What is Information Architecture (IA) and why is it important for website design?

While there is not a universal definition of Information Architecture (IA), this area of design when applied to websites commonly refers to the process and the output of the organization and categorization of content. The IA is the roadmap that defines the relationships between content and contextual connections between them. The “art and science” of IA stems from the need to organize content, usually in more than one way, in order to enable audiences to efficiently find the information they need, in the format they need it in. 

How It Applies To Your Website

IA plays a part in all aspects of a website including how the content is organized within a specific page, how overarching front-end user experience functions, how the backend database is organized, and more. IA also directly informs navigational elements on a website. This could include top / side / sub menus, and anywhere else there would be a need for a contextual hyperlink to other content. The goal is to create a navigational structure based on the IA that gives visitors multiple ways of getting to the same information, so that no matter what their original entry point they can still easily find a way to get what they came for.

The IA Process

The process of creating IA for a website should be iterative and ongoing. As you consider both current and future content, it is important to think about how new content will fit into the categories you create, and try to anticipate any ‘wildcard’ types of information that might be added in the future. This is especially important when considering how IA impacts visual elements such as navigation bars, lists of links, and ensuring they are visually scalable where necessary.

Multiple Perspectives

One tricky part about IA is that what might be a logical content organization to you might not be logical to other visitors / users. This could be influenced by differences in intention, lexicon, comfort with the subject matter, and a range of factors. The success of creating an IA that works for more than one type of visitor requires that the information architect attempt to think about the content from more than one frame of reference and consider what each “type” of visitor might be looking for during their visit to your website. 

The ROI of Good IA

IA is a foundational element of creating a positive user experience. Poorly designed IA will almost certainly result in a poor user experience and could even potentially cause visitors to leave a site. Consider how much time you spend in a given day searching for information online, and how valuable that time is to you, your employer, your team, etc. Visitors frequent websites that provide them with the information they need the quickest, in the most logical way. Websites where you struggle to navigate, browse, or search to find information are frustrating and often abandoned altogether if there are alternative ways to get the information.

Why You Should Care About Cascading Style Sheets (CSS)

Today’s websites are almost entirely visually controlled by the language of CSS. Working in concert with HTML, JavaScript and a number of other web languages, CSS is what allows designers to assign visual attributes to each element on the page. CSS is a critical language that brings visual designs to life and shapes the users’ experiences.

Clean Coding = Clear ROI

CSS is most often used to separate the presentation from the content of the pages. This is best accomplished by creating a centralized CSS, and then referencing / applying the same styles to each of the pages of your website. The advantage of this is that you only need to make changes in once place and they will applied across the entire website. As you can imagine, this is a huge time and cost savings while also ensuring consistency.

CSS Selectors

One of the most important features of CSS is the ability to apply different styles to the same object based on the circumstance of the web page and determine the look of elements based on specific users actions. This could include things like “on rollover” or “if visited”, or selecting a specific member of a list of items like “last child”. These selectors allow designers to determine every aspect of the user experience. It is important to note that when thinking about this user experience, you must also think about each interaction along a timeline (past, current, future engagement) to ensure that the states of each object on the screen reacts the way someone might expect.

Responsive / Mobile Design

CSS also gives designers the ability to check for page state including current screen resolution, which in turn has enabled responsive design, e.g. ensuring the visual experience is proper for mobile and tablet devices. Using options like “min-size” and “max-size” and ranges in between, designers can very specifically determine how each element on the screen will look, be sized, and positioned based on exactly how big the screen is. This process can take time, especially with so many different sizes of screens on the market today, but getting it right is important given that more than 50% of web traffic comes from devices other than a desktop computer.

Motion and Animation

One area that is still in development is the use of CSS to design and control time-based animation sequences. These types of CSS animations let designers apply changes to an element gradually from one style to another, including position, color, size, shape and more. Often used in elements such as dropdown menus or image fade-ins, these animations are getting more and more advanced. CSS support for this is only available on the newest browsers, but soon will likely become standard across all future versions.

The Right Tool For The Job

We often get the question “which content management system (CMS) do you recommend for [insert type of organization]?”

The answer is always “it depends”.

There are many factors that go into choosing the right CMS, but one of the most important things to consider is what is the core functionality it must be able to provide for your website and organization. Sounds like a simple question, but it is critical to think about both your needs for today and your needs down the road when selecting a CMS, as once you make your choice you likely will not want (or have the time) to switch.

In this article, we’ll explore two of the most common types of CMS systems: website builders and open-source systems.

If you know you are only going to need a basic online brochure or simple ecommerce site for your organization, there is a whole class of website builder content management systems such as Squarespace, Weebly and Wix that give you everything you need right out of the box. The advantage to using service like this is that they make it easy and affordable to get up and running quickly, they usually produce nice looking results, and they are designed for novice users to manage. An important factor to consider is that extending functionality on frameworks like these can be tricky, and often require the use of “custom code block” widgets, in which one can insert arbitrary HTML/CSS/JavaScript into a page. This is where it is important to consider your feature wishlist against the features that each of the various systems offer.

Another type of CMS is the open source system such as Drupal and WordPress. Like SquareSpace these systems can also come turnkey and many hosting providers even offer free installation / configuration of the systems with the purchase of a hosting plan. The advantage of using a system like these is that they are built to be modular and new functionality can be added at any time. This allows organizations to start-off with a basic site and then upgrade as their needs change. One thing to consider is that it can take more time and effort to set up these types of website and they often require the assistance of a professional to help configure any special requirements.

There is no “right” choice for every organization, and often the needs of an organization will change over time. The proper research and planning up front will save you many headaches in the future. Simply put, the answer to which CMS we recommend comes down to what you need your website to do, and thoroughly understanding that is the key.