Good web design is not just about the exterior or interior design of your website. While the look and feel of your website is important to your brand, there are many more elements that need to be taken into consideration.

If you are building a new website or updating an existing one, the principles are much the same as if you were building a new home or renovating an existing one. In either case, you want an outcome that suits your needs, the needs of your customers, your budget and some sort of return on investment.

Building a solid foundation for your structure

Let’s take the scenario of building a new home. You have the plot of land and now you want to put a house on it. You have an idea of the type of design (look and feel) you want but more importantly, you want a solid foundation on which to build your structure.

Unless you’re a builder or an architect, chances are you don’t know where to start so you might ask friends or family for recommendations or you might shop around for some building quotes. You meet with 3 or 4 building companies or architects and you choose one.

What makes you choose a particular building company or architect depends on several things namely price, timeframe, and reputation but ultimately, your decision boils down to how the builder or architect responds to you and your personal needs. This may not be apparent from the outset but as your project gets underway, you want a relationship with your builder or architect that is built on trust, understanding, knowledge and open communication.

Along the way where obstacles may arise, you will want to work with someone who provides solutions to suit you and your family, rather than them. The best solutions will be provided because the builder or architect has a handle on the “big picture”. They have a knowledgeable overview of all parts of the process, they understand the capabilities of the resources they need and have, and they know how these resources interact within the process. The same can be said of an Information Architect (IA).

What is information architecture (IA) anyway?

Information Architecture - bridge builders

One definition I’ve seen says that information architecture is the practice of designing and organising information structures. To me, this is just one part of what an IA actually does. Just as a building architect is a person trained in the planning, design and supervision of the construction of a building, an information architect is a person trained in IA planning, interaction design and supervision of the construction of a website.

This is not the same supervision as might be allotted to a Project Manager. Just as a building architect designs a blueprint for the construction of a new home and supervises how that house is put together, an information architect designs a blueprint for the construction of a new website and supervises how that website is put together.

As Peter Morville (the “founding father” of information architecture) puts it, Information Architects build bridges between:

Users and Content – design search and navigation systems that connect users with the content and services they need.

Strategy and Tactics – translate abstract visions into well-grounded, actionable blueprints for design and implementation.

Units and Disciplines – facilitate cross-functional collaboration using boundary objects (e.g., wireframes) to start conversations.

Platforms and Channels – sketch maps for new services and experiences that span multiple platforms, channels, and media.

Research and Practice – use the scientific method, heuristics, analytics, user research, and ethnography to inform our designs.

Do I really need an information architect?

Information Architecture - Unstructured House

For smaller website designs, an IA may not be necessary at all. A prefabricated website design template may be all that is needed to get you started. Keep in mind however that as your business grows, your website will need to grow with it or you will need to do a redesign a year or two down the track because the website template you bought cannot manage that growth or easily scale to accommodate your changing needs. You could well end up with a cluttered mess of information that nobody can find.

For larger organisations, I believe having an IA as part of your website design team is a crucial element to the overall success of the project. Important considerations such as systems security, legacy systems, data warehousing, the underlying digital network infrastructure, content management systems, records management and maintaining alignment with the organisation’s communication strategy and web standards need to be taken into account.

A good IA will have a good understanding of how each of these elements interact within the business. As well as skills and experience in the design of information structures, classifications, customer journey mapping, findability, scalability, accessibility, and user experience, an IA must have good interpersonal skills and the ability to translate IT speak into layman’s terms so that everyone involved in the project stays on the same page.

Do you really need an IA?

That, of course, is entirely up to you but here’s some final food for thought – your old and new visitors will not appreciate a website that looks fantastic but doesn’t deliver what they want effectively and efficiently. We’ve all been to these websites; we’ve all had frustrating online experiences. At the end of the day, we are all visitors and customers and we deserve a first-class customer experience.

Understanding Information Architecture

The presentation below is by Peter Morville. Check it out for an even greater understanding of information architecture in the most simplest of terms.