Chris How
Chris How
May 17 · 3 min read

‘How do you know your site structure is needing attention before it becomes really broken?”. I’ve recently been asked variations of this question by a couple of clients, a colleague and the attendees of an IA presentation I was giving. Here are three tell-tale signs to look for and some ways to avoid the problem in the first place.

A great information architecture (IA) tells a story, creates flow and aids discovery for the people using your products or services.

An ailing IA threatens to silence your content, prevent conversion (sales and engagement) and frustrate your users. The good news is a sick information architecture can easily be cured with early diagnosis and painless remedies.

Here are three key warning signs to look out for to evaluate the health of your navigation and site structure:

Warning sign #1. You’ve shipped your org-chart

Be mindful not to conform to Conway’s Law where organisations design systems which mirror the organisation’s structure. You’ll know you’re doing this when the hot project or latest initiative get undue prominence in navigation menus. Or when you can match the words used in page labels with a department or person’s job title in the business.

Shipping the org-chart is often done inadvertently without anyone really noticing until it’s too late.

The way to remedy it is to get out of your building and meet more of your users more regularly. Listen to the words they use to describe what you offer. Open card sorting is the ideal technique to help with this. As a robust, quick and repeatable activity, it helps you find out how the people you want to use your website would organise and label the items on it to make them easy to find.

Warning sign #2. The loudest voice trumps the considered logic

You will know this when you see it. It crops up in navigation menus that seem to have an order with the exception of a couple of prominently misplaced items. You sense it when a page is featured multiple times in multiple menus desperately calling out for you to care enough to click on it.

So many site structures reflect the egos of individuals in the business. To avoid incongruous items getting shoe-horned into your information architecture I’d look to engage stakeholders early on, to help shape their brief rather than just receiving it.

Having the principles and concepts articulated for how the site is organised helps move the request from tactical demands to a more considered strategic conversation. It’s important to change the conversation to focus on desired outcomes rather than the position within a menu. Having your content found is ultimately more valuable than appearing in the primary navigation and easy to measure and report on.

The result of not looking after the health of your IA

Warning sign #3. Your IA is treated as a project rather than a process

Projects feel good. There’s a crisis to deal with and all you need is to call for the cavalry to ride into town and just in the nick of time to save the day.

Your IA should never become a crisis. Unlike a project managing your IA should be an ongoing activity without an end date. After all, a healthy digital product or service never stands still with ongoing enhancements and additions to what you offer.

You know your IA is respected as a critical part of your digital operations when:

  • There is a person responsible for it with defined KPIs to meet
  • The process and logic for positioning and labelling pages is documented
  • Time is regularly scheduled for review and attention

A great IA doesn’t happen by lucky accident. They need to be designed, iterated upon and optimised. Without care and ongoing love they quickly become overgrown and unwieldy.

How to nurture your IA

Hopefully, your information architecture doesn’t exhibit any of these three warning signs. If it does take some action to remedy the problem sooner rather than later.

If your IA is currently in good shape, then make sure you schedule your next check-up, as a thriving website is always in a state of change. To keep it healthy requires considered processes and ongoing attention.


This article was originally published on the Clearleft website: https://clearleft.com/posts/give-your-information-architecture-ia-a-three-point-checkup

Clear Thinking

Opinions and learnings from the team at Clearleft. Find thoughts on everything from design sprints to digital transformation to design leadership to CSS.

Chris How

Written by

Chris How

Principal UX Consultant @clearleft & Co-organiser of @uxcampbrighton. Insatiable curiosity for people, digital design and tech. Recovering Post-it note addict.

Clear Thinking

Opinions and learnings from the team at Clearleft. Find thoughts on everything from design sprints to digital transformation to design leadership to CSS.

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