Website and app projects require that we understand content and features. We then propose a hierarchy for how pages or sections would be organized.
Excellent Information Architecture (IA) is the key to making it easy for users to understand where they can go and getting them there.
IA includes the processes, paths, and user flows in your product. The sitemap, hierarchy, taxonomy, and navigation. Bridges from one moment to another.
This step of UCD is key to the organization of the information, functions, and features you will offer users.
IA Deliverables Typically Include:
Flow chats or process diagrams
Show user paths where the user has experienced both success or failure.
Shows the hierarchy of pages and sections. If you want to get really detailed, user paths can be represented in the sitemap.
A model mocked up without visual design of how users would move around your site.
What is the top level of navigation, which would be most prominent and easy to discover? What are sub-pages that people might have to click or hover to find?
Before we propose how pages and sections might be organized, we can research this with current or potential customers.
One key exercise is called “card sorting.” Card Sorting asks research participants to take all of the pages and sections the system might show them and organize them based on what feels easiest and most logical for them to use.
Seeing people organize things similarly clues us into how people perceive the system. We’ve then taken the voice and needs of the customer into account. We can do IA without directly involving users but why leave users out of the User-Centered Design process?
Even before we have laid out pages or started wireframes or prototypes, we can test our IA to make sure this site or app will be easy to navigate. If testing shows something isn’t working for users, the hierarchy will be redesigned (and should be tested again).
One key exercise to test our proposed hierarchy is “tree testing.” Tree Testing asks participants to find certain pages, sections, or activities based on a proposed structure. We can see if people easily find things in the right places or if they get confused or lost.
Testing can answer difficult questions and settle internal arguments. We once had a client fighting internally and with us over where a certain link should be. We said we’ll test it. At that point, we had a medium fidelity prototype so we asked UserTesting.com subjects to find the page about dental benefits.
The trick? It didn’t exist. We had no links to it anywhere. We wanted to watch then videos of where they tried to go; this would tell us where to put it. Yeah, that seems a little mean, but it got the job done. Everybody stopped fighting once they saw where people expected the link to be.
IA Testing Saved the Day
Once upon a time, a company we deeply love redesigned their IA (and website). They moved their page that listed all of the trainers they recommend from their “support” area to their “community” area. They also added a “Training” page under Support that contained all of their tutorials… but no links to or mention of trainers.
This made sense to them. Their trainers weren’t employees. They were members of the “community.” But is that how website visitors think? Do they make that distinction? A Tree Test should answer these questions.
The main takeaways from the test were:
- It took people a long time (a median of nearly 20 seconds) to think they found it or give up trying. Remember that users will eventually give up!
- 69% failed directly (they went straight to an answer they felt confident about but it was wrong) and 31% failed indirectly (they backed up and tried more than one answer before deciding or giving up). That’s still 100% failure.
- Most people assumed the trainer information would be on the Support: Training page, which they couldn’t see since it was just a Tree Test.
Users know better. Listen to them. And luckily, this company did and everybody clicked happily ever after.