A is for Architecture

Design is not just what a product looks like. Design encompasses everything about a product. When you design something you should be thinking about not just the look and feel, but how its used or what it does, and every step of how that happens. Everything that it does is what makes it what it is. One critically important piece of the design of a product is it’s architecture, specifically it’s information architecture. Information Architecture is usually shortened to ‘IA’ in the field of User Experience Design (UX). If design is everything the product is, information architecture is how it is organized. 

Information architecture is the second thing you should look at when you re-design a product. The first is determining the products thesis, or reason for existing. Once the products purpose has been set, it is important to understand everything a product does, or its features. To discover these you can map its current information architecture. I like to do this with a graph called a mind map. (My favorite program to do this in is ‘Miro – Formally RealtimeBoard.’ You can get a free account for small projects and pay as your needs grow.) Start with the home page, initial screen, or dashboard – this will be represented with a box. For each link or feature on the home page, create a new box and draw a line to connect that box to the home page. Do this for every page in the product. When complete you should have a fairly large web of features and pages that might look scary, but are all connected. Very poorly organized products might have pieces that are out of place, hard to find, or completely disconnected. This top down view can help reveal things that are out of place or hard to understand. 

Take this map of boxes and create an outline, just as if you were writing a paper. You should have at least two points, and for each point at least two sub points are appropriate. Some products won’t have sub points, depending how close to the MVP (Minimal Viable Product) you are. Give each list item in your outline a one sentence description of what that page, link, or feature does. Now compare your outline with the thesis that was established at the beginning of this redesign? Does each part contribute to the success of your goal? Which parts fit? Which parts don’t? It might be helpful to use the product, or complete your goal without the product, depending on how broken your IA is. This will enable you to discover patterns or processes that a user might use to accomplish their goal. 

Writing out a list of the steps taken will give you a linear process for how your goals are accomplished. Compare this with your outline. At this point you will probably start to see discrepancies and have an idea of what your outline should look like. Make it! Some features or steps will need to be eliminated. That is a good thing! You have made your product better by simplifying it. Take your new outline and create a new mind map to visualize the top down view of your product. Your initial IA redesign is complete. Multiple revisions and studies can be used to improve your architecture, but this first round should have helped clean up your design and make your product much more usable.

Organizing a product’s information architecture is the third thing you do when you design a new product. It is the most important thing you can do after you have agreed on your thesis, and established the steps of how you plan to accomplish it. When you know what your product does, and how it does it, organizing the features should be very simple. Write out your process in the same outline form, giving each step its own line. Some questions you can ask yourself are as follows:

1. Is this process linear? 

  • The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. While ‘features’ are great, they can also be distracting and disruptive to the accomplishment of your goal. Eliminate anything that gets in the way of your thesis.

2. Do each of my sub points make sense?

  • This should be fairly obvious when you have an outline. Parts that don’t fit should be eliminated or moved to where they provide the most benefit to the user’s goals.

3. Do any of my main points do anything outside of the scope of my stated thesis? 

  • Feature creep will start with a project, and continue long after it is complete. Stop it now by comparing all features your projects stated purpose. Eliminate anything that doesn’t align. Good ideas can be saved – but the default position on any feature should be ‘no.’ A case must be made for each feature. Only features which are critical to the stated goals should be included. 
  • Once your outline is complete a mind map is a great way to present it. It is a fun way to present an outline, although functionally a outline is no different. A mind map is a great way to ‘show your work.’ Because it looks like a lot of work it can be used to show the difference between a complicated and simple design. Work with your team on the outline, and only create the mind map when the features feel organized and the flow feels natural. 

Once your outline is complete a mind map is a great way to present it. It is a fun way to present an outline, although functionally a outline is no different. A mind map is a great way to ‘show your work.’ Because it looks like a lot of work it can be used to show the difference between a complicated and simple design. Work with your team on the outline, and only create the mind map when the features feel organized and the flow feels natural. 

If information architecture is so important, how can you take steps today to better improve the IA of your products? 

  1. Decide the products purpose. You have to know exactly what it is you’re trying to achieve. Why does your product exist? Starting with the end in mind can prevent feature creep and a wandering approach to features. Decide now what you will achieve and focus. Anything that doesn’t align is outside of scope.
  2. Define the products features. How will your users arrive at your stated purpose? What are steps to achieve your goal? Usually these are linear and will give you a clue as to how your features should be organized. You won’t have to eliminate as much later if you can keep the focus on only what will get the job done.
  3. Organize around the flow. How does everything fit together? User studies are a great way to validate whether the relationships between features and steps make sense in the minds of your users in the same way you see them. Usually users will perform actions in similar ways – use these flows to your advantage. Design things the way they are used. New patterns can be discovered, but are usually permutations of existing norms.

If you have decided your purpose, and defined the features that will meet that need, you will have a flow. This flow, or linear progression of tasks will give you the best clue as to how your product is organized. This organization, regardless of quality is information architecture. Your presentation of your product is your IA. It’s up to you to make it better.

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