Good IA is good design!

a scientific IA courtesy of pulpbits.net
a scientific IA courtesy of pulpbits.net

Information architecture (IA) seems to have fallen off the radar lately, but just because it’s not as en vogue, it doesn’t diminish the value of a good content structure. The problem is it may not always be obvious when to revise your product’s IA, and what you can actually do about it. But fear not, revising your product’s IA is not this mystical thing. Here are some practical things that have helped me.

You can’t fix a rotten core

A poorly designed information architecture can really hold you back, and you’ll know it’s badly designed when you start to feel shoehorned into certain design decisions in ways that feel unintuitive. Just as the phrase goes, where you can’t put lipstick on a pig, you can’t really do great design when your information architecture is set up wrong. The product will be rotten from the core, and the more you ignore the problem, the more it will continue to hold you back and restrain you from fixing real problems.

Interestingly, the converse is also true. Designing a good information architecture is a really fantastic way to seed great product design. A well-designed IA helps organize a product in the right ways, for the right reasons. An information architecture is just one of the many different kinds of inputs into the design process, and as we all know, the better the input, the better the output.

So how do you do it well?

Where things go wrong

cat taxonomy
via geologycafe.com

The most common thing to do when designing an information architecture is to sort objects (I refer to them as the “nouns” of your project) into logical groupings. Sorting nouns is what everybody learns to do from a very young age. I mean, we learn about scientific taxonomies in elementary school in the way we learn about the living world around us. Just as seen in the cat image above, the classifications used to identify the cat are based on a system that sorts nouns (e.g. “Mammalia”) in to logical groupings (e.g. “Class”).

The same thing tends to happen to software. When you sit down to design software, it is common to take all the contents of a system and sort them into sensible groupings. Sometimes, companies will even conduct a card sort to learn how users understand the content of a system.

While card sorting can be a useful activity, the main issue with IA is that sorting nouns into logical taxonomies is not always the best way to understand how to structure content that’s useful and usable. If the scientific taxonomy seen above were a navigation system for a product, it would not be something most people could have an easy time using!

Verbs are still ‘Vawesome’!

I wrote about using verbs a while ago. One way to help you design a better IA is to think in terms of actions instead of objects. Starting with actions can help establish context in your IA because people use verbs to refer to a task, instead of nouns.

Here’s an example:

I need coffee!! I guess I’ll go make some coffee…

In this scenario, the person wants some coffee, but the second sentence refers to the act of making coffee. So while coffee is the object that would need to be placed into an IA, the task they need to perform is the action word “make”. Given other contextual things around making coffee (e.g. grinding beans, using fresh clean water, different types of coffee makers), there may be other ways to sort the noun, coffee, into more sensible groupings that actually can help the user perform this task.

Why are verbs ‘vawesome’?

A common way to sort your IA would be to think of object archetypes. So using our coffee example, it would normally fall under a “things to drink” archetype on a restaurant menu, since logically, that’s what it is. But by thinking in verbs, you can also get at the more important concept of ‘why’ someone wants coffee, not just what coffee is.

Coffee is not just a beverage, like soda, beer, or juice. Coffee exists in a context, like certain meals (breakfast), certain times of day (after lunch), or certain activities (a ‘coffee break’). And using this understanding of ‘actions instead of objects’, we can start to sort coffee in a hierarchy to allow for these types of scenarios.

breakfast!

So now imagine you’re sitting down to breakfast at a restaurant, and you’re handed a menu. You’re hungry, of course, but you always drink coffee with your morning meal. It would be very easy for the restaurant to sort coffee into a ‘Drinks’ section of the menu and call it a day. But as we just learned, coffee has the context of certain actions. What if instead of ‘Drinks’, coffee was sorted under the action ‘Eat breakfast’? It could make it much easier for someone ordering their bacon and eggs and coffee to achieve their goal of having a wonderful meal. And who knows, the restaurant may end up selling more coffee this way too!

Actions instead of objects

So when designing an effective IA, a good strategy to use is to consider the actions the user is taking, and explore what happens when you sort the nouns of your product, under the verbs the user wants to perform. In the end, the actions, the verbs are what people do, and designing around verbs can help improve your products IA. Designing a good IA not only helps you seed better design, but can also make your product more user-centered and useful!

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Good IA is good design!

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