What Is Information Architecture in UX Design?

Camren Browne, contributor to the CareerFoundry blog

One of the telltale signs of a product with quality UX design is when user’s can find and navigate through the content they are looking for in a quick and uncomplicated way.

Although it’s just one piece of the puzzle, information architecture (IA) plays a big role in creating these intuitive, user-centered products. 

With the sheer volume of digital products and content available to users these days, information architecture is a crucial component to designing a successful product or experience. Users have become conditioned to the ability to find whatever they need fast and with little thought. This phenomenon is largely due to the science behind quality information architecture.

Utilizing IA concepts in your UX design can help you develop digital products that live up to user expectations and make achieving their goals quick and pain-free.

We’ve devoted this article to explaining exactly what information architecture is, how it complements UX, and how you can use it in your design work.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

  1. What is information architecture?
  2. What’s the difference between UX and IA?
  3. What is the value of information architecture in UX design?
  4. Five tips for using information architecture in UX design
  5. Final thought

Now, let’s get into it.

1. What is information architecture?

Information architecture (IA) is a research-driven process that focuses on the structure and organization of content within a digital product. Designers of countless digital interfaces (websites, computer and mobile apps) use IA when deciding how to arrange all of the information within a product so it makes sense to the user.

The goal of information architecture is to organize content in a way that makes it easy for users to learn, adapt to, and navigate a product quickly and with minimal difficulty. 

Information architecture takes into account the layout of content and design elements on each page/screen, as well as the flow between screens and the way users move through information from page to page. The structure of site or app will depend largely on what type of product it is (ie. retail site vs. fitness tracker vs. a blog) as well as the insights gained from extensive qualitative and quantitative UX research.

Learn more about information architecture in this video:


2. What’s the difference between UX and IA?

Before we dig further into IA in UX design, it’s important to understand the differences between the two. It can be easy to confuse the two disciplines as there is a lot of overlap between IA and UX.

Both fields focus on user satisfaction and utilize wireframing and sitemaps to plan an optimized product. However, looking at what UX designers actually do, it’s easy to see that UX takes on a much broader scope than IA. While IA focuses on structuring digital content in a way that assists users meeting their goals, UX considers many aspects of the user’s behavior, like their emotions and psychology, when creating overall product satisfaction.

You might think of it like this: Where great IA contributes to the design of an excellent user experience, UX design is incomplete without careful consideration of information architecture. 

In a nutshell: IA is an essential skill for UX designers and contributes greatly to designing an efficient and easy-to-use product. We’ll get into the numerous benefits of IA in UX design in the next section. Let’s keep going!

3. What is the value of information architecture in UX design?

The content of a website, app, or other digital product is the main reason people seek the product out. Valuable content can draw site visits and drive user engagement, but keeping the content simple to find and navigate through is just as important. Utilizing good IA in your UX work helps minimize the friction users experience (difficulties, pain points, anything that slows them down in the process) so they can browse or search for specific content with ease.

Furthermore, a product with quality IA keeps a user’s time and effort in mind. The time and effort an experience requires can make the difference between a product that people will keep using and one they’ll either abandon or dread returning to. With so many digital product options on the market, users expect to interact with sites and apps they can navigate quickly and that will solve their problems with minimum brainpower. If users can’t find what they are looking for easily, they will often abandon the product out of frustration and search for another way to meet their goals.

Once a user has abandoned a product due to poor content structure or tiresome navigation, it’s much harder to engage them again. So, the value of IA in UX design lies in making it nearly effortless for your users to find the content that they want, thus keeping them engaged and satisfied with your product.

4. Five tips for using information architecture in UX design

Now that we’ve laid out what information architecture is and how it relates to UX, it’s time to discuss how designers utilize this invaluable process. Below are some key tips for applying information architecture principles in UX design.

1. Define your product goals

As with most projects, it’s helpful to have an idea of what you want your final outcome to be or look like before starting. Being clear about product goals from the very beginning helps your team determine what tasks need to be accomplished and where to start. Structuring and organizing content blindly can lead to miscommunication, wasted resources or unnecessary work, and increases the possibility that your product won’t be satisfactory to the user.

A good information architect looks at the full picture and learns what their client expects from their website or app. This is also a good time to perform content inventory and audits to get an idea of exactly what content the product offers and how useful or effective it is.

2. Conduct user research

It’s important to understand what your product is supposed to do. What’s the goal? It’s even more crucial to learn what the user expects from your product and what they require in order to have a good experience with it. This is where user research comes in.

Information architects and UX designers use a variety of user research methods to determine the most effective way for product content to be structured. Research strategies like card sorting, tree testing, user interviews, contextual inquiries, and usability testing are all used to gain an understanding of a target audience and what they expect when it comes to navigating a digital product. Taking the user’s preferences into account is key to designing a product people enjoy using.

3. Consider the IA system components

Peter Morville and Lou Rosenfield, trailblazers in the field of IA, distinguished four main components of information architecture in their book Information Architecture for the World Wide Web. The system components are:

  • Navigational. Navigation systems are the ways users move through a digital product and what actions or techniques guide them.
  • Organizational. Organizational systems consist of how information is divided into groups or categories so that users can predict where to find certain content.
  • Searching. Searching systems help users search and find specific content within a product that has a lot of info (i.e. search engines, filters). 
  • Labeling. Labeling systems involve how content or lots of data is represented or presented in simple and useful ways.

Keeping these systems in mind ensures you’ve covered all your bases when it comes to structuring content effectively.

4. Keep cognitive psychology principles in mind

Cognitive psychology is the study of internal mental processes such as memory, language, perception, and creativity.

IA relies heavily on the principles of cognitive psychology as they lend key information regarding how humans structure information. Some important cognitive psychology principles to keep in mind are: 

  • Cognitive load
  • Mental models
  • Gestalt principles

Let’s look at each of these in a little more detail.

Cognitive load is the amount of information a user can process at any given moment. It can be easy to overwhelm users with too much information or too many options as our short-term memories can’t retain very much. Considering cognitive load in your designs helps prevent overloading users with too much content.

Similar to affordances in UX design, mental models are assumptions a user has when they go to interact with a product. Some examples are “Contact” buttons linking users to a company’s email or phone number or social media icons linking to a product’s social pages.

Considering a user’s mental models helps you design products that allow them to operate on instinct and find information without hassle. Learn more about mental models and other key UX design principles here: 10 UX Principles that Will Change the Way You See the World.

Gestalt principles are laws that explain how humans perceive objects. These principles include how we simplify complex images, recognize patterns, and group information. Concepts like proximity, continuity, closure, symmetry, and similarity are vital to successful information architecture and are all taken into account when designers and information architects choose how to organize and present digital content.

5. Don’t forget about visual hierarchy

Visual hierarchy is the way in which items are arranged to signify their order of importance. Elements like size, color, alignment, and contrast are all used to establish visual hierarchy. Visual hierarchy concepts are used to attract users’ attention or show which items take priority so they can navigate a product easily.

The principle of visual hierarchy is especially important when designing the copy content of a product. When first encountering a site, most users will complete a general scan of the information to get a sense of what the product offers.

Understanding general scanning patterns and visual hierarchy principles can help designers place key copy content in heavily scanned areas so users can identify what they are looking for almost effortlessly.

Before we conclude, it’s important to note that there’s a lot of crossover between IA and UI design as well. In many ways, information architecture is one of the clearest connections between the daily work of UX and UI designers.

5. Final thought

The value of applying information architecture to UX design is immeasurable. Not only does it help designers keep their products user-centered but it can also help drive conversions and user engagement over time.

One of the best ways to get familiar with using IA principles in your designs to observe the content structure of other successful products and practice using similar strategies in your own work. This strategy in combination with the tips listed above can help you create products that are easy to navigate, a breeze to use, and help user’s meet their needs with ease.

If you’d like to learn more about information architecture and principles and skills that are essential to UX designers, check out these articles:

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