Website Design and Development FAQ: Information Architecture

Posted: December 17, 2013

Tony Poillucci Vice President & Creative Director

There are a lot of factors that lead to the success or failure of a website. We often hear that content is king and that good design will make the website more appealing. This is true, but a huge part of a website’s usability often comes from a frequently overlooked phase of the website design and development process – information architecture (IA). Interestingly enough, this is often the phase where clients come to us with the most questions.

Here are some typical questions we hear during the IA phase of a project.

First off…What is information architecture?

Wikipedia says IA is “the categorization of information into a coherent structure, preferably one that most people can understand quickly, if not inherently.”

In website design and development, IA is the phase after strategy and usually consists of conceptual models, sitemaps, wireframes and use cases. To learn more about the strategy phase, view our blog post Website Design and Development FAQ: Strategy.

Why do I need to go through an information architecture phase?

IA helps create a positive user experience where people can easily find what they are looking for by navigating your website. This is accomplished by reviewing your content and making suggestions to rename and reorganize pages and links in ways that support your users. You may also receive suggestions of content and pages to add or remove.

A positive user experience is also accomplished by establishing a hierarchy of content per page type which allows content to be placed in the order of importance to the user.

What happens in each round of IA? (1-3)

Typically, we have three rounds of IA in our website projects. Your scope of work might be different but we often focus on creating a three-tier sitemap in round one. Then we present the sitemap and get your feedback. In the second round, we address your feedback and create the schematics (defined below). Sometimes this round will include responsive schematics if scoped. Before the final round, we get additional feedback from you. Round three is focused on tying up loose ends and adding finishing touches.

What does the sitemap look like and what do you mean by the number of tiers that will be defined?

Here is an example of a sitemap with three tiers. Tier zero is the homepage and tier one is the main navigation items or your global navigation. Tier three and below are the pages located beneath the main navigation and are called subpages. Your website will likely have additional tiers with additional subpages. There may also be other navigation types depending on the project such as utilities, footer and header.

What are wireframes or schematics?

Schematics are black and white illustrations which represent different page types and reflect the content that will live on those pages. The total number of schematics created is determined in the scope of work.

Is this design? Because it looks like it.

Although schematics look like black and white webpages, schematics are not design. The schematics inform our designer what content needs to live on a page and how important that content is based on the hierarchy.

For example, at the top of a schematic, you may see a box for an image next to social media or additional navigation. When the designer creates a concept, the image may take up the entire width of the page and the additional items might live underneath the image.

What feedback will you need in each phase?

Each project is scoped a little differently but generally, we want to know if any content is missing or if you have any concerns with the nomenclature or organization of the pages and content.

What decisions need to be made in this phase and what can wait until design or development? (How late can I make changes?)

Determining the global/main navigation is key. It is also very helpful to know all of the content that lives on a page. For example, if social media feeds need to be on the page, then we will need to work a feed into the schematics so they can be given the correct prominence in design. Or, if a lot of calls to action or promos need to live on pages, then we may need to consider a third column to accommodate the content.

What’s Next?

After we complete the IA phase, we typically do one of two things. Some scopes of work include user testing where we validate the IA or make recommendations for adjustments. If we are not scoped to do user testing, we move into the design phase and start with concepts that are based on the IA.

A lot of thought and planning goes into the information architecture phase. If you have more questions, we’d love to hear them. Contact us or leave a comment below to get the discussion going.