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A Crash Course in Information Architecture and User-Centered Design

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All too often, a development project starts and you realize that there hasn’t been much of a focus on user-centered design, information architecture, or content. Or sometimes the content is amazing but the information architecture isn’t. Or you understand content but aren’t sure how to pare it down, to make sure your users are seeing what’s most important.

So what do you do when you’re faced with this problem and there’s a limited budget to fix the issue or it’s not in scope?

One solution is to see if you can get the tools you need in order to perform the project work yourself. Although hiring an expert would be the preferred solution, there are so many resources available that it’s possible for you to take on this work during the early project planning phase without increasing the project work.

So where do you start?

First: Assess Your Content

Begin by conducting a content inventory that lists all of your content on the site, and denotes which content should be edited, moved, removed, or split into various sections based on length or target audience. This inventory should also make note of content that needs to be added to the site.

And while a look at your current content is important, it is also necessary to create an editorial calendar so members of your team are reviewing site content on a regular basis.

After the content inventory and editorial calendar are complete, it’s time to make sure your content is written for the web. This review will focus on elements such as reducing or minimizing the amount of words you’re using, avoiding abbreviations (unless you’re sure that users know what they mean), providing content that’s easy to scan, using imagery and video, and using bulleted and numbered lists when appropriate. Don’t forget to use the classic inverted pyramid model: a structure that puts the important information first, then the details.

Now Focus on Navigation and Information Architecture

Think about the goals for your site, and the measures for success. Evaluate how well you are persuading site visitors to use your site, how long they are staying there, and whether they trust your information.

One of the biggest issues that firms face when starting a redesign is their tie to the organization. Their navigation and content often reflects their organizational structure as opposed to how a user might think.

One way to get out of this trap is to think of other sites that you use, and what you like and don’t like about their navigation, page layouts, and content.

Then take the time to compare your site with the sites you use on a regular basis and make a list. Without taking too much time, you have already started to take yourself out of an organizational mindset and into a user’s perspective.

One other easy and inexpensive way to learn more about how users think, and how to make your site more user-friendly is to read books such as Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug. Books like this one will explain concepts such as a user’s mental model, user profiles, and personas, while explaining how to translate these concepts into reality via navigation and page layouts and wireframes.

One of the more difficult parts of information architecture is putting together your navigation. Before implementing and committing to your navigation, you may want to perform a task called card sorting. This task allows you to test the navigation items you have created in order to determine whether they are the best fit for your site visitors. You can use something as simple as PowerPoint or index cards if you have users coming in to perform this task; you can also use online tools.

Once you have sketched out some layouts, it is best to do some user testing with anywhere from 5-10 users per target audience. This number will allow you to uncover roughly 85-90% of the issues on your website. This testing can include questions about navigation, content priority, and feature requests. User testing should occur before features are implemented to ensure that major changes are made prior to development.

One common myth is that you have to have a working prototype in order to test the site. You can use paper sketches or diagrams with in-person user testing, or you can use simple HTML mockups for remote user testing. Either one will give you valuable information that you didn’t have before you started.

As you can see, with the right tools, you can enhance the user-friendliness of your site by improving your content and information architecture -- without going over the project budget.

Danielle Sheffler will be presenting a session, Content Workshops in Under 8 Hours: Giving Your Client Everything They Need to Know, at Drupal GovCon on July 22-24, 2015 in Bethesda, MD.

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