In the past decade, digital marketing has become almost unrecognizable from its infancy. Just a few years ago, all you really needed was a respectable website; then came the imperative of mobile functionality, social media and the fervor for branded apps. Now marketers are being told they need chatbots, AR and VR ads, live streaming vertical video, and content optimized for the artificial intelligence revolution. While all of this tech is exciting, and indeed promising, it seems to have brand managers, creatives and entire marketing departments overlooking one of the most basic pillars of a successful digital presence – the user experience. And at the heart of UX lies Information Architecture (IA).
Thoughtful IA helps drive a positive, smooth, and intuitive interaction for visitors through your site. The most sophisticated chatbots and hyper-interactive scroll-animated content aren’t worthwhile investments if users are lost on your website. The simple truth is that if a user can’t easily navigate your site to find what they’re looking for, they’re going to leave without converting and, more than likely, never coming back. Conversely, sites with highly optimized IA can increase conversions significantly—both by improving SEO and addressing specific pain points. Well-conceived information architecture is becoming even more of a necessity as consumers grow lazier, expecting more ease and intuitiveness from the sites they visit.
Common Pitfalls in Information Architecture
Surprisingly, one of the most common errors in IA is not having any to speak of. If your site is a mess of articles or products with no logical order or connection between categories and individual pages, users may find you through an external link or SERP, but they will have no idea where to go next or what else your site has to offer.
The next most common issue is exactly the opposite: too much architecture, also known as polyhierarchy. Polyhierarchy comes from lazy, ad-hoc design: when your UX team neglects considering which structure is the most intuitive for users and instead creates an abundance of weaker categories and pages that exist in multiple places. This ultimately causes confusion and leads to choice overload. Moral of the story: Having more options isn’t always better.
Even if you do have the right internal structure, your external structure has to easily guide users through your offerings. Confusing or creatively named menu options (Hint: The FAQ should always be called FAQ), changing navigation options on each page (I just saw that menu link before, where did it go?), and too many navigation styles incorporated into your design are just a few ways to harm the user experience. Of course, which navigation style best suits your website will be driven by the type of content you’re providing and the ideal user experience you want to create.
How to Improve Your Information Architecture
Task Analysis, Tree Testing and Card Sorting for Information Architecture
Start by using task analysis to address what exactly users want to achieve on your site and how they will achieve it. This will include things like looking up a blog post on a certain topic, adding an item to the cart and checking out, or contacting a sales rep for more information. What is the main goal of your site and which are secondary? Completing task analysis will help you first identify those tasks that are most critical to your users, and second, streamline each task and address any stumbling blocks a user may have along the way. Once you have completed your task analysis, you can utilize tree testing and card sorting to further refine your menu options and navigation structure. Remember, IA should never be based on what you think makes sense, but what works best for your users. Data-driven decisions are essential.
Page by Page Functionality
Some users will want to purchase, others are just looking for information. Some may not be sure what it is they’re looking for. Solid IA means differentiating page design based on functionality. Pages where users might make a purchase, for example, should have a very clear call to action to move forward in the process, as well easily accessible answers to common questions that might stop a user from purchasing. Pages where users will be looking for information should have prominent categories, sub-categories and search functionality. In order to further hone your design, you can utilize buyer personas to visualize which type of user will likely be visiting each page and why.
All too often, designers and marketers alike get caught up in the next-shiniest tool or trend to come out without considering whether or not it will help drive traffic or convert visitors to customers. By starting from the bottom and focusing on creating an easy-to-use, intuitive structure, you can ensure that users are directed to the place and information they need. From there you can create a design that works towards their specific goals. Remember, design should always embrace the functionality of UX and IA, not the other way around.
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