should provide, since visitors become accustomed to conventions used on other web sites.

Visitors to a web site for a retail store, for example, would expect a contact page that included the store’s street address, phone number and a map. A visitor to a wedding photographer’s site would expect the photographer to showcase his or her work on a portfolio page or section.

Once you’ve solidified this information outline, expand on it by adding notes about copy, images or video you want to include to help communicate the main point of each page.

If you’re working on your site with a designer or developer, bring the outline with you to your first meeting. He or she should give you feedback on it, and you’ll both have a road map to ensure your project stays on track. If you’ll DIY your site, you now have a well-thought-out blueprint to help you set up the pages, content and navigation you need to help visitors and search engines get around your site.

Good job!