Beyond UX – How Information Architecture Improves User Experience

Visualization of the layers of user experience with explanations of each layer

There are many, many components that go into a user’s overall experience, all the way from their real-world interactions with your organization to their online ones. The easiest aspect of user experience to see is the visual design – if something is visually pleasing, we can see it pretty clearly. However, there are lots and lots of other components of a website that also influence “UX”. Our favorite breakdown of these components is the Jesse James Garret Elements of User Experience breakdown (see image above).

And our personal favorite piece of this puzzle is information architecture.

Like wayfinding signage at an airport, information architecture is the type of thing that you don’t notice if it’s done well and absolutely abhor if it’s done badly. And since it’s the way you find your way around online, it can absolutely make or break a user experience.

Think of the last time you were frustrated by a website – what caused that frustration? If I had to guess, it was something like…

  • getting lost in a dead-end or stuck in a page-loop;
  • looking in the menu and seeing nothing close to what you’re looking for, searching for a term and coming up with no-results or (maybe worse) irrelevant results;
  • trying to use filters and not seeing the one filter that you really wanted;
  • or getting to the page you wanted only to encounter a lot of stuff that didn’t match your expectations of what would be there.

These are all information architecture issues.

Now you can see how these are the types of things that a) go totally unnoticed if they’re done right and b) are so frustrating and totally impact your experience as a user. I would even bet that you remember a specific site, and the brand associated with it, very vividly because that bad experience really stuck with you.

The thing is, there are many websites that an everyday person likely would consider bad visual design that have great information architecture that leads to great user experience. Some examples:

And, on the flip side, there are web sites that most people would say are aesthetically pleasing that have terrible information architecture and, therefore, a bad user experience. Some examples of this:

One final statement before I see pitchforks come out: I am absolutely not saying that visual design doesn’t impact user experience – it definitely does – but it is not the only or most important component. There are many pieces that work together to make an experience great. Therefore, redoing the visual design of your site will not fix all of your “UX” problems, and it’s frequently true that the visual design is fine, but the wayfinding, labeling, and structures could use some attention and love.