When we talk about web design, we often think of the visual appearance of the site: the colors, the images, the buttons. But web design involves a lot more than outside appearance: a great website also has excellent internal logic, easy navigation and a clear path from visitor to client. Information architecture is the field of web design that deals with planning and implementing the internal structure of the site--and it must be done before any visual design is done.
Why does information architecture take up so much time in your web designer's schedule? Because it matters, even though the best information architecture becomes invisible when the website is complete. Here are three reasons why.
Reason #1: Information architecture makes websites easy to navigate
If your website is pretty but impossible to navigate, nobody will stick around. Information needs to be easily available and found where it is expected.
Information architure will provide your website with a framework that follows web design best practices. A homepage and an About Us page are the very minimum expected of any webpage, but most will be a bit more complex than that.
Easy navigation, just like good information architecture in general, is invisible when well done. It's when navigation fails that people notice. "I can't find what I'm looking for" and "Information was in unexpected places" are comments that you often see in web usability studies when navigation is difficult.
How do you know if your navigation is effective?
- Tabs and navigation labels are accurate
- There are no more than 7 top navigation tabs
- Sub-topics are logically organized
- There's a permanent Homepage link, usually in the logo and/or the "home" tab
- You can move easily from one section to the other without using the "back" button.
If your website doesn't fulfill all these conditions, your navigation is not up to par with the best websites out there.
Reason #2: Information architecture guides your buyer's journey
Here's something that few people know information architecture can help with: the buyer's journey. It's a marketing concept, but IA is essential in implementing it.
Here's a refresher: a buyer's journey is the path that turns your website visitors into leads, prospects, and finally clients. The buyer's journey defines how a company will nurture leads and turn them into long-term clients.
IA is an essential part of implementing the buyer's journey into your website. Given how much business is done through the Internet, it's essential that your website contains the journey to lead your visitors into interested prospects and then paying clients. In collaboration with the marketing team, the IA person will build the website around your journey. The model is different for each type of business, but it usually goes like this:
- Posting helpful content about the field in general (blog posts, ebooks, white papers, etc.)
- Providing information about your specific product or service
- Giving a free trial period or free personalized product (like a review, assessment or report)
- Selling a "pro" version, extra services or more of the product
- Closing the transaction
Your website's information architecture will lead blog visitors to learn more about your product, then to test it for free, etc. A bad (or nonexistent) information architecture will likely confuse visitors because the steps aren't clearly defined, leading to losing a lot of business because steps are out of order or simply missing.
Reason #3: Information architecture helps define the content you need... and don't
One of the sins of web content is having too much of it. You don't want to spill all your beans to your visitors; leave a little mystery so they have a reason to contact you!
More seriously though, many websites have way too much content for their own good, and this overflow tends to be badly organized. A good information architecture along with a proper content strategy can help define the content you must have, the content that helps convert visitors into clients, and the content that won't do any of that.
It all ties back to usability: too much content will drive visitors away, and so will not enough of it. An information architect knows current web best practices and can define the structure of a website so that it contains just the right amount of pages and content.
The content you absolutely need:
- Information about you
- Information about your product
- How to contact you
The content you really don't need:
- Resume of everyone who works for you
- A video of an office party
- Anything that doesn't help portray your business in the light you want it to appear
The content that's helpful:
- Landing pages
- White papers
- Social media
Obviously those will change from field to field, but this gives you a general idea of the basics of content and information architecture. IA will help tell you what kind of helpful content you should have and remove the possibility for adding content that you don't need.
IA is essential
Information architecture should be part of any new website build or website rebuild. It's especially important for complex websites with lots of content, but smaller websites can also gain from a good IA. Whether your navigation is ineffective, your buyer's journey unclear or your content insufficient, the IA expert, along with the strategy team, will help define how your website should be build and refine the message your website sends to the world.